A Stadium With An Infinitely Customizable Roofscape

Built for a failed 2016 Olympic Bid, Dominique Perrault’s Olympic Tennis Center transforms the ubiquitous retractable stadium roof into an amazing spectacle.

As the world gears up for the London Olympics in July, media chatter about the unprecedented expense and trouble of hosting the Games—which are no longer a surefire investment for cities—is increasing.

Perhaps no city better illustrates the fraught host city selection process than Madrid. The city has made three unsuccessful bids to host the summer games, two within the last decade. They lost out just barely to London and Rio respectively, after a long bidding process that included the construction of several large-scale sporting venues; big, expensive "proofs of concept" for Madrid’s Olympic preparedness. In 2008, the 2016 Olympic Committee eliminated the city in the final round of bidding, citing "geographic issues."

Barring any discussion of the value of hosting the Olympics, Madrid did end up building a fairly remarkable building in the process: the "Magic Box," a beautiful, austere Olympic Tennis Center designed by French architect Dominique Perrault.

The Center sits on the site of a recently razed housing slum (an unfortunate hallmark of "Olympic urbanism"). It houses three tennis venues within its walls: a 12,500-seat main court and two smaller 3,500- and 2,500-seat courts. The three volumes rest on a steel frame podium, their edges cantilevering over flying buttresses of poured concrete. The frame is clad in a delicate metal mesh, custom-fabricated according to Perrault’s specifications. The one splash of color in the building’s otherwise muted palette of concrete and steel is from the translucent oxblood red seats, which finish the Center with a retro-nostalgic vibe that references the stadiums built by Pier Luigi Nervi in the '50s or the Italian futurists in the '20s.

But what’s really magical about the building is its roof: Each court has a separate ceiling of a different shape, attached to a hydraulic jack. When lowered, the three slabs form a single continuous covering. When raised, they can be adjusted to create an infinite number of unique topographies. Retractable roofs were invented by engineers decades ago, but turning the transformation into an elegant spectacle is a stroke of genius. The exaggerated depth of each slab—they look to be about 20 feet deep—is purely aesthetic: They’re made of lightweight plastic panels. Lit from within, the roofs radiate with an unearthly glow at night—hence the building’s nickname, Magic Box.

The Olympic Tennis Center is one of the few projects that slipped just under the wire of the 2008 economic crisis. Since then, Spain’s construction industry has suffered from a slow-motion economic tailspin and allegations of political corruption, especially surrounding "starchitect" buildings such as this one. Dozens of other big-name projects lay canceled or unfinished across the country—reminders of a time when building giant cultural complexes was considered an investment, rather than a risk.

[Images courtesy of Dominique Perrault Architects and George Fessy]

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