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A makeshift idea for the Olympics

Chicago and L.A. have the same notion for the 2016 Summer Games: temporary stadiums.

February 28, 2007|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

For decades, cities have seen Olympic bids as among the most effective ways to jump-start civic ambition. Barcelona used the run-up to the 1992 Summer Games as an occasion to reinvent its waterfront, among other expensive improvements. And Beijing is remaking itself at a breakneck pace as it gets ready for the Olympics next year.

But as Chicago and Los Angeles jockey for the right to hold the 2016 Summer Games, a different vision of what the Olympics mean for cities is emerging. It is decidedly modest. This pair of American cities, so different in so many ways, seem to agree that the best way to win the Olympics -- and to pay for them -- is to design a sort of pack-and-go games. Put aside any notions of an Olympics that might spur interest, here or in Chicago, in new subway lines or massive architectural icons. A central goal in both bids is to avoid the white elephants that have plagued Sydney and other host cities.

Nowhere is the shift more obvious than in the stadium designs that lie at the heart of the Chicago and Los Angeles plans. Both cities have proposed an architectural big-top approach, with facilities that can be assembled and disassembled in a matter of months.

In Chicago, it's an attractive temporary stadium in Washington Park designed by the Shanghai-based American architect Ben Wood and the local firm Goettsch Partners; it would hold 80,000 for the Olympics and then be transformed into an open-air amphitheater seating just 5,000. Even that disappearing act isn't complete enough for some Chicagoans. They think even the amphitheater, which would carve a hole in the middle of a meadow designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, is too much to leave behind.

Decision due next month

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, Olympic boosters last week unveiled their own spin on the temporary stadium idea: a proposal to add a superstructure to the Coliseum that could be removed after the athletes have left town. Designed by local architect David Jay Flood and budgeted at $112 million, the stadium addition would essentially float above the existing stadium's neoclassical bowl. A series of steel-frame towers would rise along its periphery and hold 204 luxury boxes; vinyl fabric stretched between the towers and decorated with the Olympic rings and other designs would provide shade.

The U.S. Olympic Committee members are visiting Southern California this week and will meet with Flood on Thursday. They will choose between L.A. and Chicago next month, and the U.S. nominee will then go up against a group of world cities that could include the global heavyweights Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and Rome.

In part, the portable stadium designs can be explained by a funding loophole: According to International Olympic Committee guidelines, cities draw directly from Olympic operating funds to pay for temporary structures, while money for permanent buildings has to be raised separately. And in L.A. there is also the fact that the Coliseum, as a historic landmark, can't be permanently altered.

The preservation story line adds an intriguing twist to any architectural comparison of the stadium plans. Wood is best known in this country for his 2003 renovation to Soldier Field, longtime home of the Chicago Bears, which involved lowering a futuristic steel-and-glass addition right onto the classical seating bowl. The design has its champions -- it is certainly among the boldest attempts in an American city to combine neoclassical and digitally derived architectural forms -- but has proved deeply controversial in Chicago.

And apparently in Washington, D.C., as well: Just before leaving office last month, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton decided to strip Soldier Field of its status as a national historic landmark.

Wood is taking an altogether different tack this time, producing a stadium that might as well be stamped, like a carton of milk, with an expiration date.

Flood, for his part, made sure that the L.A. Conservancy, the leading preservation group in town, had signed off on his Coliseum proposal before it was released to the public. In both cases the idea is to produce a stadium that appears to hover weightlessly over the existing city rather than squashing it.

There is a lot to recommend this approach. It avoids the political and financial pitfalls that go along with building a new stadium from scratch -- the very pitfalls that doomed San Francisco's 2016 bid when negotiations involving the city, the 49ers football team and Olympic planners fell apart last year. And temporary stadiums are certainly more environmentally friendly than permanent ones, particularly when the materials that make them up can be easily dismantled and reused.

Flood's proposal even includes a nod to the Coliseum's most important tenant, the USC football team. His design is so modest that work on the stadium wouldn't have to begin until January 2016, just six or seven months before the opening ceremonies and after USC's 2015 home football schedule is safely complete.

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