Town Planning an Olympic sport?

Posted on September 20, 2012

Like nearly everybody else I know, I have watched more of the Olympics on TV than I expected to. I found it gripping, moving, inspiring, uplifting and a little bit escapist. A couple of times I heard reference to events of Olympics in the past now dropped, including chess, poetry, art, architecture and town planning. An Olympic medal for town planning? Could this be true?

A little research shows that the short answer is, yes. Modern Olympics founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin had always intended that there would be an arts dimension to the modern games. Practicalities and the need to focus on sports, meant that this didn’t actually happen until the 1912 Games. But from 1912 until 1952 medals were awarded for works of art inspired by sport and divided into five categories, literature, music, painting, sculpture and architecture. Several of these categories were subdivided – at least in part to encourage more entries and from 1928 at the Amsterdam Games, the architecture strand included a town planning competition.

Entries were allowed to be ‘published’ before Olympics and indeed in 1928 the Gold Medal for architecture was awarded to Jan Wils a Dutchman, for his design of the Olympic Stadium that was used in those same Games. However medals for town planning were only awarded at four games, Amsterdam in 1928, Los Angeles in 1932, Berlin in 1936 and London in 1948. During this period, Germany was runaway winner in the ‘town planning medals table’ with four – perhaps unsurprisingly taking both Gold and Bronze at the Berlin Games in 1936. Finland got two medals and France, the USA, Switzerland, Denmark, Belgium and the UK got one each.

The only British winner was in Los Angeles in 1932. It was awarded to John Hughes (1903-1977) who was awarded Gold for the design of a sports and recreation centre with stadium for the City of Liverpool. It was never built. Indeed almost nothing is known about him, although it is thought that he worked as a Fellow at Liverpool’s School of Architecture.

The ‘arts’ section of the Olympics was officially abandoned in 1954 on that grounds that artists were considered to be professionals while Olympic athletes were required to be amateurs. Formally it has been replaced by the ‘Cultural Olympiad’. Of course in the meantime, the requirement to be an ‘amateur’ in order to compete, was dropped decades ago.

Much has been said and written about the quality of the regeneration of the Stratford area of east London in general and of the Olympic Park in particular. But I haven’t noticed anything relating to town planning in the Cultural Olympiad this year. Perhaps it is not too late to nominate the Olympic Park for a late and appropriately thirtieth, Gold Medal for Team GB at this the Thirtieth Olympiad of the Modern Era for town planning? After all if Jan Wils could get one for the Olympic Stadium back in 1928 why can’t the Olympic Deliver Authority get one for such an outstanding achievement in town planning and urban regeneration this year?