Glasgow’s 2014 Commonwealth Games is being hosted at a fraction of the cost of the London Olympics, but it still has ambitions to leave a legacy for the public. Building assesses the success of the new sporting venues. Photos by Alan McAteer

Commonwealth Arena

Source: Alan McAteer

London 2012 may well be over but another part of the UK is busy gearing up for the next big sporting event to be held on our shores. The 2014 Commonwealth Games will take place in Glasgow and while their £526m budget is only about 6% of the cost of the Olympics, a significant amount of construction is or has already taken place and the games will leave a lasting permanent legacy on the city.

The largest of the games’ three clusters will be located in Glasgow’s East End. As in London this is also a key regeneration zone and Commonwealth-related construction will act as both a catalyst and indicator of the ongoing tide of regeneration sweeping through area. A new road link connecting the neighbourhood to the rest of the city for both athletes and business people already opened in April. Work is also under way on the £229m Athletes’ Village which will eventually provide 1,400 new homes on a 35ha site.

But the most significant piece of architecture built for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games is on a 10.3ha site adjacent to the Athletes’ Village. The £116m Emirates Arena and The Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome was designed by 3DReid Architects and is the only major sporting facility that has been constructed for the games. Officially opened to the public late last month, it is only the third major velodrome in the country after the National Cycling Centre in Manchester and the Olympic velodrome in London.

A unifying force

Unlike either building however, Glasgow’s velodrome has been incorporated into a much larger multi-purpose building. This contains a 38,000m2, 7,000 capacity arena which will host badminton events during the games, a multi-purpose 2,500m2 sports hall designed to host 1,000 spectators and the 2,500 capacity velodrome occupying an area of 8,500m2.

As well as these showpiece arenas, the building also contains a prodigious array of community leisure amenities which include gym, dance studios, fitness suites, treatment rooms, spa and even cycle hire facilities for use in the velodrome, all of which is open to the public. Additionally, the building provides centralised office space for various Scottish governing sporting bodies such as Scottish Athletics and Netball Scotland. Finally a 150-capacity suite has also been built providing accommodation for conferencing and event purposes as well as sweeping high-level views into both the velodrome and the arena.

Volumetrically, the building reflects its multiple functions by being divided into three distinct yet interlinked components. The arena on the southern end is the largest and the velodrome is located at the opposite end of the site. Both volumes bookend the central “Hub” block which contains the office and community leisure accommodation. The building is predominantly rectilinear with the significant exception being the swooping, chamfered curves applied to the corners of the velodrome block. These are a solitary but visually significant concession that allows the velodrome’s internal rotunda form to be dramatically expressed externally.

So far so good. However, the principal role of the architecture here, at least externally, is not to segregate but to unify the disparate mix of accommodation within and it is here where the problems begin. It achieves this by a variety of material and massing devices. Across the full envelope of the building, only two principal materials are used. A continuous plinth is formed by charcoal grey acid etched precast concrete panels. Above these the building is uniformly clad in horizontally laid silver coloured insulated aluminium panels, variously interrupted by large expanses of horizontal glazing. Special dispensation is again applied to the veldodrome whose curved walls are clad in composite diamond-shaped aluminium panels.

But it is above where the most striking unifying gesture is to be found. The entire building is topped by a stupendous cantilevered overhang which runs continuously along its roof like a perforated lid. It is this overhang that most exemplifies the fundamental weakness of the exterior. According to 3DReid director Gordon McGhie its purpose is to “unify the building and pull all its components together.”

This it certainly does and it even introduces moments of genuine drama such as when it flies over the deep recesses punched into the building envelope on either side of the Hub block and swoops over the twin-flight of entrance steps on the southern facade.

But in the main the overhang seems too over-engineered, too over-dimensioned to achieve its unifying goals. Inadvertently, its unilateral sweep emphasises the somewhat disjointed assembly of the shed-like volumes below. Its worst excesses are to be found where the cantilever careers an 18m over the curved edge of the veldorome. While the scale and engineering prowess involved in such a gesture is undeniable, this, combined with the uniform metallic pallour of the walls creates the effect of a giant car showroom clumsily crushed underneath the weight of a genetically modified spoiler.

Stepping inside

What is far more impressive about the Emirates Arena is the flexibility of its interiors and the skill with which its multi-purpose brief is satisfied. To avoid duplication of plant and services a central plant is located above the Hub building which serves the three main auditoriums via horizontal distribution at high-level as well as the central building via four vertical service cores.

A combination of portable and retractable seating also enables the three main venues to be used for a variety of different events and each space has been configured to satisfy the often divergent requirements of the various sports they will host. The arena for instance not only contains a 100m warm-up track but a recessed, covered sand-pit. McGhie points out that while the lighting at the Olympic velodrome is uniform across the interior, at Glasgow it has been located to follow the line of the track thereby providing the consistent luminosity levels that cyclists prefer.

The quality of the interior finishes to the spa and pool areas is also exemplary with subtle lighting and a rich collection of finely honed, marble mosaic surfaces casting a hidden, decadent underworld deep into the belly of the otherwise utilitarian central Hub.

And the building responds to the unique access requirements of its wide range of users - which includes athletes, caterers, office workers, spectators, gym members, officials - by implementing an efficient circulation hierarchy and adopting a sophisticated yet passive system of multiple, electronically controlled entrances in order to maintain public access and protect sensitive areas. McGhie describes the main challenges of the project as “security, access and services” and says the key legacy offering a facility that is “multi-purpose, publicly accessible that can be used every day and not an elite facility that is empty for most of the year.”

It is perhaps unfair to compare Glasgow’s velodrome complex to the deservedly iconic Olympic velodrome in London. Both are the products of completely different briefs and budgets, one conceived as a functional, masculine, multi-purpose masonry shell and the other as a sculpted, ornamental disc for single use whose form is as indulgently engineered and crafted as its function. 

Despite their manifest differences, externally both buildings are nonetheless comprised of simple geometric forms. But genuine simplicity is one of the hardest things for big buildings to achieve and it takes the rigorously controlled massing and stripped, sepulchral volumes evident in the work of architects such as Oscar Niemeyer and Alvaro Siza to achieve the unity through separation and convey the powerful geometric simplicity so lacking in the Emirates Arena.

The functional ingenuity of Glasgow’s interior accommodation is undeniable and the complex will invariably provide a vital and well used community resource that will inspire future generations of sportspeople. It’s a pity its architecture falls short of achieving the same goal. 

Project team

Client: Glasgow City/Glasgow Life
Architect: 3DReid
Main contractor: Sir Robert McAlpine
Project manager: Davis Langdon
Services engineer: Arup Scotland
Civil & structural engineer: Halcrow Yolles
Velodrome track designer: Schuermann Architects
Arena track designer: Norman Lindsey
Early stage co-architect: Sports Concepts