The culture and university district of Olympicopolis, outlined in pink (courtesy Kevin Allen/London Legacy Development Corp.)

The culture and university district of Olympicopolis, outlined in pink (courtesy Kevin Allen/London Legacy Development Corp.)

As part of a major reuse project for London’s Olympic Park, the Smithsonian Institution may create its first long-term, overseas exhibition venue. The official talks to move forward with making the Smithsonian part of the cultural district of “Olympicopolis” were announced today in a release following yesterday’s authorization from the Board of Regents.

Olympicopolis, with its cumbersome name of classical pomp, is inspired partly by Albertopolis, which was set up by Prince Albert following the 1851 Great Exhibition and now hosts many of the city’s cultural institutions, including the Royal Albert Hall and the Victorian and Albert Museum. Likewise, Olympic Park is being redeveloped as a 4.5 acre cultural and university district in the hopes that it will give East London on the Stratford Waterfront a lasting spark of the arts.

Map of the 4.5 acre site for the culture & university district of Olympicopolis (courtesy London Legacy Development Corp.) (click to enlarge)

The Smithsonian stated that no federal funds are to be used for the project: “annual operating costs will be covered by private philanthropy and revenue from temporary-exhibit admission fees and retail activities.” The Victoria and Albert Museum, Sadler’s Wells, University College London, and University of the Arts London are already signed up to have spaces at Olympicopolis, and the Smithsonian’s planned venue would have 40,000 square feet of gallery space for permanent and rotating exhibitions.

“The core mission of the Smithsonian is ‘the increase and diffusion of knowledge,’”John Gibbons, Smithsonian Institution press secretary, told Hyperallergic. “This project will bring Smithsonian messages and an understanding of history, art, culture, and science to an international audience. This project will show the best of the Smithsonian to the millions of people who visit London’s museums each year, in addition to the millions we welcome in our own museums.”

Six potential design teams were shortlisted in December, with the winner to be announced this spring. If all goes as planned, the complex is set to open in 2021, just under a decade after the London Olympic Games in 2012.

“The next step is for leadership here at the Smithsonian to work with the Mayor’s office in London and the London Legecy Development Corporation on the terms of the agreement over the next few months,” Gibbons added. “Once that framework is in place, content and programing can start to be planned.”

Athens Olympics Complex in 2013 (photo by Kristof Verslype, via Flickr)

Olympic reuse has historically been rather abysmal. Only a decade after the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, most of the venues are in ruins: grass thriving in the disused volleyball stadium, celebratory fountains tagged with graffiti, and the aquatic center bone dry. Beijing’s Bird’s Nest from the 2008 games might not get another hurrah until the 2022 Winter Olympics, if China’s bid even goes through. Jon Pack and Gary Hustwit’s ongoing documentary photography project The Olympic City chronicles the overgrown ski jumps, modernist ghost towns of 20th-century athlete villages, and the gaping voids of the massive stadiums built for Olympics games around the world.

Successes have come in places like Los Angeles in 1984, when designer Deborah Sussman helped implement temporary environmental graphics rather than hulking, expensive architecture. Like World’s Fairs with their ostentatious pavilions and incredible crowds, Olympic afterlives are often pricey problems. New York still has its underdeveloped Flushing Meadows Corona Park from the 1964 World’s Fair, which includes the Phillip Johnson–designed New York State Pavilion, rusting for decades in plain sight with no purpose. Yet with the conjoined colleges and major museums in the East London hub, there is the potential to have an actual post-Olympics transformation that could be sustainable.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...