Gary Hustwit On The Fate Of The Olympic City, After The Games End

Are the Olympics truly good for the health of a city? A new project from documentary filmmaker Gary Hustwit and photographer Jon Pack examines the impact of the Olympics, long after the last TV camera is packed away.

We tend to think of the Games as a wholly positive force for host cities: tons of publicity, millions in tourist dollars, and new buildings (and even neighborhoods) galore.

In reality, host cities grapple with huge urban dilemmas in the decades after the last medal is awarded. Massive debt and dozens of unused venues can cripple a city’s development in the long term. Frequently, cities raze entire neighborhoods to make way for the events. Only a fraction of sports fans watch the Olympics in person, making it easy for spectators to "tune out" once the Games end. But the citizens of these cities live with the rapidly planned and executed urban schemes for centuries.

With the London Games only two months away, a new project by Brooklyn photographer Jon Pack and documentary filmmaker Gary Hustwit (Urbanized, Objectified, Helvetica) takes on renewed urgency. The Olympic City is a book of photography that documents the lingering urban effects of the events in dozens of host cities around the world.

This week, Pack and Hustwit launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the second half of the project. Below, Hustwit talks with Co.Design about their goals, the cities they’ll visit, and—among other things—Lucha Libre’s post-Olympic digs.

How did The Olympic City take shape? Was it all inspired by your last film, 2011's Urbanized?

The project was something Jon had started back in 2008. I’ve known him for a long time, and he began visiting cities and photographing these sites as a personal project. When I saw the images, I just thought they were fantastic. And as I was making Urbanized, I was thinking about the same things—these large sporting events and spectacles are a major part of how cities are designed. So last year, I proposed to Jon that we collaborate, and scale the project up and visit more cities.

Jon is a photographer by trade, but you typically work in video. How’s the transition been?

I like that this project is still photography. Still images let us be impressionistic, rather than a fact- and interview-driven documentary. You judge the images for yourself. Also, for me, still photography is much harder to work with than video. The challenge of working with a single frame drew me to the project.

How do you and Jon work? Do you show up in a city and wander?

So far we’ve just done solo trips. It works almost as a dialogue between us. We send each other images from whichever city we’re in, and we riff off each other. Eventually we’ll visit one city together. [Ed: The duo will let the public choose the final post-Olympic city they visit.]

The economic and social impact of these events is being increasingly criticized. I’m thinking of the 2010 World Cup, or even Rio in 2016—cities where huge gaps between rich and poor have already created unusual and unplanned urban conditions.

What’s really interesting is that most people watching these events on television don’t really think about the impact on the city. You only really experience it if you live in the host city.

The intense competition between host cities is a recent phenomenon, actually. It wasn’t until the Los Angeles Games in 1984 that this whole philosophy really began. L.A. was the first city to make a huge profit on the Games. They did it by not building a ton of new venues, they used existing buildings, they housed the athletes in hotels. And the city ended up making almost $300 million. After that, the Olympics became this big money-making competition where cities are bidding millions of dollars to host the Games. But Los Angeles did it in a way that made sense—and what we’ve seen from a lot of cities, like Athens, is really a flawed strategy.

So the Games aren’t always the immensely positive force city governments hope them to be.

Totally. But there are other cities—like Barcelona—that have successfully integrated the development into the natural growth of the city. Versus most of the recent host cities, who’ve built these massive facilities from scratch on the outskirts of the city.

Cities vying to host the Games have to build huge venues before they’re even officially considered by the selection committee. It’s a remarkable financial commitment just to throw your hat in the ring.

That’s one of the things we’re really fascinated by. I think in many cases, cities are trying to prove that they’re global. They’re trying to show off to the rest of the world as a cultural and economic force. But is it worth it? Is this really changing the lives of the people who live in the host city after the Games are over?

I think more cities have done it poorly than have done it well, in terms of planning and development. But we didn’t want it to be just Olympic ruin porn. So we’re trying to look at retrofits and ideas that are done well, as well as the ones that aren’t.

You and Jon launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the book on Wednesday.

We did a Kickstarter for part of the Urbanized budget, too, so this was a natural progression. The idea of getting people involved midway through the project and letting them follow along as we finish was important to us. People are giving us tips and ideas, helping us pay for the travel and produce the book.

Is there one post-Olympic building that stands out in your memory?

In L.A. for the ‘32 Games they built the Grand Olympic Auditorium, which at the time was the largest enclosed venue in the United States. And now, 80 years later, it’s a Korean mega-church. It can hold something like 12,000 people for mass.

In Mexico City, Arena Mexico (built for ‘68 Games) is now the home of Lucha Libre, the masked wrestling organization. One of the facilities at Lake Placid was turned into a prison. There’s a range of ways that they end up working these buildings into the fabric of the cities—or not. That’s what we’re interested in looking at.

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1 Comments

  • Mallory Szabo

    Great interview here. I am personally very excited to see the findings from this project. Being an event planner in Chicago, I was very excited at the opportunity to win the 2016 bid, but there was a lot of skepticism once the final plans were released. While Chicago is an existing convention city, the bid itself required a lot of restructuring without a guaranteed return to the convention and tourism business for the city. 

    I was also in Athens right before the games were held in 2004. I can tell you from personal experience, it was an unfortunate mess. 

    Looking forward to the final product! Good luck.