For all their fame, tradition, and monumentality, the Olympic Games are fickle. Cities vying to host the summer Olympics have always lined up and competed with one another ferociously, promising stadiums and arenas that would rejuvenate neglected neighborhoods and turn brown fields green. Citizens learning that their city would put on the Olympics used to dance in the streets, into the night. But for the 2024 Olympics, competition to hold the world’s premier sporting event thinned out because three of the contest’s five contenders—Budapest, Rome, Hamburg—checked out of the running, their bids pulled by citizenries that feared monumental costs would outlive two weeks of televised glory.
For each success—Barcelona in 1992 and London in 2012—in which the Olympics catalyzed hugely effective programs in city building, with parks and coliseums spurring lasting urban improvements, there have been plenty of washouts. The bill for overbuilding in Athens in 2004 stressed the entire national economy, leaving a legacy of spectacular but underused venues, some of which had to be torn down. Likewise in Rio in 2016, which burdened an economy already in crisis. Its legacy also included overbuilt venues that had to be demolished après Olympics.
By 2017, during the bids for the 2024 games, the two cities left standing after the others withdrew were Paris and Los Angeles, and so the International Olympic Committee (IOC), perhaps fearing no bids for the 2028 games, for the first time split the difference by awarding Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028. The appeal of both cities, each a repeat host, was that they would be using existing venues and would need to build few if any new facilities.
Paris, nonetheless, decided to leverage the construction of a new Olympic Village into a vast urban-renewal project. The city hired French architect Dominique Perrault, winner of Japan’s prestigious Praemium Imperiale, to build housing that would transform a deteriorated, postindustrial district next to the Seine into a mixed-use neighborhood of apartments, offices, production studios, and startup sheds along a newly revived riverfront. Paris also promised to improve the city’s air quality with upgraded emissions standards in time for an environmentally “sustainable” games.
Los Angeles proposed a “sustainable” Olympics, too, but defined sustainability differently. It would not build a village but proposed hosting the Olympics with existing architecture, some vintage. The oldest structure, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, was used for the city’s 1932 and 1984 games. Some venues have been built in keeping with the city’s athletically driven lifestyle, while others, such as a new stadium anticipated for the Rams in Inglewood, would be privately built on someone else’s dime and leased to the games. Although L.A. originally had two compelling plans for ground-up villages that would reinvent marginal areas and repair city fabric, it argued in its presentation to the IOC that UCLA’s relatively posh dormitories and training centers, near the university’s hospital, could be used as the Olympic Village on the George Leigh Mallory principle “because it is there” (Mallory’s rationale for climbing Mount Everest).
The choice of a no-build Olympics was out of character for the IOC, which has usually favored cities that ambitiously use the Olympics as a catalyst for physical transformation. L.A.’s no-build, fiscally responsible proposal was outsourced by city hall to the privately run, independent nonprofit the Los Angeles Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games 2028—or, simply, LA 2028. This financially low-risk approach also was meant to appeal at least as much to Angelenos. The city would benefit from Olympic buzz and luster, not to mention a projected bump in visitor revenue, while a reform-minded Olympic movement would benefit from a paradigm that would reduce the costs of putting on the games and make them more sustainable. “We are redefining what it means to host a successful games,” said LA 2028 chairperson Casey Wasserman, as quoted on the organization’s website.
The L.A. way offered a privately financed economic model based on a self-sustaining, break-even $6.9 billion budget that would reduce chances of a popular revolt. In the Los Angeles interpretation of the games, the legacy would come in the form of money rather than buildings or urban development, specifically an endowment for a youth sports fund and other benefits, as it did in the 1984 games. Back then, $100 million from the $232 million surplus was channeled into neighborhood sports programs that produced such stars as Serena and Venus Williams. With the games so far away, the IOC could pay forward part of its agreed $1.5 billion payment to LA 2028, with money again allotted for a youth fund and other programs. (Overall, the revenue for the games includes a big chunk from the IOC and funds from domestic sponsors, ticket sales, licensing, merchandising, and hospitality.)
CONSTELLATIONS AND RINGS
Christopher Hawthorne, chief design officer in the mayor’s office, makes the apologist’s case that rather than being a catalyst for urban change, the L.A. Olympics is an accelerant, hastening change already planned. Facing a crisis of congestion on the roads, citizens approved ballot measure M in 2016, allocating a half cent increase in sales tax to generate $120 billion over 40 years to expand rail, rapid bus transit, bike networks, and elevated rail connections to the airport. Some of those projects are using the Olympics as a deadline of convenience so they will be operating by 2028. Ditto the bike, trail, and water-access systems and habitat restoration along L.A.’s 51-mile-long river, a program already well underway. Ditto, too, the already planned expansion of the airport itself (whose access roads were double-decked in time for the ’84 Olympics).
Though L.A.’s transportation infrastructure will certainly be more robust by 2028, it would be a stretch to attribute intentionality to the Olympics by calling it the Infrastructure Olympics. The games are not initiating the changes, just grafting onto them.
Bill Hanway, a veteran of the London and Rio games who works with AECOM, a global construction engineering outfit hired by LA 2028 as its primary planning consultant, explains that planners have identified five clusters of existing and potential venues dispersed across the city’s sprawl. The largest cluster, downtown, stretches from a core around Staples Center to USC. The others include UCLA, Hollywood Park, and the South Bay and Long Beach sports parks. A ticket to one event might entail a ticket to a secondary event in a cluster, allowing multiple visits. No longer is the Olympics heliocentric, as in Barcelona or London. Instead, it will follow a pattern based on the constellation model. Think Jackson Pollock. If tentative plans mature, approaches will be multiple, layered, and synergistic.
