Delivering the Rio Games – lessons from London

Tuesday 13 August 2013

The mayor of Rio de Janeiro is planning to use the 2016 Olympics, 2014 World Cup and February’s discovery of oil off Rio’s coast to catapult the city back onto the world stage.

So said AECOM chief executive Jason Prior – the man who masterminded the London Olympics masterplan and has the task of repeating the success for the 2016 Games – at a breakfast briefing on Olympic lessons learned at the NLA last week.

Prior said that one of the key things to take from his experience in the planning of last year’s London Olympics was to be ‘paranoid about what happens if things go wrong, and what happens afterward’, referring to the legacy issues that provided a foundation for the Games bid. Prior said part of London’s success was looking to previous Games cities and the way they had prepared, with Barcelona being the ‘poster-child’ of outcomes. But the ‘haunting images’ of what happened at Athens or Beijing Park ‘have to be avoided at all costs’. And the determination of the mayor, Eduardo da Costa Paes, to capitalise on the ‘turnkey event’ will be a significant driving force for the Games and the city’s long-term regeneration.

The Olympic site comprises some 120 hectares of land in the district of Barra de Tijuca, southwest of Rio. Roughly triangular in shape, the site is set against a backdrop of mountains and overlooks the lagoon of Jacarepagua. The design of the site is being created in a team effort with Rio-based DG Architecture, as well as Wilkinson Eyre Architects, Pujol Barcelona Architects, Expedition, and IMG Sports and Entertainment. Rio’s development is less advanced than London’s was at the same stage, but the site is not subject to the same kinds of contamination or level changes. It will take design lessons from the London experience insofar as it will have larger outdoor gathering areas, in the full expectation that people will linger longer, with – unlike London – entry to some of the venues at upper levels. Despite the Rio Games organisers’ early protestations that Brazil does not have security issues, Prior said they are learning that any Olympics site needs key security plans in place – a fact heightened for Prior with London when the London bombings took place a day after the English capital learned it had won the 2012 Games. One issue yet to be conquered, however, is how the funding of Rio 2016 might affect the site in future years. With London, the Olympic site passes into becoming a public asset; in Rio it has been a ‘huge commercial deal’ with a ‘couple of billion’ having been paid and the pay-off being the land. ‘So in effect the government is using their borrowing capacity to pay for a lot of this thing and they will call the shots’, said Prior. Aecom is working in Brazil on a number of other projects and is ‘certainly moving them towards other models of development’, said Prior. ‘I’m optimistic, but it leaves our resolution of this piece slightly at odds.’ The tight programme, moreover, has led to AECOM preparing full design development packages for nine buildings in six months, in effect a super brief before handing them back for design competitions.

Another issue is accessibility – with only one entrance to the site and a major need for infrastructure improvements. One journey Prior himself made ordinarily takes 45 minutes but once took six hours. The designs will make the most of the area’s extraordinary natural assets, with its mountains, forest, beach and national parks, although another challenge will be that of long-term placemaking, and concerning the favelas being pushed to the edge of the economic zone.

‘The World Cup and Olympics are the coming out parties for Rio, back on the world stage’, said Prior. ‘The mayor is a principled man with big, strong ambitions. He’ll make certain he gets his city as close to what he wants as possible.’

David Taylor, New London Quarterly

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