Beyond 2012 - an integrated Design Story

Water Polo Arena
A built environment story

“The Water Polo Arena demonstrates a new way to deliver major sporting events with a lighter touch – more like a travelling roadshow than a massive major infrastructure project.”

David Morley Architects

Tell us about the early design brief

The brief was to design the first ever purpose-built temporary venue for Water Polo at a major Olympic Games. The Olympic Delivery Authority were seeking proposals that would challenge the design and construction industry to develop solutions that would balance technical excellence in architecture and engineering with value for money. Solutions were also required to set exemplary sustainability standards in exploiting re-use and recycling methods and minimising waste, all the while delivering a high quality of construction.

The venue includes a competition pool, warm-up pool and ancillary accommodation for spectators, athletes, press and VIPs. The brief required a creative response to reconcile a very limited budget with a response that would be appropriate to the extremely prominent site, which would be located immediately adjacent to the main entrance to the Olympic Park.

What inspired your design concept?

A concept was developed that turned the functional requirements of water polo into a dynamic building form that would also respond to the demanding constraints of the site. It is on a restricted island location, contained by the River Lea to the south west, the Olympic Park loop road and a rail line to the north east and the main bridge access into the Olympic Park and Aquatics Centre to the south east. Front-of-house access is from another pedestrian bridge across the River Lea. The design responds to this with an asymmetric form that optimises internal sightlines by placing most of the public opposite the referee’s platform, where sightlines are best.

The building envelope sweeps down from a high point above the main entrance for spectators, across the main stand and competition pool and down to a low profile above the warm-up pool adjacent to the Olympic Park main entrance where there is an opportunity to open up a vista towards the Olympic Stadium.

The roof is made from 50m long air-inflated cushions which prevent condensation forming above the pools. This creates a dynamic sloping roof form which has a synergy with the temporary wings of the adjacent Aquatics Centre and could be seen as the rippling splash from the diving figure represented by the legacy Aquatics Centre building.

Did you know…

  • The venue is supported on retractable screw piles which were originally developed by Victorian engineers for seaside piers. These are currently being removed from the site as part of the de-construction work.

What challenges did you face along the way?

To create a building that would be truly demountable and re-usable it was important to avoid too many bespoke components and ensure the building could be easily containerised for transportation. By working closely with the supply chain at the concept stage the structural spans were limited to 50m, allowing the primary structure to be made up from standard bolted steel temporary structure trusses, some of which were ‘pre-cycled’ – re-used from previously constructed venues.

PVC is the cheapest and most practical envelope for a temporary structure because it can be folded and re-used. However, all previous venues before the Water Polo Arena used a PVC which could not be recycled at the end of its life. Here a new type of Pthlalate Free PVC was developed which could be safely recycled, and a double skin was proposed to prevent condensation. This was formed into a series of inflatable cushions which would be structurally self-supporting, spanning directly onto the primary 50m long lighting gantries.

For the side walls where condensation is less critical, a single skin membrane was used which was stretched to a high tension between luff grooves that are curved at the top to create a membrane form that was gently scalloped to give a sculptural quality, especially when lit at night. The lighting effects were amplified by using a silver grey fabric which distinguishes the Water Polo Arena from the neighbouring white PVC structures.

What about specific design challenges?

Although the budget was for a very functional building, the aspirations of all concerned were for something really special that would integrate this highly complex venue into the overall look, feel and experience of the London 2012 Games.

This was partly achieved by early stage development with the supply chain and the exploration of materials and existing modular structures. The trusses developed were efficient for their purpose yet were the largest lifts ever carried out by the structure and envelope contractor. The phthalate-free PVC membrane was developed and tested specifically for the arena, achieving an impressive 10m unsupported single span. The resulting curvature of the panels was also to become an integral part of the venue’s lighting strategy.

The design team strived where possible to develop multiple uses for each building element. The air-inflated roof cushions, for example, were developed to weather the venue, achieve a 10m span without secondary steelwork, to provide blackout for broadcasting conditions and for control of condensation and acoustics.

How did it feel to be involved in such an important British project?

David Morley Architects have been working in sport for over 25 years and the London Olympics made a very fitting 25th anniversary. We celebrated by taking every member of the practice and many clients to the finals matches at the Water Polo Arena. It was tremendously uplifting to be part of the massive team which made London 2012 such an overwhelming success.

What would you highlight as the best features or lasting benefits of your design work?

The Water Polo Arena demonstrates a new way to deliver major sporting events with a lighter touch – more like a travelling roadshow than a massive major infrastructure project. The design takes to an extreme the concept of a ‘kit of parts’ which can be re-used and eventually recycled, but it has also taken this one step further with the concept of pre-cycling. Above all, however, is the focus on the athletes and spectators and create an inspirational arena for sport which inspires participation.

What are you most proud of regarding your design work for London 2012?

The excellent feedback from athletes and spectators has confirmed our convictions that great design does not require extravagant budgets.

It was also rewarding to see the natural ventilation strategy work superbly, despite some of the hottest days of the year occurring during the finals. Keeping below budget was also rewarding.


Company name
David Morley Architects

London 2012 Water Polo Arena / Park Operations Centre


Project team

In collaboration with:

Buro Happold
Structural Engineers

Max Fordham
Services Engineers, Lighting designers

Turley Associates
Planning Consultant

ES Group Ltd
Specialist Consultant, Global contractor

Foundation and Slab Contractor

Seating Contractor

A & T / Barr & Wray
Pools Contractor

Ellmers ltd / Byrne Group
General Builder

Balfour Beatty Engineering Services Ltd
Services Contractor

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