Stadia: Sport and Vision in Architecture
Sir John Soane’s Museum,
13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London
Until September 22
Sir John Soane’s Museum’s display of historic athletics venues charts the Olympic journey
Sir John Soane encountered the Coliseum on his first visit to Rome in 1778. He drew and studied that ruined survival from antiquity and later, when professor of architecture at the Royal Academy, he would refer to it 10 times in his lectures. One of the coloured drawings he had prepared for those lectures is an elevation and section depicting a tiny Circus at Bath inside the intact Coliseum to emphasise the huge scale of the original Roman amphitheatre.
This impressive drawing is on display in the current exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum on the history and design of stadia, which has been mounted to coincide with the London Olympics.
This includes several remarkable drawings. There is the huge etching of an Ancient Circus of Mars on the Via Appia by Soane’s mentor and inspirer GB Piranesi, an extravagant fantasy on the theme of Roman arenas. There is a 16th-century survey of the Coliseum by the Florentine draughtsman Bernardo della Volpaia, a drawing that was carefully studied and copied by the young Michelangelo and which eventually, via James Adam, ended up in Soane’s possession.
There is a design by Carlo Fontana for building a baroque church inside the Coliseum because of its (mythical?) association with early Christian martyrs. And there is (a facsimile of, as the Bibliothèque Nationale won’t lend) Boullée’s utopian Elevation of a Circus, that is, of a sublimely vast arena in an austere neo-classical style able to contain some 300,000 people for some nebulous national event. Such is the megalomania that can be inspired by the idea of the original Olympic Games and the great spectacles we associate with Imperial Rome.
The intriguing history and design of stadia is explored in an elegant, intelligent and well-illustrated catalogue by the curators, Dr Jerzy Kierkuc-Bielinski and Professor Geraint John, who explain how the original longitudinal Greek stadium with banked seats and apsidal ends was superseded by the elliptical amphitheatre, an ideal shape to enable large crowds to have clear vision of whatever athletic or violent spectacle was on offer. They also explore the legacy of these structures and open spaces after the Renaissance once architects had interested themselves in the Coliseum and in the many ancient arenas which had long been lost or built over. Soane, of course, never had the opportunity of building a new coliseum for Britain, any more than he could realise the ideal palaces he kept designing. Those opportunities only came after Baron de Coubertin and others revived, or reinvented, the Olympic Games in Athens in 1896.
The story of the stadium is brought right up to date in the exhibition with several elaborate modern models, drawings and sketches, though I wish examples like the White City Stadium of 1908 — the first purpose-built modern Olympic arena — were more fully illustrated. And only political correctness can account for the minimal coverage of Werner March’s impressive (and still extant) stadium for the notorious 1936 Berlin Olympics. Rather than contradicting themselves, the authors claim the motives of March and Albert Speer (who designed a megalomaniac complex of stadia at Nuremberg) were “far removed” from those of those architects who were inspired by the stadia of the classical past, such as Piranesi and Boullée.
The 1936 Nazi Olympics were much closer to today’s machine than Coubertin’s homoerotic vision was
This is surely nonsense. Apart from the fact that, as we know from his diaries, Speer carefully studied the work of the French Revolutionary architects like Boullée, the Nazi Olympics — ruthlessly organised and branded with political and quasi-religious overtones combined with relentless national propaganda — were much closer in spirit to the monstrous machine the Olympics have become than to de Coubertin’s naive homoerotic vision. But what is rather pathetic is that since the second world war, largely because of the 1936 Games, architects have striven both to reject any hint of relevant classical precedents and to avoid the simple geometrical clarity demanded by an amphitheatre and achieved by the ancient Greeks. The irony, however, is that one Nazi addition to the Olympic tradition — the ridiculous neo-pagan cult of the flaming torch — not only survives but is now celebrated with absurd enthusiasm.
A final note: this admirable and fascinating exhibition is the first to be mounted in the museum’s new gallery in No.12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Soane’s original drawing room, with its low vaulted ceiling and very gently curved end walls, has been superbly restored and authentically decorated by Julian Harrap while the elegant and sensible new display cases by Caruso St John carefully follow Soane’s subtle curves. It is all rather a triumph.