Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre: Now With Wings
One of the most anticipated and controversial of the structures built for the London 2012 Olympic Games, Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre is a lesson in creative compromise.
For the members of the public attending the 18th FINA Visa Diving World Cup 2012 in late February, part of the London Prepares series of test events, the building makes a quick first impression on entry to the Olympic Park, which is still more construction site than park.
Looming like the prow of a ship are the prominent white wings added to the original design to accommodate the additional 15,000 temporary seats required for the Games. After the Olympics, the wings will be removed, leaving the venue in “legacy mode” with a 2,500-seat capacity.
Even encumbered by the derisively named “water wings,” the insistent curve of Hadid’s design is striking, drawing attention away from the more staid Olympic Stadium in the background. Still, with the undulating grey, timber-clad body protruding from its boxy white restraints, the overall impression is of a whale plowed halfway into an ocean liner.
In the September 2011 edition of the RIBA Journal, the publication of the Royal Institute of British Architects, editor Hugh Pearman notes, “In the building of the main Olympics site, cost eventually trumped sustainability.” Similarly, budget constraints demanded significant creative compromise with the Aquatics Centre, with both awe-inspiring and uncomfortable results, a bit like seeing a leviathan trapped in temporary Han Solo deep freeze.
Beyond the gates, the temporary nature of the wings is evident, with lots of exposed steel supports and unfinished-looking PVC fabric stretched to form the walls of the wings.
The open-air structure of the wings’ steel supports yields unobstructed views of the Olympic Stadium and the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower designed by Anish Kapoor, which is, believe it or not, even more ugly in person.
“Inspired by the fluid geometry of water in motion” according to Zaha Hadid’s studio, the interior roof is at once impressive and oppressive, obscuring the view of the stands opposite. The RIBA Journal likened being in the Aquatics Centre to being in the belly of a whale, and it’s apt. The air is humid and warm, the better to suit the skimpy attire of the swimmers and divers.
With the diving action at one end of the Aquatics Centre and the surprisingly small results screen at the other, spectators swivel their heads back and forth, holding their breaths as the divers prepare and plummet toward the water, clapping politely after they’ve made their (hopefully splashless) entry, with voices rising in support of hometown heroes Jack Laugher and Chris Mears.
As evening deepens the Aquatic Centre takes on an otherworldly air, the white wings glowing, the grey body waiting in silence.
And as spectators make their way toward the Olympic Park’s exit, with mere months to go before the start of the Games, it seems only natural to quietly root for the day the beast is set free.