Architecture: Move over, Sydney Opera House ...

... The buildings for next year's Olympics are just as striking. By Rosanna de Lisle

In Sydney, the scaffolding is coming down: the buildings that will house the 2000 Olympics are nearly ready to face the world and, to prove it, they're coming to London. On 15 September, the exact "pre-anniversary" of the arrival of the Olympic torch, an exhibition of Sydney's Olympic architecture goes on show at the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Since Sydney won the Olympic bid in 1993, it has undertaken the largest architectural project ever known in the Southern Hemisphere. Australia is legendarily the land of wide open space, but Sydney is as built-up as any other modern city. Yet in its midst lay a huge vacant lot. For much of this century, Homebush Bay was home to nothing closer to human life than the state abattoir of New South Wales. The surrounding wasteland, mostly owned by the state, was used as a dumping ground for household and industrial waste. The abattoir closed in 1988, and in 1993 this toxic wasteland emerged as Sydney's trump card: what other city could offer the International Olympic Committee a 760-hectare site lying vacant and ripe for renewal, right at its geographical centre?

Over five years, Homebush has been transformed. Before the Olympic Coordination Authority could let construction begin, it had to clean up the site. That meant spending A$137m (pounds 57m) on getting rid of years' worth of toxicity and restoring much of the area to the wetlands nature intended. The result is probably the greenest Olympic venue in history.

Next the OCA had to commission the architecture. Uppermost in the authority's mind was function, the basic need to cope with human capacity. During the 16 days of the Games the population of Sydney is expected to rise from 4 million to 8.2 million. (The Central Business District has seen almost as much development as Homebush, with new hotels going up on every other corner, and pavements being widened and fitted out with a signature Olympic fleet of public toilets, pay-phones and fruit stalls. But in a country with only 18m people, there's a danger all these new buildings could become white elephants once the torch departs.

The OCA has come up with a pragmatic solution: the Olympic venues have been built to maximise international crowds, but their functions are not set in stone. When the tourists go home, the venues will be adapted for domestic demand. So Stadium Australia, the building which will host the ultimate Olympic sport, the athletics, has opened with 110,000 seats. After the Olympics, the open- ended wings will be enclosed, and the venue's capacity will be reducedto 85,000. The Aquatic Centre will have one of its walls removed, allowing decent views of the pools from a new stand which will be dismantled after the Games.

The other body of people any Olympic Games has to house is the phalanx of international athletes and officials, key people who will be in residence for only a few weeks but will expect some sort of a real home. This means building an Olympic Village and, usually, cramming as many beds into a limited area of real estate as possible. The typical result is a suburb that suddenly becomes dated and dead: in Rome, these days, no-one would ever visit the "Villagio Olimpico", built for the 1960 Games, but for its supermarket.

Sydney's Olympic Village has been built as a plausible suburb: it's called Newington, and while a large proportion of the athletes' quarters will be temporary, permanent houses went on sale last Christmas and sold out over a weekend. The owners have been allowed to move in, and won't be asked to move out during the Games: as the village is only one kilometre away from the Olympic Park, they'll have a ringside seat.

In Sydney, the Olympics have taken a bit of flak. There was the exposure of dubious dealings by Olympics officials, which tarnished the euphoria felt when Sydney won the Olympic bid back in 1993 and let off an unprecedented number of fireworks. There have been predictions of gridlock across the city, protests over the volleyball stadium - which will carve up Bondi Beach - and the debacle over whether the opening and closing ceremonies should employ American marching-bands (the most professional) or Australian ones (more patriotic). Most recently, there have been sighs of disappointment about the Olympic buildings.

This doesn't mean that the Olympic buildings are bad, or that, in general, the Olympic Park won't do its job. The problem, so far as there is one, is that the big buildings have been designed more according to the dictates of function than form. The much-savoured irony is that the real gems of Sydney's Olympic Park are not the buildings that spring to mind as central Olympic venues.

By and large, the big sporting venues, the stadia, just look like stadia: one local critic went so far as to describe Stadium Australia as nothing more aesthetic than a "Pringle crisp". Yet even the harshest critics agree that, dotted around the Olympic Park, there are examples of outstanding Australian design. These buildings are not the venues where you will see exciting sport, and the medals being won and lost. But they are innovative, even eccentric - and are the only "Olympic buildings" designed by Australia's most interesting young architects. Their eclecticism is their charm: who'd have thought anyone could get excited about toilets and lamp-posts?

