Cover Herzog & de Meuron's Beijing Stadium - Photo from iStock

Faster, Higher, Stronger—the Olympic motto could be applied to these stadiums which boast feats of architecture and engineering that are as inspiring as the sporting events they hosted

1. Olympiastadion, Munich, Germany

Constructed for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, the Olympiastadion was built to present a new face for post-war Germany. Stuttgart firm Behnisch and Partners won the contest to design the stadium with a strikingly modern look echoing the peaks and valleys of the nearby Alps. The concept for the stadium itself was derived from ‘earth stadiums’ commonly built in Eastern Europe so that space for the field and seating for 90,000 spectators would be carved out of the ground instead of built above it.

For the suspended roofs which tied the entire complex together, engineer Frei Otto was brought on the project. Working together with B+P, Otto helped to devise a scheme for tensile roofs of steel cable and acrylic panels, spanning the Olympic site like an enormous tent. Deliberately translucent, the canopy shelters the athletes and spectators without obscuring lines of sight or cast uneven shadows in televised footage.

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2. Olympic Athletic Center of Athens, Greece

Located in the birthplace of the Olympic Games, the Athens Olympic Stadium was originally built in 1982 and extensively refurbished for the 2004 games to include a majestic roof structure composed of two 45 m high arches. This distinctive addition was the work of Santiago Calatrava, the famous Spanish architect widely known for his sculptural bridges and buildings. The triumphant arcs symbolised the city’s entry into the 21st century and the desire to reimagine Athens by placing a new, modern landmark next to the long-established monument of the Acropolis.

Four entrance plazas provide ceremonial access to the complex. Each entrance is roofed with a vaulted steel canopy to provide a clear identifying element. At night, these illuminated canopies serve both as orientation devices and as attractions in themselves. Aside from designing the roof, Calatrava designed a host of other facilities on his own initiative which include the Agora complex, a central Plaza of the Nations and his own version of an Olympic cauldron.

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3. Beijing National Aquatics Center, China

The National Aquatics Center is located in the Olympic Green, the focal point of the 2008 Beijing Games and next door neighbours to the Bird's Nest (Beijing National Stadium). Known as the Watercube for its angular structure and blue bubble facade, the massive complex was designed by PTW Architects (Australia) and its concept combines the symbolism of the square in Chinese culture and the natural structure of soap bubbles translated into architectural form.

Using state-of-the-art technology and materials, the building is not just visually striking but also energy-efficient and ecologically friendly.The Watercube exterior is made up of a transparent dual-ETFE cushion envelope that gives it its bubble-like appearance while allowing in natural light and capturing solar energy to heat the interior spaces and pools. Water efficiency is achieved by rainwater harvesting, recycling, efficient filtration and backwash systems where the swimming pool water is captured and reused.

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4. Yoyogi National Gymnasium, Tokyo, Japan

Built for the 1964 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, the Yoyogi National Gymnasium was designed by one of Japan’s most famous modernist architects, Kenzo Tange. A hybrid of western modernist aesthetics and traditional Japanese architecture, the gymnasium's low profile and sweeping roof forms resemble an abstracted Japanese pagoda.

The now iconic roof profile features an innovative structural design that makes for dramatic sweeping curves that appear to effortlessly drape from two large, central supporting cables. This dynamically suspended roof was the largest suspended roof span in the world when it was built.

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5. Beijing National Stadium, China

Fondly known as the Bird's Nest for its complex interlocking metal structure, the Beijing Olympic Stadium was the centrepiece of the 2008 Olympic Games held in China. The massive stadium containing over 90,000 seats was built to symbolise China's economic power and designed by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron with the support of the Chinese Architecture Design and Research Group.

The concept was based on the shape that would result from wrapping a single thread around a ball. A true architectural challenge in metal construction, no expense was spared in bringing its intricate design to life and the stadium was built using 110,000 tons of steel—the largest structure ever built in this material. More than just aesthetics, the steel's flexibility also allows the structure to adapt to large fluctuations which results from changes of temperature, especially useful in the city's extreme weather.

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6. London Aquatics Centre, United Kingdom

The London Aquatics Centre was one of the main venues of the 2012 Summer Olympics for swimming, diving, and synchronised swimming events. Designed by the late Dame Zaha Hadid in 2004, the architectural concept was inspired by water in motion. Its undulating roof rises from the ground like a wave—enclosing the pools of the Centre with a unifying gesture of fluidity, while also referencing the volume of the swimming and diving pools.

Double-curvature geometry was used to generate a parabolic arch structure that creates the unique characteristics of the roof while generously proportioned openings (628 panes of glass and 8 external doors) allowing plenty of natural light into the pool. The building’s sustainability credentials are equally impressive with a BREEAM Innovation Credit for its unusual use of concrete mixes, the incorporation of highly efficient energy and water usage.

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7. Montreal Olympic Stadium, Canada

Built as the main venue for the 1976 Summer Olympics, the Montreal Olympic Stadium is popularly known as ‘The Big O’ for the doughnut-shape of its permanent roof. Often described as a masterpiece of Organic Modern architecture, its design was based on plant and animal forms while integrating modernism and organic vertebral structures.

French architect Roger Taillibert designed it and originally featured an elaborate retractable roof made of Kevlar which could be opened and closed by cables suspended from the 175m tower, the tallest inclined structure in the world, at the northern base of the stadium. Bad weather and workforce strikes meant that the retractable roof and tower were not finished in time for the Olympics. However, both were finally completed in 1987 although it was another year before the roof could retract in limited conditions. It was replaced with a fixed roof in 1991.

8. Tokyo Olympic Stadium, Japan

The centrepiece of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the path to completing the Tokyo Olympic Stadium was unfortunately mired with controversy. The late Dame Zaha Hadid initially won the commission in 2012 but the project was scrapped amid opposition from leading Japanese architects and concerns over costs. Celebrated Japanese architect Kengo Kuma took over and designed it around the concept of "a living tree."

Completed in 2019, ahead of the games' postponement, the stadium takes the form of a large oval. Laminated larch and cedar trusses were sourced from the 47 prefectures of Japan and clad the eaves of the 68,000-seat stadium which appear layered from the exterior. This wood lattice structure references traditional Japanese architecture and add to the building's structural integrity. Behind the seating are circulation areas, which wrap the edges of each level and contain 47,000 plants. This greenery was designed to help the stadium blend in with the surrounding green environment.

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