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Playing it Safe?
Chicago's pragmatic olympic bid gamble
Volleyball and biking events will be held on Meigs Field Island, a former airfield.
All images courtesy Chicago 2016

On February 13, the civic group Chicago 2016 submitted its Olympic Bid candidature file, or bid book, without a Bird’s Nest or Water Cube. There is no Calatrava stadium to scramble to finish before the opening ceremonies. The marquee names associated with the bid, Burnham and Olmsted, might seem a little dated, but Chicago’s boosters believe that classics endure.

“We’re focused on the games, the athletes, and the spectators, less on iconic architecture,” said Tom Kerwin, partner at SOM Chicago and coordinator of the firm’s Olympic 2016 master planning services. SOM has done most of the bid’s planning pro bono, though they are slated to design the Olympic Village should Chicago be named the host city.

The Stadium, designed by Ben Wood's Studio Shanghai, was designed to be disassembled after the games.
The BMX grandstrand, located in Douglas Park, is also intended as a temporary structure, though the track will stay.
In competition with finalist cities Madrid, Tokyo, and Rio de Janeiro, Chicago is emphasizing its existing facilities and its string of beautiful lakefront parks, first developed for the 1893 World’s Fair and codified in the Plan for Chicago (the city is celebrating the plan’s centennial this year). “Chicago is ideally suited to events like this,” Kerwin said. Soldier Field, the McCormick Place convention center, the United Center, and the University of Illinois Chicago Pavilion will all be pressed into service.
“Many of the recent Olympic venues, such as in Beijing, were located on the periphery,” he said. “Our program is woven throughout the city for a much more urban experience.”

Benjamin Wood, formerly of Wood + Zapata (the firm that modernized Soldier Field in 2006), now of Ben Wood Studio Shanghai, will design the 100,000-seat Olympic Stadium to be located in historic Washington Park. Following the games, most of the stadium seating will be disassembled, leaving behind a small bowl and the track.

The former Meigs Field, an island airfield controversially seized by the city in 2003 and shut down, will become a major venue, including facilities for beach volleyball, BMX biking, and track cycling.

The SOM-designed Olympic Village will be the most visible and lasting element of the Games. Sited on the grounds of a midcentury hospital, the Olympic Village will house 17,000 athletes and officials, and will later be converted into a mixed-use neighborhood. Planners claim more than 90 percent of the athletes will be within 15 minutes of their venues. After the games, the village will help to link the burgeoning South Loop, on the edge of downtown, with the sprawling Southside.

While the planners are taking a deliberately low-key approach to the bid, Kerwin emphasizes that the architecture will continue to evolve. “The designs are not very far along. It’s really more of a technically-based bid,” he said. The International Olympic Committee will make its decision on October 2.

Alan G. Brake