London Olympic Stadium 1908

Architect

Type

Stadium or sporting arena

Built

1908

Location

London

View of stadium from the 'flip-flap', Franco-British Exhibition, 1908. Source: Architectural Review, July 1908, p.37. © RIBA Library Books and Periodicals Collection

 

London hosted the Olympics for the first time in 1908. A new stadium was built in west London at Shepherd’s Bush specifically for the occasion, but that year it was another international event, the Franco-British Exhibition, that was to attract more attention. In the RIBA’s collections, there are only a few references to the Olympics in the journals published in 1908. The title of an article in the Builders’ Journal and Architectural Engineer , “ The stadium at the Franco-British Exhibition ” ( ), is a clue as to why, and in the Building News  the word ‘Olympics’ wasn’t used once in one article that described the details of the stadium ( 2 ). The stadium was in fact a part of the Franco-British Exhibition which celebrated the then recent Entente Cordiale between Britain and France. The  Architectural Review’s critique of the opened exhibition showed a photograph of the stadium, but didn't mentioned the building or the Olympics in the text ( 3 ).

...providing seating for no less than 88,000 people. 

Just like Stratford in 2012, excellent transport links made Shepherd’s Bush an attractive location. It was already served by the Metropolitan Railway (now the Hammersmith and City line) and Central London Railway (today's Central line) when the idea for the exhibition was put forward. The Central line was eventually extended to serve the exhibition. The exhibition’s 140 acre site was large enough for its entertainments, gardens and buildings, but there was space for more:

“One idea is to hold the Olympic games here, and for this purpose an open piece of grass has been laid down sufficiently large to accommodate a Lacrosse match, with running and cycle tracks around it, and raised seats again round these, providing seating for no less than 88,000 people.”

Building News, 9 August 1907 vol.93, p.170

The building sat in a part of Shepherd’s Bush now called White City, a name that was gained from the exhibition’s 50-odd temporary buildings which were all plastered and painted white. Liberated from practical or long-term constraints the architects, including James Black Fulton who also designed the stadium, were free to create ornate structures amongst landscaped gardens and lakes. The plainer and more utilitarian-looking stadium, sat at the northern end of this gleaming architectural concoction.

Many events, one stadium

Incredibly, considering that in 2012 athletes and spectators are enjoying the use of a number of major new venues in the Olympic Park and many other facilities across Great Britain, the majority of sporting events in 1908 took place in the White City stadium. Even swimming contests were held there, in a sunken tank 330 ft long by 50 ft wide, and at 14 ft deep it was able to accommodate diving events ( 4 ).

In the run up to the exhibition and games, articles with drawings of the proposed structures (such as the Palace of Applied Arts) and photographs of their construction appeared in the architectural press throughout 1907 and early 1908.

By the beginning of 1908, even before opening, the stadium was expected “ to be one of the principal features of the Franco-British Exhibition ”, and at 1,000 ft long and 594 ft wide, the building was going to be difficult to avoid (5).

...an engineering work of considerable magnitude...

The completed stadium was described as “ an engineering work of considerable magnitude ” by the  Builder  ( 6 ) and “ a truly great work in steel and concrete ” by  the Builders’ Journal and Architectural Engineer (7)  despite it being the result of just two years of planning and work after Rome was unable to host the Olympics as planned due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1906.

After 1908

The Builder  praised the stadium’s “ majestic sweep of the seats ” and predicted that this attraction would “ possibly be the chief centre of interest to the majority of future visitors ” ( 8 ). Although it was referring to the lifetime of the exhibition in 1908, the stadium was subsequently used for other large events (not all sports related) up until its demolition in 1985.

The differences between the London Olympic stadia of 1908 and 2012 go beyond the technological; the outlook of the society that created them has also changed. Reflecting Britain’s role as the centre of an empire, one of the main roads around the stadium of 1908 was called the 'Grand Avenue of the Colonies' and nearby were the 'Imperial Pavilion' and the 'Palace of Women’s Work'. For over a century, with or without an empire, all three London Olympic games have aimed to bring countries together.

 

Plan of the stadium, Franco-British Exhibition. (Source: The Builders’ Journal and Architectural Engineer, 29 January 1908, p.102) © RIBA Library Books and Periodicals Collection Franco-British Exhibition: Palace of the Applied Arts, designed by James B. Fulton, from the Building News of 10 July 1908 (left) and a postcard image of the Court of Honour, 1908 (right). © RIBA, British Architectural Library Plan of the Franco-British Exhibition. Source: The Building News, 23 August 1907, vol.93, p.239 View of stadium from the 'flip-flap', Franco-British Exhibition, 1908. Source: Architectural Review, July 1908, p.37. © RIBA Library Books and Periodicals Collection

 

 

References   (available from the  British Architectural Library , RIBA)

  1. Builders’ Journal and Architectural Engineer,  29 January 1908, vol.27, p.102
  2. Building News,  23 August 1907, vol.93, p.238
  3. Architectural Review,  July-December 1908, vol.24, p.32-37
  4. Builders’ Journal and Architectural Engineer,  29 January 1908, vol.27, p.102
  5. Ibid
  6. Builder,  18 July 1908, vol.95, p.62
  7. Builders’ Journal and Architectural Engineer,  22 July 1908, vol.28, p.57
  8. Builder,  9 May 1908, vol.94, p.533

Article by Wilson Yau, British Architectural Library, RIBA

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