June 20, 2019
A New Headquarters Revitalizes the International Olympic Committee
The $144 million, 237,000-square-foot Olympic House, designed by the Danish firm 3XN with local architects Itten+Brechbühl, is located on the shores of Lake Geneva.
Not only do the Olympic Games galvanize audiences the world over, they also mobilize whole teams of people behind the scenes. Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, the mother organization, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), was until recently dispersed among a handful of buildings. “In the past, on returning to Lausanne after the Games, I’ve felt that we were each going back to our little silos,” explains Emmanuelle Moreau, head of media relations at the IOC. “This building will change all that.”
The edifice in question is the $144 million, 237,000-square-foot Olympic House, designed by the Danish firm 3XN with local architects Itten+Brechbühl and located on the shores of Lake Geneva in Lausanne’s Parc Louis Bourget, next to the historic Château de Vidy, which has served as the IOC’s headquarters since 1968. Replacing an extension built at that time, Olympic House allows the entire IOC staff—today numbering 500, up from just 200 a few years back—to unite under one roof.
To find a design for its new home, the IOC launched an international competition in 2013, attracting over 100 entrants. 3XN won the three-round contest, Moreau says, because it was “always very flexible in understanding our needs and in designing a building with a certain agility, capable of constantly evolving.” A key consideration in the Danes’ design was natural light, which led them to look for ways to maximize facade length in relation to floor area. An obvious solution would be circular plans—one can easily imagine five interlocking disks, symbolizing the Olympic rings—but 3XN felt that convex building envelopes are inherently unwelcoming, “turning their backs on people,” as senior partner and head of design Jan Ammundsen puts it. Instead the architects adopted an essentially rectangular plan, but deformed it by pushing the facades inward, creating concave elevations they believe are softer and more embracing. This had the further advantage of creating bubblelike corners in the layout, which provide naturally autonomous zones in what, for maximum flexibility, is an almost entirely open-plan building.
Olympic House comprises five stories: a basement containing TV studios and archives; a ground floor given over to official reception areas, large-scale conference rooms, and the staff restaurant and gym; and above that three standard floors of office space. Larger than the office stories, the ground level is treated like a podium, thereby distancing most of the building from its surroundings and helping smooth the transition toward the much smaller scale of the Château de Vidy. The planted podium roof also slopes down to grade at the corners in a not entirely successful bid to “integrate” the massive bulk of Olympic House into its park setting. Featuring floor-to-ceiling glazing that offers splendid views of the natural surroundings, the facades play with repetition and incremental change to create a sense of movement that the architects liken to athletic dynamism. A similarly facile analogy appears on the roof, where solar panels—sustainability was a watchword in the brief—are arranged in the shape of a dove, a symbol of peace that will come into its own in the inevitable aerial publicity shots.
The principal public entrance is at the rear of the site on a roadway, where the Olympic rings greet visitors in freestanding sculptural form. On crossing the building’s threshold, you can see straight across to the lake beyond through the other big symbolic gesture, the “Unity Staircase,” a bravura installation occupying the building’s center. Roofed in glass so that daylight is brought into the heart of the plan, it consists of a superimposition of five offset steel stair rings that, thanks to their oak cladding, appear more like ramps than stairs, linking rather than dividing floors and “forcing people’s paths to cross,” as Ammundsen describes it. Since the bright Olympic colors didn’t really match the imported Scandinavian ambience, oak was chosen to warm up the otherwise white-and-gray palette that predominates on each story—gray for the flooring (concrete tiles at ground level, carpet above) and pristine white-steel false ceilings, which hide the heating, cooling, sprinkler, and lighting systems (power and IT cabling being run through the floor).
The main structure is in concrete, held up by four sanitary/elevator cores and a smattering of columns; the facade, meanwhile, is a self-supporting structure in steel, allowing for a 26-foot-wide column-free zone all around the building’s perimeter. It is here that desks (white-topped, as specified by 3XN, for maximum light reflection) are placed on the office floors, nearest the windows, while glass-walled meeting rooms are located farther in. Lounge areas, grouped around the stairwell, presented the opportunity to introduce the Olympic colors through their upholstery. Apart from the president’s suite, which is both physically and visually separated from the rest, this is an entirely fluid and transparent environment, not only within each office story but also across floors, as all are completely open onto the wide central stairwell.
Building on its radical experiment at the Ørestad High School in Copenhagen (2007), which features an entirely open interior with no separate classrooms, 3XN is confident that Olympic House will perform well acoustically, with surface treatments—microperforated steel, carpet—helping to contain noise. There is also a battery of movable glass-walled phone booths to provide privacy when needed. But one does wonder how staff used to individual closed offices will adapt to the openness and exposure here, which, moreover, come with an end-of-the-day clean-desk policy (there are lockers for stowing your things). For Moreau, the move to Olympic House will certainly require a period of adjustment, but she feels the opportunities will far outweigh any disadvantages—easy access to other departments, working in different areas, depending on whom you’re teaming up with, the opportunity to isolate yourself in a closed pod to concentrate (something her current work environment does not provide), not to mention the team building and sense of shared mission the new headquarters will presumably foster. For Ammundsen, Olympic House is agnostic on the question of layout, neither dictating extreme openness nor militating against cubicle creep. “The building’s capacity and flexibility can accommodate a lot of different solutions,” he says. “It’s just a question of finding the right one.”
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