Posted by: Oliver Wainwright27 July 2011
The most hotly anticipated of all the Olympic venues, Zaha Hadid’s £268 million Aquatics Centre was finally unveiled today to packs of expectant journalists, eagerly crowded in, swimming trunks at the ready.
“I think it’s okay to have more than one good building on the site,” she grins. “It was not our intention to be the only beauty queen here.”
Modest as ever, Hadid is rightfully proud of what she describes as a “pavilion in the park,” a diminutive title for this 160m long, 90m wide wave of a building.
Its vast undulating canopy climbs from two points to the north, flexing its broad muscles above the main pool, before plunging down to frame the diving pool, behind which it tapers to meet the ground in a single point.
The ceiling flexes 120m in a clear span across the length of the pools…
Such sinuous formal gymnastics belie the forest of steelwork hidden in the roof cavity behind the thin timber-clad soffit, a matrix of trusses that extends to 12m deep in places, and weighs in at a staggering 3,000 tonnes. (The Velodrome’s cable-net roof uses only 300 tonnes of steel to cover a similar area.)
The supple, muscular language reaches its climax in the diving boards – thick concrete tongues that arch out above the pool, supporting a zig-zag processional route of stairs from one platform to the next. Proving that concrete is still what Hadid does best, a further treat lies deep underground in the form of a beautifully coffered ceiling for the warm-up pool.
But for all the seductive drama of the interior, there are two gigantic elephants in the room – so big, in fact, that they poke out of the room, and soar up either side of the stealthy low-lying roof: the 7,000 capacity temporary seating stands.
From the outside, the building’s double-curved form has often been referred to as recalling the elegant streamlined body of a manta ray. This may be, but for now, it is a manta ray held afloat with a pair of hulking great arm bands.
The temporary seating wings are wrapped in PVC sheeting, with cut-out shapes faintly reminiscent of Saarinen’s TWA Terminal profile.
“We were always designing with legacy in mind,” explains Hadid. “This had to be a usable swimming pool for east London, as well as for international events – not another white elephant.”
While Beijing has struggled with its 17,000 capacity water cube – so much so that it has finally been filled with slides and converted into a water park and son et lumière show – Hadid’s design has thought ahead, and will leave behind a relatively compact 2,500 seat venue.
The aquatics centre may well be the beauty queen of the Olympic Park one day, but for the time being she is one that is still sporting dental braces – it may be painful to look at now, but have faith, it will be better for it later.
Read the full building study in BD on 12th August.