Olympische Spiele: Munich ’72

Friday, July 13th, 2012


With the London 2012 Olympic Games still a few weeks away, there are already rumblings that they represent a missed opportunity as far as architecture and design are concerned.  We recently had the opportunity to visit Munich—a favorite city in any case, but also host to the 1972 Olympic Games.  Unfortunately, the Munich Games are probably best known for the “Black September” terrorist attack, but they also represent a benchmark of Olympic architecture, design and branding.

The Games were seen as a way to present Germany in a positive new light following the low point of World War II and the approach was decidedly bold, modern, and upbeat.

Olt Aicher was chosen as lead designer for the Games, and he went on to create a graphics and identity program that looks remarkably fresh 40 years later.  The pictogram system that Aicher developed revolutionized visual communication and became standard throughout the world.  Beyond this achievement the designer created the first official Olympic mascot, Waldi—a dachshund, of course.  The lead poster for the Games, as well as those that depict individual sports, are simple and direct but at the same time multi-layered and vibrant with colors said to be inspired by the nearby Alps.  Aicher’s program for the Games is known for both its quality and comprehensiveness: all printed matter, from event tickets to ID badges to official postcards received the same degree of focus and displayed the same rigorous design language.

The Olympic stadium and most of the facilities stand intact and in use in Munich’s Olympiapark, a short bicycle ride from the city center and well worth a visit if you can pull yourself away from the city’s famous beer gardens.  The open air stadium itself is considered a landmark in tensile and membrane architecture and construction techniques, with a system of masts that suspend an undulating web of acrylic panels.  The peaks and valleys of the stadium structure also recall the Alps, yet their transparency makes them appear lightweight and buoyant rather than monumental.  Some of the smaller design details are the most impressive: stadium seats were colored in multiple shades of green, to make the seating areas look like a grassy hillside rather than a sea of plastic chairs.

Today, the Olympic Village originally designed for competing athletes houses students and seniors.  Both the tiny townhouse units and the terraced apartment blocks are essentially 70s style concrete boxes, but over the years vegetation has greatly softened their appearance.  The village as a whole is oddly appealing.  The townhouse units wouldn’t look out of place in a current Dwell Magazine pictorial on small scale, sustainable housing and students have painted some of the townhouses in bright colors or created murals.  One cool feature is the small, horizontal vitrine style window in the front of each unit that essentially functions as a display case for passersby.  A quick glance at the contents delivers a succinct message about the interests of the unit’s residents.  Schnapps and whisky bottle displays make a universal Let’s Party student statement, but artful arrangements of personal mementos tell a deeper story.

The Olympics have always been viewed as a high prestige event that has the ability to put the host city on the global map.  Yet given the extreme security precautions and the enormous expense required with hosting the Olympic Games today, it’s somewhat amazing that so many cities compete for the honor.  The Munich Games represent at once a holdover from a more optimistic time and the point at which the mood changed.  Still, the design legacy of the Munich Games endures, and the event itself helped to transform Munich from a regional German city into one of Europe’s most popular and prosperous.