'Sydney 2000 Olympic Design of the New Millennium': The Architecture Gallery, Royal Institute of British Architects, London (0171 580 5533) 15 September to 31 October

OLYMPIC VILLAGE

Architects: Mirvac Lend Lease Village Consortium with HPA Architects

Cost: A$590m (pounds 247.3m)

The world's largest solar-powered community and the first Olympic village to house all participants on a single site. A few minutes walk from the Stadium Australia, the village forms the centre of a new suburb, Newington. The 15,300 Olympic athletes will stay in either permanent or temporary housing: about 500 relocatable modular homes will be removed after the Paralympics in October 2000. Construction of more houses at Newington will be continue until 2005.

What the architect says: "The aim is for light and airy apartments with generous terraces shaded in summer but capturing winter sun." - Bruce Eeles

ON THEIR MARKS

PLAZA PYLON LIGHTING TOWERS

Architects: Tonkin Zulaikha

Cost: A$12m (pounds 5m)

Nineteen 30m-high lighting towers line one side of the vast expanse of the Olympic Boulevard. At night, their bright white lights are diffused and hit the concrete of the Boulevard as dramatic pools of soft bluey- purple light. During the day, solar cells fitted on the towers' horizontal arms collect energy from the sun (enough to re-supply the National Grid with the amount of electricity the towers use themselves). These lower "roofs" also cast areas of shade - spots of respite for dehydrated visitors. Each tower is numbered and named after a previous Olympic city; the hope is that they will function both as information points and easily found meeting spots.

What the architect says: "We wanted to define and furnish this extra-large public space in an appropriate way. We decided that 19 tall pylons would be better than 500 small light poles. The horizontal arms of the pylons hold solar panels which provide shade for people below." - Peter Tonkin

OLYMPIC PARK RAIL STATION

Architects: Hassell Pty Ltd

Cost: A$95m (pounds 39.8m)

At Ken Maher and Rodney Uren's station, the most consistently praised of the larger Olympic buildings, trains arrive underground, and passengers ascend into the monumental concourse to the impressive sight of the immensely long, wide- span caterpillar-style glass roof. It is hoped that the experience may help to cure Sydney-siders of their LA-like reliance on cars.

What the architect says: "We've created a space which gives a sense of drama to the arrival by its sheer scale. When you think of the great railway stations of Europe, you think of large spaces. It evokes the excitement of travel, yet it has to be practical and handle 1,600 to 1,700 people arriving every two minutes. It does all that. It is naturally ventilated and lit. It has clarity and is easy to understand." - Ken Maher

AMENITIES BLOCKS

Architects: Durbach Block Murcutt

Cost: A$2m (pounds 837,000)

Olympic visitors won't have trouble spotting where the toilet blocks are. The primary-coloured buildings have lantern-like roofs which make them look like giant glow-worms. The lanterns "walk" out from the ends of the buildings, providing typically Australian interior/exterior utility areas.

What the architect says: "Most public toilets are pretty grim, unless of course you like dark, damp, low, bleak, brick buildings. Here we proposed the complete opposite. We used a warped vault as a starting point which subsequently evolved into these hugely high, brightly coloured lanterns which are part sign, part building; part landscape, part sky. They're a provocation of form and colour - like roadworkers' dayglo vests." - Neil Durbach

HOMEBUSH BAY FERRY WHARF

Architects: Alexander Tzannes & Associates

Cost: A$6.3m (pounds 2.6m)

One of the few Olympic buildings to engage directly with a natural waterway, the Ferry Wharf lies on the Parramatta River. Two roofed structures stand perpendicular to each other, one running parallel to the river, the other functioning as the jetty. A third structure has a tented roof, providing shade.

What the architect says: "We set out to design an attractive public place from which you can enjoy the river itself, not just a point of access. The covered walkway to the wharf can be likened to other robust engineering structures serving transport nodes, but is also refined by details such as the pre-cast concrete pile capitals, pre-cambered long steel beams, and the cantilevered awning and waiting area." - Alexander Tzannes

SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL ARCHERY CENTRE

Architects: Stutchbury & Pape

Cost: A$3m (pounds 1.3m)

The Archery Centre lies beside the newly reclaimed wetlands of Homebush Bay. Its 183x100m archery field is enclosed by natural mangrove wetland fringes, and two sculptural pole "forests", composed of 185 recycled electricity poles, designed by Phoebe Pape. The 100x10m archery pavilion houses nine hardwood-clad modules, which house amenities for athletes and spectators. The roof leans forward sharply, and twists along its length: a metaphor for the flight of an arrow.

What the architect says: "This building reviewed, in many ways, the character of shelter in this country. We have taken the idea of the verandah into a new dimension and created a fly roof, as with a tent, to protect the building underneath and the area outside the building. The verandah is the building." - Peter Stutchbury

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