Olympic Swimming Stadium, Melbourne


Swimming pools were one of the many new civic spaces at the heart of Australia’s cultural changes in the post-war years. The design of the Olympic Swimming Stadium for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, by architects Kevin Borland, Peter Mcintyre, John and Phyllis Murphy, and engineer Bill Irwin, was a triumph of engineering and modernist design principles, and a bold statement to an international audience that Australia was emerging as a new modern nation.

A black and white photograph of a concrete and glass stadium. The glass is in the shape of a large v. Olympic Swimming Stadium, 1956, by Wolfgang Sievers. Source: State Library of Victoria.

Many of the community facilities that sprang up in our suburbs and towns in the post-war period were the result of new town planning principles that played a significant role in the creation of the modern Australian community. In parallel with the Federal Government’s push for new decentralised and family-centric housing, was the desire to establish an Australian version of the “neighborhood unit”. This was a concept developed by American urban planner and sociologist, Clarence Perry, where community facilities were provided across regions at differing scales. Community infrastructure was considered central to the modern community, and there was a move away from centralised services in the city, to local communal spaces such as community centres, schools, libraries, and swimming pools. In the years that followed World War II, it became widely accepted that equal access to affordable housing and government funded community facilities for recreational, health, and educational needs was the right of all Australian citizens.

A black and white photograph of an outdoor Olympic swimming pool. Several groups of children can be seen playing in and around the pool. A small boy stands in the foreground giving a thumbs up to the camera. Wangaratta swimming pool, 1970, by Le Dawn Studios. Source: State Library of Victoria.

One of the most notable community facilities was the local swimming pool. By the early 1930s Australia had established a reputation in international swimming events, which in turn helped to raise its profile as a valuable sporting and leisure activity with the general public. After World War II, the provision of leisure and recreation facilities was widely viewed as the responsibility of good government. This initiated a rapid increase of programs for public pool buildings across Australia. Between 1950 and 1959 over 50 pools were built in Victoria, followed by a further 70 in the 1960s. Hannah Lewi and David Nichols note in Community: Building Modern Australia that:

The construction of any public pool, however basic, carried symbolic status of the vitality of local councils which could support new initiatives rather than merely maintain minimal local services. Pool openings gave cause for big occasions, with lofty speeches from the local mayor, members of parliament and community leaders.

The local swimming pool is symbolic of post-war changes in Australian culture, and our relationship with the built environment. Swimming pools further eroded the segregation of the sexes and were a central meeting place for family recreation and a broad cross-section of society. The buildings themselves started to have a contemporary expression, utilising the latest technological advancements in concrete, steel and glass. One of the most notable pool designs—which helped to establish Australia as a modern nation internationally—was the Olympic Swimming Stadium commissioned for the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne.

A black and white photograph of three men in suits standing in front of a model of a large public stadium. Behind the men are are architectural drawings pinned to the wall. Architects Peter McIntyre and Kevin Borland alongside engineer Bill Irwin present a model of the Melbourne Olympic Swimming Stadium. Architects John and Phyllis Murphy were also on the project team. Source: Archive of Peter McIntyre courtesy of Open House Melbourne.

The Olympic Swimming Pool was internationally regarded for its innovative design which also addressed the ongoing material shortages which followed the war. The design removed columns which would support the seating bays and avoided other traditional structural methods. Instead, the structural solution employed inclined seating girders to place downward force onto a series of lightweight clear span steel trusses hence allowing the seats to cantilever. Additional force was applied to the structure via pull down cables which could be ratcheted to increase tension, thereby allowing the total steel tonnage to be further reduced. This use of post tensioned, high tensile steel, reduced total steel tonnage by 35%. The efficiency of this solution in steel was similar to the ingenuity seen in many of the large span timber hangar designs from World War II.

A colour photograph of the construction of a public stadium with the roof already in place. In the foreground are the foundations of a row of stadium seats. Melbourne Olympic Swimming Stadium during construction, November 1955, by Peter Wille. Source: State Library of Victoria.

Melbourne’s example was also the first time that an Olympic Pool had ever been fully enclosed and covered with a roof, and expansive glazing of the north and south facade flooded the pool with natural light. It was considered a pioneering design in structurally expressive architecture in Australia and had significant influence on the architectural profession.

A black and white photograph of the interior of an Olympic swimming pool stadium. A large crowd is visible in the stadium seating. Olympic Swimming Stadium, c1956, by Helmut Newton. Source: State Library of Victoria. A colourful drawing of a hurdle race at an Olympic stadium. Each of the athletes are jumping a hurdle, however, one of the athletes is a kangaroo. At the top of the cartoon are the Olympic Rings along with the words Melbourne 1956. Promotional cartoon for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. Source: State Library of Victoria.

The inspiration for hosting the Olympic Games in Melbourne is attributed to Edgar Tanner, who served in the Second AIF in World War II. Prior to the war, Tanner was an accomplished boxer and managed Australia’s boxing and wrestling team for the Empire Games in Sydney in 1938. In June 1946, Tanner convened the first meeting of the Victorian Olympic Council (VOC), which resolved to apply for the Games to be held in Melbourne. Tanner found support for the bid in former Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Sir Frank Beaurepaire. Beaurepaire was an Olympic swimmer, held fifteen world records, and argued that the Olympics had the potential to “advance the progress of Melbourne in many avenues by 20 years”. In 1948, just three years after the end of the war, Tanner and Beaurepaire went to the London Olympics to lobby for Melbourne’s selection for the 1956 Olympics.

The 1956 Olympic Games was the first Olympics to be held in the Southern Hemisphere, and marked Australia’s coming of age on an international stage. It was a driving force behind the launch of television in Australia, with the government wishing to ensure that it could be broadcast throughout Australian homes. It was also the first time that broadcasting rights were sold, beaming images of the Olympics and Australia across the globe. As a nation, it was our most successful Olympics, finishing third overall in the final medal tally, with particular dominance in the pool. It announced to the world Australia’s sporting ability and promoted the idea of Australia as a welcoming country, and it was often referred to thereafter as the “Friendly Games”. However, these Olympics were also held against the backdrop of ongoing global tensions of the Cold War, and several countries boycotted in protest. The Olympic Swimming Pool was the scene of the infamous “blood in the water” water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union following the Soviet Union’s violent suppression of the Hungarian Revolution.

A black and white photograph of a men’s water polo game in an indoor stadium. There is a lot of movement in the pool and a ball can be seen suspended in the air. In front of the goal during the water polo match between Hungary and Russia, Melbourne Olympic Swimming Stadium, 1956. Source: National Library of Australia.

The Olympic Swimming Pool currently serves as a training and administration base for Collingwood Football Club and is managed by the Melbourne & Olympic Parks Trust.

Architect Peter McIntyre discusses the Melbourne Olympic Swimming Stadium at Open House Melbourne’s 2012 Speaker Series.

Located on traditionally owned Aboriginal lands.