The Aquatics Centre's beauty will only be revealed once its Olympic add-ons are gone

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Zaha Hadid's architecture has always been grandly expressive. It doesn't do modest, or subtle. But her Aquatics Centre, long heralded as the brand-mark building for the 2012 London Olympics, turns out to be something else entirely: stealth architecture, a dull shell concealing something dazzling.

The sensational wave-form of the £268m building has been traduced by vastly lumpen side-saddles, whose grandstands will more than quadruple audience numbers during the Games. It's like forcing the lithe Olympian swimmer Fran Halsall to attempt a world freestyle record with two bargain-basement rucksacks strapped to her hips.

The Olympic Delivery Authority can hardly be blamed for wanting to pack 17,500 spectators into the building, even if it was designed for 3,000. But the result, as seen from the outside, is bemusing: you might not think the Aquatics Centre was architecture at all, let alone anything to do with sport. The blunt fact is that the Centre's true architectural dynamics won't be seen until this gubbins is stripped away, to put the building in post-Olympic "legacy" mode.

The external appearance of the building makes a mockery of the practice's official description of the design being inspired by the fluid geometries of water in motion, creating spaces and a surrounding environment that reflect the riverside landscapes of the Olympic Park. The key design move is an undulating roof that sweeps up from the ground in a vast ripple, enclosing the pools of the Centre with what is described as "a unifying gesture of fluidity". Not from the outside, it doesn't.

Inside, though, the Aquatics Centre is pure, awesome theatre. As the British diver Tom Daley held court in the stands yesterday, Hadid revealed the simplicity of her design vision: "The intention was always to make a stunning roof – a wave, water, some kind of sea-life creature."

The creature is 160 metres long, with a maximum width of 90m. There are no visible columns holding up the 3,200 tonnes of steel and 70,000 bolts, and the manta ray swoop of the roof is supported on only three points: two relatively slim concrete cores near the northern end of the building and a concrete wall at its southern end. These structural anchors are concealed in the flow of the structure and are barely noticeable to spectators, which means that the drama of the roof form is utterly dominant.

The drama has a functional purpose: the roof undulates to define the spaces around the 10-lane competition pool and the diving pool. The roof projects beyond the arena, giving the structure quirky brims at its end.

The geometry of the roof and the concrete waists of the arena are complex, and finished to absolute perfection – a tribute to the contractor, Balfour Beatty, and to Finnforest, which supplied the 35,000 lengths of timber that line the underside of the roof with not so much as a waver in their lines of trajectory. The concrete is silky to touch and would satisfy even the great master of swerving cement, Oscar Niemeyer. No doubt about it, this is Rolls-Royce construction, even if the huge amount of steel in the roof happens to weigh as much as 2,800 Ford Fiestas.

As always with Hadid's buildings, the structural gymnastics are at least as interesting as the architecture. When large buildings have shapes as challenging as this, the big question is quite simple: how did they do it? If you look at cross-section drawings of the Aquatics Centre, it is the amount of steel in the double curve of the parabolic roof that hits you in the eye. Everything else about the structure looks skimpy in comparison.

It wasn't just the 3,200 tonnes of steel in the roof that was challenging, but the forces of structural tension and compression generated by its geometry. This was meat and drink, however, to Hadid's engineers, Arup.

The roof's steel trusses, some of them 40m long and weighing 70 tonnes, were erected on giant temporary trestles. When half the roof structure had been completed, one section of the trestles was removed, to allow the pit of the diving pool to be dug. This meant that the roof had to be jacked up above the trestles and held until the pool excavations were complete. And then it was jacked up a second time before being lowered into its final position. At this rather critical point, one assumes even Arup's gaffers held their breath.

The Aquatics Centre is undoubtedly a structural marvel. But because it is a building designed for two purposes – Olympic and post-Olympic – it does not yet have the sheer mojo of, say, Pier Luigi Nervi's exquisite roof structure at Rome's Palazzetto dello Sport. That building looks absolutely riveting, outside and in. It is simply too soon to make any sensible judgement of the architectural quality of Hadid's core building, because we can only fully experience its interior. She, and her project architect, Jim Severin, have given considerable attention to the landscaping immediately around the arena, but this too is not yet evident.

Nevertheless, the Aquatics Centre joins Hopkins Architects' sleek Velodrome as one of the two architecturally ambitious landmark buildings on the Olympic site. They deliver world-class sporting facilities to east London and they will undoubtedly inspire tens of thousands of people to take swimming and cycling more seriously in the next decade or two.

The great Japanese architect (and stadium designer) Kenzo Tange said: "Architecture must have something that appeals to the human heart." It is that direct appeal to the heart that is temporarily crushed by the Aquatics Centre's bloated seating pods. Until after the Olympics, it must remain Jekyll and Hyde architecture, puzzling and mall-like on the outside, yet thrilling enough inside to make Fran Halsall's heart beat a little quicker when she tenses on her starting block, seconds before the start of the 100m freestyle final next summer.

Going for gold: Great Olympic structures

Berlin Olympic Stadium (1936)

Designed by Werner and Walter March, the stadium glorified Nazism. However, its architecture was an innovative mixture of order and surprise. The facade, barely three storeys high, concealed the fact that the seating descended into a deeply dug bowl.

Palazzetto dello Sport, Rome (1960)

Sheer design genius, by the engineer Pier Luigi Nervi, and decisive proof that ferroconcrete can be beautiful. The ribbed concrete dome is 61 metres wide, braced by flying buttresses. It was built in only 40 days.

Tokyo Olympic Stadium (1964)

Who said Brutalist architecture was ugly? Kenzo Tange's stadium was built in the form of two semi-circles, slightly displaced, with a roof composed of steel cables carrying enameled steel plates.

Munich Olympic Stadium (1972)

The stadium's sweeping acrylic and steel cable canopies, designed by the ex-fighter pilot Frei Otto and Gunter Behnisch, were architecturally revolutionary and came to symbolise Germany's democratic transparency and optimism.

Arts and Entertainment
TVShow's twee, safe facade smashed by ice cream melting scandal
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live
tv
Life and Style
tech
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Actor, model and now record breaker: Jiff the Pomeranian
Video
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
News
i100
News
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
scienceBosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?