Tell us about the early design brief
During the Games the Handball Arena – or Copper Box – had to accommodate up to 7,000 spectators, primarily for the handball competition, but also for modern pentathlon fencing and Paralympic goalball. Spectator seating had to be easily and rapidly adjustable to suit the court layouts for these sports, and their differing spectator numbers. There was also an important need to maximise access and inclusion for disabled or partially sighted spectators.
In post-Olympic ‘legacy’ mode, the arena was designed to function as both a multi-purpose sports and leisure centre serving new local housing developments in the Olympic Park, and as a 6,000 seat venue for high-profile national sports and music events.
The brief also demanded exceptional environmental performance, in terms of low energy use and a BREEAM Excellent rating.
What inspired your design concept?
Our architectural response was informed by four fundamentals: simplicity, efficiency, flexibility and sustainability. These were supported by innovations in natural lighting, building skin, biodiversity measures and the ambition to create an arena that could be gazed into from the outside, to give a direct glimpse of the people and activities going on within the building’s envelope.
What challenges did you face along the way?
In purely functional terms, the design had to produce a building that met highly specific Olympic sports’ requirements, then be converted into a local sports and leisure centre that would be in highly flexible daily use. To maximise the scope of these possibilities, and the variations in spectator and ‘bowl’ conditions, we consulted regularly with Sport England and the Olympic Legacy Company in the early stages of design.
To maximise seating in the most flexible manner for the variety of sports, the arena’s structure is based on pre-cast concrete fin walls, linked to a steel truss frame, with pre-cast seating tiers and a mezzanine circulation level between the upper seating decks and the main outer concourse. This strategy also maximised seating: there are 4,052 fixed seats, 1,971 retractable seats, and 68 wheelchair positions. The moveable seats can be deployed or retracted electronically in a matter of minutes.
What about specific design challenges?
The restricted budget dictated a rational and orthogonal geometry as such quality is achieved by relatively inexpensive means by using sculptural components such as light pipes and using vibrant colours. We conceived the Arena as a jewellery box: seats are arranged in colour clusters, which helps the visually impaired to distinguish between individual seats.
One of the defining decisions was to create a form and structure that would have a light-filled, generally open concourse around all sides of the arena. A perimeter glazing slot, 2.4m deep, runs continuously around the four elevations at the concourse mid-level. The glazed slot gives clear views into the concourse from outside the building, and glimpses into the arena bowl. This aspect of the design maximises the visibility of movement and activities within the building and gives the arena a sense of inviting public openness. It also means that those in the concourse get excellent, unbroken views out across the Olympic Park. It enables all visitors, regardless of age or disability, to follow the same route and enjoy the same spectator experience.
One of the most challenging aspects of designing enclosed sports arenas is lighting. Our design maximised the quality of light in the arena by finding a new way to balance natural and artificial light. This was achieved with an innovative array of 88 light-pipes projecting down through the roof, which effectively reduces electric light use by 40 per cent.
How did it feel to be involved in such an important British project?
The chance to be involved in London 2012, particularly on one of the permanent venues, was a chance not to be missed. The impact of the event on the country as a whole, and the fact that our building was so well received by both competitors and visitors, has been enormously gratifying.