Olympic Mettle: Designing the 1984 Los Angeles Games

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architecture, landscape, festival architecture
It is telling that on the CCA website David Meckel, FAIA, is one of the only employees at California College of the Arts without a title. He could be called Ambassador, Dean of all Good Things, Design Guru, or any number of titles. At this year’s AIASF Design Awards event, Snohetta’s Craig Dykers referred to him as a sort of Buddhist baseball coach. He tells me that his official title is currently Director of Campus Planning. But in fact he is the force behind the School of Architecture, a program he started in 1985 after he finished being the force behind the design of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. With the Olympics under way in London we thought it would be interesting to check in with Meckel, as everybody calls him, and revisit the mark he made over a quarter century ago. — Kenneth Caldwell

What was your role in the Olympics that took place in Los Angeles?
I was a young designer with the Jerde Partnership in Los Angeles. The firm was brought in to be the coordinating architect for the whole shebang. I ended up being the Project Manager. We set up shop in a warehouse near downtown LA. There were some Jerde folks, but there were sixty design offices represented. In fact, two folks from the CCA community, Lisa Findley and Katherine Rinne, worked with me. We lived and breathed the thing for three years. At the peak, there were six hundred designers there.

The Los Angeles Olympics weren’t as lavish as the London Olympics or the Shanghai Olympics?
Not at all. Quite the opposite. In 1976, Montreal tried to do a very aggressive event, and the stadium wasn’t finished on time. They still owe money from that event. After that debacle, the Olympic Committee wasn’t sure anybody would bid on it, because it might bankrupt a city. I think the Los Angels bid is still the only one where the original estimate came in under budget. They had to figure out a way to use existing facilities in a cost effective manner.

Can you define how the challenge was different and how you responded?
It was much more visual than architectural. We were designing a two-week experience, not an institution. We were not pouring a lot of concrete. It was a celebration, not a building. That spirit of celebration permeated the way we set the studio up. We focused on materials and colors. We wanted to recycle most of what we used and be sure it was low cost. Frankly, the whole thing would never have survived one rainy season. But that was OK, because we were after a festival atmosphere, not something permanent like the stadium that Herzog and de Meuron designed.

What questions did you ask yourselves as the coordinating designers?
How do you leverage the city’s existing assets?
How do you project LA’s vibrancy and cultural mix?
How will it look on television?

Television was a leading design driver?
Absolutely. At the time, we knew the LA Olympics was going to draw the biggest TV audience in history. So the visitor experience was only one part of the equation. We were always asking, “How will this look through the eye of TV?” As a result, we powered up every set shop in LA. We didn’t even need to have this stuff be waterproof, just exciting. The architecture was spartan and lightweight. The look was carried by form and color and being photogenic. Deborah Sussman, who was central to the look of the event, developed the color palette, and it sung on camera. LA was the perfect place for that kind of Olympic event.

architecture, landscape, festival architecture
Tell us more about the design management process.
As with any big project, you have a couple of days where you sketch out the big idea, and you spend the next three years implementing it. At the beginning, working with two of my Jerde Partnership colleagues, Glenn Nordlow and Charles Pigg, we went to the stationery store and bought index cards and spent a weekend in the office drawing every possible temporary strategy for a festival that we could think of. This included landscape, graphics, and pavilions. Those cards were the table of contents of the kit of parts that would follow.

Give me an example.
Landscape design. We sketched where the color might paint the ground plane in a unique way. That meant we had to find landscape architects and contract nurseries who could find the perennials that would work and grow them in enormous quantities ready to look great at the right moment. There is an index card for just that strategy.

And you did this in a weekend?

Yes. And then spent the next three years seeing it through. That was the foundation for organizing ourselves. Of course, we expanded on those core ideas. So Deborah Sussman’s firm developed a color palette. Debra Valencia of her office holed up and produced a poster that showed how to use the colors and not use the colors. It was a conceptual kit of parts. The poster was like a notebook of design guidelines. We didn’t have time to create proper design guidelines, so we created a poster.

What prepared you for this kind of undertaking?
I had worked in the Eames office. While there, I worked on an exhibit about the history of the office, so I had a pretty good Rolodex of Eames alumni. When it came time to do this thing, we tapped into that. A lot of people who worked in that warehouse were tied in some way to the Eames office. For example, I had Deborah Sussman for my color class at USC and knew her through the Eames office, as well. You called people you trusted who would understand the nature of the endeavor.

What was the studio like?
The warehouse was like a cleaner and larger version of the Eames office. There were even the great bowstring trusses. We used the walls and overhead volume to mock things up. Visual ideas were being tested all the time—it was a genuinely iterative design process. We put a shop in, and I hired a former Eames colleague and friend, Randy Walker, who had run the prototyping shop there. We could always take things full scale. We had fifty-five sites for the kit of parts. We wanted to be sure you could make a number of things multiple times. We made a lot of full-scale mock-ups. Ray came down and visited us all a few times. She loved it.

architecture, landscape, festival architecture

Tell me a little more about the kit of parts.
Almost every thing could be replicated on any of the sites—columns, trusses, tents, trashcans, or banners. Everybody knows your deadline. Part of the design challenge was to avoid labor disturbances, which can happen when you have these massive deadlines. We had to develop our own operations to deploy all the stuff to the field.

Just the fence fabric was manufactured in miles. At the end, we had depleted all of the available plywood and selected paint colors in the western US. We rented every piece of scaffolding in the country that was not in use. It was like going to war.

Was there a logistical consultant in addition to the design team?
Yes. Once we had our design direction set, Peter Ueberroth hired a super senior guy named Ed Keen from Bechtel to make everything happen. He was one of these guys who could build a bridge in the Middle East during a war. We had a studio full of dreamy LA designers, and he assigned an amazing Bechtel project manager to move on site with us. That PM, Larry Lotspeich, looked at what we were doing and said, “You have so many days left, and this your budget. So you have to spend this many hundreds of thousands of dollars per day for the next several months.” The process was called Supplier Quality Expediting Network or SQEN. We had a SQEN meeting every day at five. He wanted the evidence that we had executed purchase orders in hand each day and that the item in question was in production. It was very Bechtel, and it worked.

Looking back, what were you most pleased with in terms of the project?
The spirit. It was a uniquely LA event. It was not a stuffy or tight. It was full of innovation and joy. The Olympic Arts Festival organized by Robert Fitzpatrick brought in international artists and performers and really helped put the city on the world culture map. After the Olympics, people really saw that new ideas come from LA.

What did you learn personally from the experience?
I was barely thirty. I was a good designer and model builder, but I was a total control freak. I didn’t trust other people to do their job. The scale of the endeavor meant that I had to let go. I shifted from trying to control design to trying to create chemistry with a group of people. That was liberating. I found that I could help harness creative energy towards a common goal. That changed the course of my life.

architecture, landscape, festival architecture


Kenneth Caldwell

Kenneth Caldwell is a Bay Area writer and communications consultant and a frequent contributor to arcCA. On his blog, designfaith.blogspot.com, he explores the modernist faith that architecture can be of service and improve human lives.

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    John F. Worthy, AIA, LEED Green Assoc.

    Great article and great memories. I was a 13 year old from L.A. at the time and attended the opening games and several events with my family. The experience was a festival of joy! Now from the eyes of an architect, I can truly appreciate the ‘behind the scenes’ designers and their terrific ideas. Well done!

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