View of the O2 above from the Emirates Air Line. (Photo: Stadiafile) View of the O2 above from the Millennium Air Line. (Photo: Stadiafile)

Stadiafile visited London’s O2 Arena (re-named ‘North Greenwich Arena’ for the Olympics) for the Olympic basketball semi-final between Spain and Russia. From inside and out, the tent – the largest of its kind in the world – is the main event.

Originally the Millennium Dome designed by Richard Rogers, the architect most famous for the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the 365-meter diameter, 52-meter tall tent is supported by twelve, 100-meter tall yellow towers. In its clear structural logic and expression it has similarities to Rogers’ great exhibition center in Paris. “The Dome” was part of a larger renovation project of the defunct, former industrial waterfront of North Greenwich, London. The budget for the Millennium Dome famously skyrocketed to £789 million and there was considerable public outcry over its lack of use following its year-long run as an exhibition center. Though originally intended to be converted to a football stadium, it was sold and redeveloped as a multi-purpose 20,000-seat arena. Enter Populous – in 2003 construction started and in 2007 the Millennium Dome was reborn as the The O2 Arena.

Populous was tasked with designing a 20,000-seat arena in the center of a larger tent; their website describes the new arena as “a ship within a bottle”. Essentially they had to devise a plan to construct a massive arena from below, a feat that is so impressive if anyone has ever seen the large cranes that hover over most construction sites. I have always been very curious about this project and on Friday I had the chance to visit it during the London Olympics. Friday was an absolutely beautiful day in London and we arrived at the arena by the Thames Clipper barge up the River Thames. From the water, The O2 impressed and firmly anchored this bend in the Thames. The low-slung, white dome and bright yellow masts allude to marine architecture but also to something Archigram would have dreamt up. The futurist feel is reinforced by the newly built Emirates Airline cable car spanning the Thames just downriver, taking passengers to the Royal Docks and the ExCeL center on the north bank.

Once on land, the warm and fuzzy feeling fades as the area around the arena is a maze of new office buildings, temporary construction fences, landscaped plazas and security zones. Perhaps it is the layer of infrastructure introduced by the Olympics but I found the approach disorienting and sloppy.

Under the tent, the 60% of space not covered by the arena proper is filled by an Epcot Center/Truman Show-esque faux village including a commercial shopping street dubbed Entertainment Avenue, indigO2 – a 2,920-seat concert venue, Cineworld – an 11-screen movie theater, and the O2 Bubble – a two-storey gallery exhibition space and many fake palm trees. This is a clever use of this void space and particularly nice as you don’t need a ticket to enter this world. Tickets are only checked at the entry to the arena itself, giving this simulated village a more public feel. I would have had a better impression of it if it didn’t end in such an awkward way at the back-end of the arena, essentially spitting you out into a vast loading dock.

Inside, the O2 is a two-tiered arena with a two rows of VIP boxes dividing the two tiers. The bottom tier is continuous around the venue but the upper tier is truncated on one end, giving away the arena’s primary function as a concert venue. Our seats were in the upper tier up against this truncated end. Despite being in the upper reaches of the top deck, I felt close enough to the action on the court down below and overall the feel was surprisingly cozy for a 20,000-seater. However, sitting so high left me eye level with all the stuff – speakers, cameras, lighting, access scaffolding, mechanical ducts and ventilation equipment necessary for a multi-purpose venue such as the O2. Because the roof of the new arena was built as close as possible to the underside of the existing tent, there seems to have been no place to hide all of this equipment as might be possible in a more normative arena construction. The complex arrangement of components is not to be underestimated and catering to modern music concerts and sporting events is an increasingly complex venture, especially when working with such limited extra space.

Due to this space constraint at the roof, the solution all felt haphazard and if bass heavy, crowd participation-dampening music pumped at me is the reason, I would prefer less stuff. It left me with a greater appreciation of the roof at New York’s Madison Square Garden, which with its alternating orange pattern and strategically place lighting and equipment has the effect of including fans high above with the action on the floor below. By contrast, the chaos above and around the O2 venue felt thoughtless, like a bad home entertainment center – all wires and deep bass. Perhaps the event is of primary importance the support equipment a mere backdrop, but venues like the Millennium Dome and the O2 should be considered just as thoughtfully as the great opera houses and theaters of the world, where the design of the audience space is equally important than that of the event. Unfortunately for visitors to the O2 – an impressive external roof structure alone is not enough to make impressive architecture.