Could the Pop-Up Design of the ’84 Olympics Work Again?

SP_1984 Olympics_Deborah Sussman, Paul Prejza, Jon Jerde
Deborah Sussman, Paul Prejza and Jon Jerde view their design for dressing up the Coliseum

LA is set to make a bid for the 2024 Olympics. Could it revive its 1984 pop-up success or use the games as a catalyst for ambitious planning?

The Los Angeles City Council is expected to vote soon on whether L.A. should continue its quest to host the 2024 Summer Games, and the mayor is already promising taxpayers they won’t be on the hook for budget overruns on the projected over $4 billion dollar price tag for the event– in part, he says, because L.A. can save money by using its existing sporting venues.

That was the strategy 30 years ago when LA wowed the world by producing a low-cost, pop-up Olympics with splashy visuals and re-purposed buildings. Is it a strategy that could work again?

One person who has authority on the matter is Paul Prejza. He’s co-principal of the graphic design company Sussman/Prejza — and together with his late wife Deborah Sussman, the architect Jon Jerde, and hundreds of local designers, they developed a dazzling ‘kit-of-parts,’ the elements of the ‘look’ of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, comprising forty-three art sites, twenty-eight game venues and three villages.

Prejza came to KCRW to talk to us about it. Listen up to this audio interview here, or read our interview below. And check out this interview with Henk Ovink in which he makes the case for connecting resiliency design and the LA River to an Olympic vision.

DnA: So take us back to the 1984 games and what you were asked to do?

Paul Prezja: Well, the idea that the LAOOC (Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee) put down was that they were going to build no new buildings, and they were going to build no new facilities, and everything was going to be a reuse.

So Jon Jerde got the job of doing UCLA campus as one of the Olympic villages, the other being at USC and another being up at Santa Barbara. And Jon said to Harry Usher, who was leading our effort, “you know this is a bigger problem, we have to have this sort of kit-of-parts that covers everything.”

SP_1984 Olympics_Coliseum Entrance
1984 Olympics Coliseum Entrance

DnA: And the kit-of-parts consisted of what?

PP: It consisted of tents of very different shapes that became information places, it became ticket booths, they became hospital units that you had to have everywhere. They were for VIPs, so there were all of these different kinds of tents.

Another piece was the scaffolding that marked the entry to all these pieces, and other things were sonotubes which were used in combination with the tents but also as separate rows of things that would guide you through different parts of the village.

We came across this balloon artist from Israel who made these long balloons, and so we floated them on the lake at Lake Casitas where the rowing was.

We had special structures at the entries to places that carried the pictograms — again on vinyl or canvas that were silkscreened on.

When you went down to the level of the games, we had field of play banners, so all around the Coliseum — when you were watching the guys running and everything — you could see this color behind it.

We worked with ABC to know where the camera shots were going to be. We had backdrops that we designed for where the awards were given, and then the backdrop behind them always had something Olympic-themed.

We did the numbers, we did the LA ‘84 on the hurdles. We did all the uniforms, that was part of the kit-of-parts, done with Levis and with Deborah’s cousin who was an Academy Award-winning designer.

SP_1984 Olympics_Tower-Night

DnA: And color was a huge part of all this.

PP: The color! There were two sets of colors, a pastel set and a bright set, and there was a little diagram that told you how NOT to put them together. But I think Deborah had the sense that Los Angeles is so big, and if you didn’t make it strong enough, people weren’t going to see it.

DnA: So the LA Olympics, the design of it, was temporary. It was about stage sets, it was about instant, delightful, colorful impression. Do you think that attitude could still work in LA? Since the Olympics we’ve built the Getty Center, we’ve built the Disney Concert Hall, there are big plans for LACMA, this city has become preoccupied with creating the big civic landmarks. We’d be up against Beijing with its Birds Nest. Do you think this kind of makeshift, pop-up approach could work the next time around?

PP: Yes, I do, and I think if you look at London, which was fairly recent, it owes a big debt — as many Olympics after LA ‘84 do — to what we did here in 1984.

And I think that theirs was maybe not quite as enthusiastic as ours, but you know anything can be pulled back a little bit and improved.

But I think the general idea of developing a kit-of-parts, maybe expanding on what we had the last time, and using existing buildings are very important to that because that’s where a big part of the money goes: into building buildings and running into construction problems and all that.

The only thing that I can think of that would make sense to build here are probably units for the athletes to stay in. If we could build those things as low cost housing, and then after the Olympics they could be used that way.

SP_1984 Olympics_Coliseum Interior

DnA: We could address LA’s housing problem!

PP: Yes, exactly.

I do think there needs to be a lot of local participation. I also  think that there are things that have not been really exploited the way that could be; for instance, in the LA ‘84 Olympics we didn’t sell enough souvenirs. People weren’t going for Sam the Eagle, and I think that’s a whole thing that could be another big, big source of income if you had plenty of time to do it and get it out in the stores.

In Europe our friend Bruno Danesi, who manufactures waste baskets and high design things in Milan, he took our colors back and Artemide made lamps in the colors and he made some products. That all could be done.

So there are ways I think of drawing more money into the Olympics that would involve more people, but I’m really for local participation. We tried to involve as many designers as possible in the Olympics, and I think we succeeded.

SP_1984 Olympics_Walkway

DnA: One now looks back on the ‘84 Olympics as a time of great optimism and almost innocence for LA, and now we feeling the stresses of intense development in LA. How was that period really, and how does that compare to now?

PP: Well it’s hard for me to answer that, because we got very busy when we started with the Olympics, but I think there was a little downturn at that at that point. The Olympics took us over for a good year and a half, and so it’s hard for me to remember what the social and economic structure was at that point.

But we on the West Coast here have a a lot of companies who have a lot of money, and we haven’t really had an Olympics that sort of invited the leaders of our industry. Now there’s the whole high tech segment and these people could be the sponsors of the Olympics and make it happen and help make it happen in a somewhat different way. I mean using all the latest technology and a lot of the money that they’re sitting on.

DnA: So it could be Snapchat brings you the Olympics!

PP: Yeah, I think these are going to be the people who are most receptive, and if we add another layer to it that is not just commercial, but actually affecting the way the things work — how the information goes out and how time is kept. I think it’s an idea that should be considered.

DnA: I’ve also spoke to climate change expert Henk Ovink. He’s advising Frank Gehry about the LA River, and we talked about how a centerpiece of any resiliency planning for LA will have to be the LA river and that could be the centerpiece of any vision for the LA Olympics. How does that sound to you?

PP: I have been thinking a lot about that and the way the river is going to interact with the bullet train when it comes through. I think that’s a very good opportunity — and I’m anxious to see what they’ve done with the master plan for Union Station — because I think that part of the river right downtown across from and including part of East LA is a big idea waiting to happen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen up to Paul on this DnA, and check out our interview with Henk Ovink, here.