Right now, the hope is for an Olympics that’s “produced” like an enhanced, citywide Hollywood extravaganza rather than “built” in the coliseum tradition. We’re a long way from a comprehensive concept that coalesces into a citywide performance firing on all pistons. What emerges will likely depend in large part on the revolution in communications that has occurred since ’84: an invisible infrastructure of digital networks that promises to expand the games beyond TV broadcasting. “I have to believe that we’re going to have to work closely with the film and design profession in Hollywood,” says Hanway, speaking about the Southland’s entertainment industry, which has always produced monumental shows, including the annual Academy Awards. Hawthorne brings up the necessity of digital strategy. Not that far north of Los Angeles lies the sleeping giant, Silicon Valley.
Both Hanway and Hawthorne acknowledge that Los Angeles has a vocational propensity to transform experience into a celluloid reality, preferring the image of the thing to the thing itself. In the context of a city whose products are immaterial, a mediated Olympics without much architecture is in some way endemic. L.A. set the precedent for an Olympics conceived for a screen last time out: graphic artists Paul Prejza and Deborah Sussman, with architect Jon Jerde, festooned venues with a modular kit of architectural parts painted in vivid, Pacific Rim colors that sizzled on TV.
But at present, the L.A. Olympics is missing a visionary, a Shiva-like DJ with 10 arms who can play all the chords on the city’s keyboard and orchestrate a two-week-long sonic boom. Producing a games along the saccharine Academy Awards model, or even along L.A.’s 1984 model, is not enough.
Even if a messianic impresario materializes and organizes L.A.’s physical, digital, broadcast, entertainment, and cultural assets into a memorable citywide performance, there remains a nagging sense that the no-build, privatized, bottom-line Olympics lacks spirit, invention, and daring.
It didn’t have to be this way. A dispersed Olympics doesn’t preclude iconic buildings and socially exemplary projects with a presence radiating within the sprawl. Barry A. Sanders, the former chairman of the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games, initially led the bids for the upcoming games in Los Angeles and points to the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, which brought together displays of Industrial Revolution technology in an international show at the Crystal Palace. But it was the architecture itself, the extraordinary cast-iron and glass structure, that captured the spirit of the event and to this day remains its enduring symbol and legacy.
The questions that Los Angeles should have asked itself and ambitiously pursued are, What can the Olympics give the city that it needs and wants? How can the city leverage the Olympics into a catalyst for urban improvement? How can L.A. really be smart about the games? The city is not finished or perfect, so there are opportunities—even now.
According to Sanders, the two most pressing problems facing the city are congestion and housing. L.A.’s long-range transportation plan, Measure M, is at least theoretically being tackled. But 3,000 or 5,000 or 7,000 housing units in one or two or three Olympic Villages strategically placed around the city could spur urban renewal in surrounding neighborhoods.
Under Sanders, when he was the head of L.A.’s Olympic committee, LA 2028 did in fact make an attempt at a transformative development, proposing a high-rise village ringing Piggyback Yard along the L.A. River, a vast working rail yard next to Boyle Heights, that, if built, would shift downtown’s center of gravity east. The project would open the city to the river and the river to the city. In a second, smaller but still ambitious project in the underutilized industrial flats along the east side of the river in Boyle Heights (between the 101 and East First Street), Los Angeles architects Hodgetts + Fung proposed another large village, though without the space for the restorative wetlands and habitat designed for Piggyback Yard.
Both projects would have brought housing, some of it affordable, to areas that need it. There are many mechanisms—public bonds to be paid back from profits, arrangements with developers—that could have yielded a financially sustainable result. The projects presented problems, as any undertaking of this scale would: The railroad that owns Piggyback Yard didn’t want to sell its still-working hub and move (though there are backup yards not far away). And the city would have had to exercise eminent domain in the area between the 101 and East First, a fraught issue in L.A. but not insuperable.
Yet these two brilliant proposals disappeared from the table, unchampioned, after Sanders left the committee. Why the group decided to drop them and embrace the much easier solution of migrating into the UCLA dorms remains a mystery. The Boyle Heights community has vociferously pressed for affordable housing, and Mayor Eric Garcetti has family roots there.
During nearly six weeks of on-and-off-again unreturned calls and emails to the communications department in the mayor’s office, I searched for someone, anyone, who could articulate a vision. I was not allowed to talk to the mayor. No one seemed to have any information or even know who was handling the Olympics. Hawthorne finally gave me 20 minutes, cutting off the interview to pick up his new puppy. Only after I finally reached Sanders and Hanway—and Erin Bromaghim, an Olympics coordinator in the mayor’s office—did I speak with well-informed people. Before that, left to my own devices, all I could find was LA 2028’s website, where the opening screen advertised a worn and sorry bromide detailing L.A.’s Olympics mission: “Host a new games for a new era that benefit our communities and connect the Olympic and Paralympic movements to the future.” The next screen outdid the first for vapidity: “LA 2028 is about what’s possible when you follow the sun.”
Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, designer of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, once said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Sadly, his words resonate today. The plans underway are little, a retreat from enduring structures onto the digital screen, from physicality into ephemera, from inspiration into function and expediency.
That’s at odds with what we will expect from our athletes. It’s not what draws us to the Olympic Games and the finish lines. The 2028 Olympics may be an entertaining moment and a fiscal success. But they do not promise to be Olympian.
Joseph Giovannini wrote about Frank Gehry’s restoration plan for the L.A. River for Alta, Fall 2019.