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London Olympics: Function and Form

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A picture of London's new Olympic Velodrome recently caught my eye. Its double-sloped steel roof and natural cedar wood siding are striking.

Does it match the grandeur of China's famous Bird's nest stadium? Perhaps not. But beneath its veneer there's arguably a more impressive piece of structural engineering. Steeply banked tracks mirror the natural lean of a bicycle as it winds a turn, maximising speed and efficiency. The roof, meanwhile, is made of 10 miles of cable netting, making it half the weight of Beijing's.

A giant oval-shaped metaphor of function over form. And testament to my personal notion that engineers create their best work against the odds.

For the two weeks of the Olympics, London will be the most watched city in the world, seen by over a billion people. More than just an event for sporting achievement, the games are, for two weeks, a projection of London. But a look at the legacy of past games offers a cautionary tale that hosting the Olympics needs to be seen not just as a short-term event but a long-term investment.

With nearly $40 billion invested in infrastructure alone, Beijing gave true meaning to the Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius, a Latin expression meaning "Faster, Higher, Stronger." China's first foray as a global host in 2008 was designed to create a sense of awe. From spectacular venues and grandiose ceremonies to the home team's dominance of the medal table, the Games announced China's growing influence as an economic and political power.

Economic uncertainty demands Britain be creative and nimble in its vision. If China was the Olympics' golden darling, Britain is the austerity Olympics. The elaborate games in Beijing reflected a booming economy -- exports had grown a whopping 22%. The UK has taken a more modest approach: a reflection of a sobering market and steep cuts in government spending.

But it wouldn't be the first time that budgetary circumstances have galvanised engineers and architects to produce stunning work. In 1873 Chicago faced a similar challenge. It followed Paris' popular and prosperous World's Fair -- which saw the debut of the Eiffel Tower. Chicago was in the midst of a depression and had little time to prepare. Daniel Burnham, the architect spearheading the Fair's design, challenged America's civil engineers to be bold. Temporary but complex buildings were created to shave costs and street lights were introduced to make them usable at night for the first time.

Beyond its buildings, the Chicago Fair inspired a golden age of invention: from Ford's motor car to the dishwasher. Thriftiness can also spark resourcefulness and engineering ingenuity.

Engineers are nothing if not problem solvers. In 1948, Britain hosted the first post-WWII Olympic Games. With no money for stadiums, the main venue, Wembley stadium -- still used today for concerts and sporting events -- was a converted dog track. It might have been meager, but it was one of the most profitable Olympics.

London has taken the same tack in 2012: using the games to revitalise the city's decaying east end. Rather than a one-off celebration, the city sought to balance remarkable design while considering future use.

While Beijing's historic sites and public transport have vastly improved following the games, many of the 37 custom built Olympic venues languish. The Bird's Nest Building is little-used, aside from the occasional ping-pong tournament. It will take three decades to recoup the $480 million it cost. The Water Cube, where Michael Phelps picked up six gold medals, now hosts perfume and rice wine sellers rather than swimmers.

London has taken a less-is-more approach. Just five buildings will remain in London after the games. This presented several design challenges for architects and engineers. Permanent facilities blend into the surrounding parkland while temporary venues are constructed of removable and reusable materials.

London's Aquatics Centre was purposefully built to have just 3,500 permanent seats -- down from 20,000 -- following the games. The Olympic Village will find a second life as a new housing and commercial area. And the Olympic park will be London's biggest new green space since Victorian times.

Today, Athen's Olympic park is a ghost town: a symbol of excess as Greece grapples with its debt crisis. Barcelona has seen its football club move out, leaving a monument of a stadium without a permanent resident. Atlanta, the Olympic host in 1996, might be the only recent exception. Although marred by transport and construction problems its legacy prevails. Its two arenas are now home to professional sports teams. The Olympic Village has been converted into university dormitories and its Olympic Park has helped bring development and people to downtown.

I'm proud of London's ambition despite the economic situation; the engineering equivalent of a stiff upper lip. Rather than comparisons to the grandeur of China's games, London's will showcase reuse and leave behind new opportunities, not empty stadiums. This will be a testament to the planners and the engineers and their designs.

James Dyson is an engineer and founder of Dyson.

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