Architects caution about costs of temporary Boston Olympic stadium
At the most recent Swiss Wrestling and Alpine Games Festival, the main attraction wasn’t just the stone throwers, yodelers, and wrestlers competing in seven rings of sawdust.
It was also the venue where the games took place: Built in part by the Swiss army, the 52,000-seat Emmental Arena was hailed as the world’s largest temporary grandstand. Three weeks after the games ended, the spartan metal structure was taken down. All that was left was green grass.
Backers of the 2024 Boston Olympics now want to build something similar, only much grander and more complex: a temporary 60,000-seat Olympic stadium in South Boston. The vast arena — with all the hallmarks, safety systems, and design details of a permanent structure — would host the opening and closing ceremonies as well as the track and field events. And then it would be removed, down to the last bolt.
The plan — audacious in its scope and complexity — has no precedent, according to independent architects, and would pose a steep design, engineering, and financial challenge, all for a giant structure that would stand for about six to eight months.
While sporting venues that can be scaled down or have seats removed have become more common, the temporary Olympic stadium would need to meet intense security requirements and exacting track and field rules. It would also need space for locker rooms, drug testing, Olympic officials, and worldwide media.
Perhaps just as challenging, the stadium would need to be a showpiece, striking enough to be broadcast around the world as a symbol of Boston, said Mike Holleman of Heery International, the architectural firm that designed the stadium for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
“It can’t be a bunch of bleachers stuck up there,” Holleman said. “It needs to look like an iconic Olympic stadium, if you’re going to have any chance” of landing the 2024 Summer Games against a host of international competitors.
Benjamin Flowers, an associate professor of architecture at Georgia Tech, said a 60,000-seat stadium would be so large and complex that calling it a temporary structure would be inaccurate.
“What they are really saying is, build a full-on stadium and then demolish it,” said Flowers, who studies stadiums around the world. “It strikes me as a curious proposition to suggest investing the many hundreds of millions it would take to do that to then demolish it and take it down.”
David P. Manfredi, an architect working with Boston 2024, the private group pushing the city’s Olympic bid, said a first-rate temporary stadium can be built and would hold several advantages over a permanent arena.
Most importantly, because no sports team in Boston wants such a stadium after the Olympics, removing it will ensure the city is not saddled with a hulking eyesore. In Beijing, for example, the 91,000-seat Bird’s Nest stadium, built for the 2008 Olympics at a cost of $480 million, now sits mostly vacant.
“We don’t want to leave any white elephants,” Manfredi said.
Temporary stadiums made from aluminum and steel framing also “have much simpler foundations,” than traditional concrete stadiums, which means they are “significantly less expensive,” he said. Boston 2024 declined to release a cost estimate for the stadium, but said information about the entire Olympic budget would be released next week.
Manfredi said that after the Olympics, the stadium’s parts could be sold for use on other projects — 5,000 seats, for example, could be sent to a high school football field. The land near Interstate 93 where the stadium stood would be prime for development, with the environmental cleanup completed and utility lines built, he said.
“We think, in many cases, that’s the best legacy,” he said.
Some architects cast doubt on the claims of cost savings, however.
“No one should think it’s cheaper than building a stadium; the requirements are the same for life safety, fireproofing, egress — everything has to work and be to code, meaning the way you build it is not going to be that much different from a permanent stadium,” said Marc Schulitz, a German architect who helped design the 55,000-seat Arena Fonte Nova in Brazil, which was used for the 2014 World Cup.
Any cost savings, Schulitz said, would come from simply removing the stadium after the Olympics, eliminating maintenance and operating costs.
Temporary arenas have grown in popularity in recent years, particularly in Europe.
Emmental Arena, built in 2013, consisted of six metal grandstands arranged in a hexagon. More sophisticated but smaller was the 12,000-seat temporary basketball arena built for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. After the Olympics, it was sold for parts, clearing the way for a 650-unit housing development.
For last year’s Davis Cup tennis tournament in California, Petco Park, home to the San Diego Padres, was outfitted with 6,000 temporary seats, turning the outfield into a clay-court pavilion.
Although not a temporary structure, London’s 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium was designed with removable tiers so it could be scaled down to 25,000 seats after the Games.
It is now being converted into a 54,000-seat stadium for the West Ham soccer club, a shift that has brought soaring costs.
In addition to planning the temporary Olympic stadium in South Boston, backers of the city’s bid also want to build a partially removable 16,000-person Olympic Village in Dorchester, an aquatics center with 15,000 removable seats in Allston, and a temporary 5,000-seat velodrome in Somerville.
Schulitz, the German architect, said temporary structures make sense, particularly when there is no long-term use for them.
“A removable stadium is a good idea,” he said. “It’s just that it’s really hard to do, and I think there’s this misconception where people think temporary means cheap.”