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In February, the race began at the London Olympics. It wasn’t a race with torches, sweat, and medals, but one to open the Velodrome on time and on budget. Designed by London-based Hopkins Architects, the track, which will host the Olympic and Paralympic cycling tournaments in 2012, was the last venue to start construction at the East London Park and the first to be completed. It has already been warmly received by the British media and even earned a nickname, the “Pringle,” after the potato chip’s familiar wave-like shape.
Clad in Siberian pine, the building’s double-curved steel-frame structure is an exercise in efficiency, with the splayed banks of 6,000 seats tightly wrapped around the 250-meter track. To meet sustainability requirements the design team focused on two principle aspects: insulation—including daylight and ventilation—and scale. “We shrunk the envelope as small as possible to cut down on carbon, time, and money,” said Mike Taylor, a senior partner at Hopkins. The efficient, lightweight design celebrates the 42-degree inclined track and the sport’s dynamism. One of the most elegant articulations of its design concept is the 360-degree glazing wrapping the building. “We wanted to develop a strong visual connectivity to the Park,” said Taylor. With half the seats in the roof above the glazed ribbon and the rest below, the Velodrome makes a conscious link to the surrounding one-mile road circuit and four miles of mountain biking and BMX tracks.
“The less tangible, intellectual ambition was to emulate a bicycle’s engineering and make it beautiful through its function,” said Taylor, of the buildings design. The venue’s graceful concave lid illustrates this pursuit of beauty, directly informed by the internal track. Cited by Taylor as a primary reason for completing on time, the cable-net roof was erected in one morning and formed and tensioned over six weeks. Though cable-net is not a new technology, it’s usually covered with a lightweight skin. At the 1972 Munich Olympics, for example, Günter Behnisch’s cable-net roof supported acrylic panels, while Hopkins’ innovative design has been applied to its cladding: the cable-net supports a rigid structure of nine-inch deep panels, followed by a foot of insulation, and a conventional standing-seam metal roof.
The collaborative design team included track designer Ron Webb, who previously worked on the Olympics in Sydney in 2000 and Beijing in 2008, and British champion cyclist Chris Hoy. Unlike events, where official track dimensions are identical, cycling tracks have a degree of individuality in terms of their length, steepness of the curves, and start and finish points. Most significant, perhaps, was the level of input from Hoy, who also helped to judge the design competition in 2007. His involvement from the outset meant that critical issues weren’t merely tacked-on, such as door curtains and extra insulation. “Temperature was very important—cyclists like to be hot,” said Taylor, and the proximity of the restrooms to the track itself. “It has to be a quick dash before a race.”
The punctual completion also signifies an important marker for the progress of the Olympics, which is due to start in eighteen months. The Velodrome’s completion has also set the tone for the Park’s other buildings and is a far cry from the tumult at Hadid’s Aquatics Centre for the Olympics Development Authority. It is a ray of light in a turbulent history of false starts and ongoing budgetary constraints.
Though the 2012 venue is Hopkins’ first velodrome, it won’t be his last: his firm just won the job of revitalizing the 1948 London Olympics’ velodrome in Herne Hill, South London.