Architect Rod Sheard, 61, had the daunting task of designing the showpiece of the Olympic Park, the stadium itself. Senior principal at leading architectural practice Populous, his portfolio includes renowned sports venues such as Sydney's Olympic Stadium, the new Wembley, the Millennium Stadium and Wimbledon's Centre Court.
business:life: Did you feel intimidated by having to follow Beijing's Bird's Nest Stadium?
Rod Sheard: An etiquette applies to architects and their Olympic stadiums: you don't make comparisons with your predecessors. All buildings reflect how challenges and issues are met at a moment in time. There is also the matter of what the goals are for a building. Beijing did, I am sure, achieve exactly what the organisers set out to achieve. So will London, though the objectives, which formed a key part of the brief, are different.
bl: What is the key to creating a successful
field of dreams?
RS: There are some hard and fast rules for a sports arena, based in both architecture and science. You have to consider airflow and wind speeds, the shape of the playing field, cover for spectators. With an athletics stadium, a 400m track is imperative. Beyond that it is really what is desired. We placed high priority on keeping crowds close to events — we fought over every millimetre of space between track and spectator.
bl: Did you get the athletes' perspective?
RS: At the design stage we spoke to a wide range of interested parties, including Jonathan Edwards, the Olympic gold medal triple jumper. There is also a fellow called Seb Coe — essentially our main client — involved with the process who knows a little bit about athletes' needs.
bl: How much of a headache were the many environmental issues to be taken into account?
RS: The stadium design meant removing 800,000 tonnes of soil, which was a challenge as much of it was unusable because the site had been derelict for years. As for carbon footprint, with buildings the big environmental issue is more about how they are used. The construction footprint is overtaken by the day-to-day footprint from running a building after about eight years. It is different with stadiums because they are used less frequently. The carbon footprint from running them supersedes the construction footprint only after 40 or 50 years. So the construction footprint matters even more. Because of this, we used materials incredibly carefully. Every time, the question was asked, do we need that?
bl: Do you have an interest in sport beyond designing stadiums?
RS: I was born in Australia so had a ball or bat in my hand pretty much all the time as a child.
I grew up in Queensland. That meant for me it was cricket and rugby rather than Aussie Rules. And we had a tennis court before we had a TV. One of those did come in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. That is my first memory of the games — a very grainy one in black and white.
bl: Was architecture an early interest in parallel?
RS: Architecture was an early passion. I always loved to draw, to try and make something out of lines. When I was 15, I won a school book token and bought something by Mies van der Rohe, a pioneer of modern architecture. Even before that my mother recalls me telling anyone who would listen that I wanted to be an architect. The law? Medicine? Respectable enough but lawyers and doctors can't be deviant. The first buildings on which I worked were mainly schools in Australia. I came to London for the first time in 1975. The old south stand at Twickenham was my first project. They have pulled it down now.
bl: What is your approach today?
RS: Around 80 per cent of key decisions are made in the first 20 per cent of a project's life. With the Olympic Stadium we had 15 or so schemes. When planning a building there is no such thing as a blank piece of paper. Even when the paper is blank at the start of the discussion we imagine things on that paper. At the beginning of a project we establish that we are at least on the same page, then we explain what is possible. We might be able to say, actually we can do a bit better than what you'd like. At this stage you can see a different look in the eyes of those around the table. You can see people begin to think, you can really do that? From that point on we can end up being pushed rather than doing the pushing.
bl: Is designing a stadium a team effort?
RS: I paint a lot and then I am in sole control. Architecture is much more complicated, so many more people are involved. You have to include lots of views and considerations. In this, what is crucial is that you retain sight of what were the core ideas. It is the majority view based on these that should prevail rather than a consensus. We seem to need to put one person's name on a building. It is never that simple.
bl: Does every building have its day?
RS: The Romans stuck with the Colosseum.
They knew how to do things. We've refined the thinking behind that as an arena and adjusted things — better sight lines, improved concourse, more comfortable exit widths — but, in creating a place to congregate together, to enjoy food and be entertained, they were already there. They even had adjustable roofs.
bl: Is the stadium as a venue type here to stay?
RS: Town stadiums could be the future. Towns used to be built around squares where folk would meet for proclamations and civic events. They were the town's beating heart. Today we only gather together at stadiums in the same numbers for one purpose. But if you make the playing area the town square and have seats that can roll away after an event, then stadiums could be the hub every day, with restaurants and bars that service events also employed daily. With occasions such as the Olympics, this would end at a stroke the issue of stadium use after games.
Interview by Colin Cameron.
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