Architectural and Town Planning Olympians!

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In light of Tokyo’s successful bid for the 2020 Olympic Games, we came across a little known but interesting fact that we thought we might share.

Our industry is often heard gripping about the ‘hoops that we have to jump through to get anything built”. I’ve often thought that we deserve a medal for what can be achieved, considering the red and green tape that has to be waded through. Well guess what! Back in the early part of the 20th Century we could have been standing on a podium receiving a Olympic medal.

Between 1912 and 1948, architects and town planners were part of the modern Olympic Games. The founder of the Olympics, Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, had always intended for the event to showcase both the achievements of the body and the mind. Medals were awarded by juries for original, previously unpublished works of art inspired by sport.

There were five categories in the art competitions, which each had various subcategories in different years:

  • Architecture (later divided into Architecture and Town Planning categories)
  • Literature
  • Music
  • Painting
  • Sculpture

The quality of entries was hugely variable; not all medals were awarded for every category. Artists were allowed to sell their works at the end of the Olympics, which caused some controversy due to the amateur nature of the games. The artistic events were abandoned in 1954 because artists were considered to be professionals – the modern Olympics require competitors to be amateurs. Nowadays, arts form the basis of the non-competitive Cultural Olympiad – most recently this took the form of the London 2012 Festival – although to look at the official Olympics website, you’d never know that arts had a place in the event.

The town planning category wasn’t introduced until 1928. The architecture and town planning awards were predominantly awarded for sport stadiums and parks, and in 1928 Jan Wils won the gold medal for his Olympic stadium designed for the 1928 Amsterdam Games.

The oldest Olympic medallist in history is John Copley, who was 73 when he won a silver medal in the 1948 engravings and etchings category.

Two people have won Olympic medals for both art and sport: Walter Winans (United States) and Alfréd Hajós (Hungary). Winans won gold (1908) and silver (1912) shooting medals and a gold (1912) sculpture medal. Hajós won two gold medals for swimming in 1896 and a silver medal for architecture in 1924.

If the IOC ever brings back Olympic categories for us I guess we’ll have to watch the caffine intake. Wouldn’t do to get to the podium and then get busted for doping…..would it.

Kristy Ryan is the Managing Director and Urban Designer at The Design Partnership


Image credit: Bird Nest Beijing National Stadium © Peng Luo |