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The Olympic Village: Architecture and town planning's brief time in the Games

During the early days of the modern Olympics, art, architecture, and even town planning were considered competitive events

Every few years during the Olympic Games, pundits debate the idea of dropping or adding different events, on the pretense that some activities aren’t real sports. Fans cry foul about including events such as competitive trampoline or dressage, the sport of fancy horse training, and every so often, a movement forms around adding a new competition to the games (the movement to include poker got a boost this year, since the card game is considered a sport in Brazil).

While sports fans often don’t have a hard time finding something to debate about, questions of which modern events deserve inclusion look simple compared to some of the original events envisioned by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the original games and creator of the famous five-ring logo. As part of his vision for international competitions that involved sports and arts, not weapons, the modern games of the 20th century initially had a more all-encompassing idea of competition. From 1912 to 1948, the games included arts, literature, and oddly enough, architecture, as part of the slate of events, even awarding medals for town planning.

While visions of Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Oscar Niemeyer atop the podium are a bit far-fetched, the brief existence of architecture as a competitive event speak to the original vision of the Olympics as a cultural force against violence, a noble enterprise to bring out the best. While fitness and good sportsmanship are virtues to praise, the inclusion of five artistic categories—architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture—made sure a wider range of human endeavors basked in the international spotlight. In light of how important the architecture of the games is to the future of the host city, it also makes sense that good, sustainable design would be celebrated.

However noble, the concept of arts in the games got off to a rough start. These events were left out of the 1908 Games in London, since the location was switched at the last minute from Rome and the organizers claimed to be too busy, and a paltry number of artists submitted work for the 1912 games in Stockholm. Those roughly three dozens entries included one from "Georges Hohrod and Martin Eschbach," a pseudonym for de Coubertin, who entered what turned out to be a gold medal-winning poem, “Ode to sport.” But, by the time the Paris Games rolled around in 1924, it appeared that artists had changed their opinion and embraced the games (even the Soviets contributed to the “bourgeois” competition).

As a competition that judged aesthetics went, the Olympic art events had a somewhat rough series of rules guiding who and what could enter. All the entries had to be inspired by sports, and participants could enter multiple times and even win multiple medals for the same event. Perhaps not surprisingly, considering the vast creative territory encompassed by the different fields of art, there were a few even more unorthodox artistic competitions. Perhaps the oddest was the 1936 competitions for medals, in which Italian Luciano Mercante became a silver medalist in medals (no gold was given out that year).

The sports theme may have seemed like a big limitation for those who entered the architecture and town planning competitions. Instead, it became a battle over stadiums, athletic centers, and park design. One of the difficulties of any architecture or planning competition is judging entrants based on models or descriptions. Clearly, it helped some of the participants who were able to show their finished work to the judges; in 1928, Dutch architect Jan Wils won a gold medal for the stadium he designed for that year’s Olympics.

During the four games where architecture was included, the Germans won the most medals, including Nazi-era stadiums for the Third Reich. The only Americans to win architecture medals were Charles Downing Lay, who created the Marine Park in Brooklyn, and John Russell Pope, who was given a silver for his design for the Payne Whitney Gymnasium, at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. Pope’s Gothic Revival giant, an outsized, 12-acre sports facility nicknamed the “temple of sweat,” is still in use today. The school’s original stuffed mascot, Handsome Dan the Bulldog, can be found in the entrance.

Lay’s Marine Park design, a magnificent vision that would make the recreation facility “larger than Central and Prospect Park combined,” according to a local paper cited in an article by Jack Goodman for Atlas Obscura. Lay, who was a prominent landscape architect who would found Landscape Architect magazine, saw his elaborate plan remain unfinished, subject to the decisions of the powerful parks chief Robert Moses.

Oddly enough, it was the success of the cultural portion of the Olympics that ultimately led to its downfall. The exhibitions kept getting bigger and more grandiose. In Amsterdam in 1928, more than 1,100 works were entered and displayed. The 1932 L.A. Games brought 384,000 visitors to the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art. By 1949, many in the Olympic movement questioned the inclusion of art since so many of the participants were professionals (there were no rules against selling works after the games ended). At a 1949 meeting of the International Olympic Committee, a report was shared with members arguing that most of the artists were professionals, which swayed opinion and led to artists being removed from the games (through art festivals are still part of the summer games).

The 1948 London Games were the final Olympics to include artistic events. Austrian Adolf Hoch won a gold for a ski jumping hill, while Finnish planner and architect Yrjö Lindegren also took home top honors for an athletic center in Varkaus. While the artistic events wouldn’t make the cut for the 1952 games in Helsinki, the Olympic spirit was still part of the game’s architecture. The Helsinki Olympic Stadium was Lindegren’s most famous design.