Olympic Venues Pack a Punch in a Pocket

SWA designs a compact, multi-use facility  for the Games.

By Zach Mortice

The ski jump tower is the focal point of the site. Photo by Marco Esposito/SWA.

Deployed with a small footprint, a light touch, and ample flexibility, the Alpensia Olympic Park in PyeongChang, South Korea, which is hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics cross-country skiing, biathlon, and ski jump competitions, is the result of clever planning by landscape architects.

Originally, the Gangwondo Development Corporation (the ultimate client for the facility) and the engineering and construction company Taeyoung planned to put these three venues into two separate valleys. But SWA’s Sausalito, California, office suggested that these venues could be consolidated into one valley across a single 350-acre site instead. SWA says it’s the most compact Winter Olympics design of its type ever.

This more compact plan preserved forested hillsides and helped compress athletes and observers into a bustling hub of activity with a carefully choreographed arrival sequence. “When the venues were distributed, it became harder and harder to not carve up so much of the land, and have the sense of place still be right for spectators and worldwide TV coverage,” says Marco Esposito, a principal at SWA.

SWA’s plan puts the ski jump and stadium to the west, and the cross-country and biathlon stadiums to the east. Linked by a central plaza, these stadiums and race routes orbit each other, with the cross-country course veering south, and the biathlon (in the Winter Olympics, a combination of long-distance skiing and rifle marksmanship) heading north. The cross-country and biathlon stadiums offer seats for 4,500 people and standing room for 3,000. Skiers begin amid the cheers of the crowd, venturing out into the pine forests, before looping back to the stands and the finish line after a series of laps. The ski jump stadium has 6,300 seats and standing room for 2,000 people. It also envelops a soccer pitch for use when the snow melts, and much of this winter sports complex doubles as a golf course in warmer weather.

The biathlon and cross-country skiing courses orbit each other. Photo by Marco Esposito/SWA.

SWA was the site’s master planner, working with Space Group, one of South Korea’s preeminent architecture firms. Eighty miles east of Seoul, this mountainous sports park located on the Taebaek Plateau at 2,300 feet above sea level was home to potato fields before being developed as a summer and winter sports and recreation resort.

Parts of the biathlon course preceded SWA’s involvement, though the firm originally pitched its plan for PyeongChang for the 2014 Winter Olympics, which South Korea narrowly lost to Russia. The complex was completed in 2009, long before South Korea had even secured the 2018 Winter Olympics in 2011.

The biathlon course. Photo by SWA.

As soon as visitors set foot in the sports park, Esposito wanted them to have access to vistas that would draw them farther in. The central plaza that unites the three venues is flanked by practice ski jumps to the south, providing a moment of anticipatory drama, as “the stadium itself and the even bigger jumps await you,” Esposito says. Located at the highest point on the site, the main ski jump tower where competition takes place offers a thrilling crescendo to Olympic watchers’ alpine journey.

Esposito says framing these snow-packed launching pads within a public landscape makes his venue different from those of the past. “You can go to the Torino venues, Salt Lake, Vancouver. To the degree that there are practice jumps, they’re [usually] off somewhere else,” he says. “There’s no general sense of place in terms of how it’s organized.”

Bedrock revealed by earthworks adds a new dimension of texture to the site. Photo by Marco Esposito/SWA.

Esposito and his team minimized grading and earthwork wherever possible, and Taeyoung left sections of bedrock exposed on the hillside, offering a rich change in texture. In addition to preserving more of the area’s forests, this compact layout made for simpler circulation logistics, so shuttle buses could make fewer stops to reach all the secondary venues. It was also a budget-friendly option. “Having it be so compact [made] it less expensive,” Esposito says. And modest budgets have been a priority for Olympic host cities, a sea change from just a decade ago.

“There’s a lot of hand-wringing about what to do with these legacy facilities, and I think there’s been a general trend to have the Olympics have a lighter touch, to be a little bit less expensive, to be a little bit less overwrought,” Esposito says.

Beijing in 2008 may have been the high water mark for the starchitect Olympics, shelling out $44 billion for venues by Zaha Hadid and Herzog & de Meuron’s brawny yet delicate Bird’s Nest stadium—that’s lately been mostly empty and a bit shabby. The tide quickly retreated, as the next two Olympic host cities (Vancouver and London) were wary of white elephant monuments to headier times. They spent a small fraction of that amount, employing temporary venues and stadiums that can be downsized. Russia’s winter games in Sochi pushed against this trend—hard—spending $50 billion. But 2016’s summer games in Brazil plummeted back to earth with a price tag of $13 billion, about what the PyeongChang games will cost, according to the Huffington Post.

It’s especially critical to hold down costs on winter sports venues like these that aren’t inherently flexible. “Something like a ski jump is so unique,” says Esposito. “So much infrastructure [is required] for that event. It’s not something that can easily be multipurposed.”

A ski jumper takes to the sky. Photo by SWA.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

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