Famous Projects Gone Wrong: The Olympic Stadium

8 October 2014
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Its nicknames range from The Big O to the White Elephant, to The Big Owe, but apparently that one no longer applies because in 2006 Quebecers finally paid off the $1.5-billion debt from the 1976 Summer Games.

Some locals and Ex-pats  refer to it as “ugly”, “unsafe”, “a modern disaster” or  simply a “waste,” while others wax nostalgic about 1994, Tim Wallach and the Expos.

It boasts the highest inclined tower in the world and is recognized as a popular Montreal sightseeing monument for tourists around the world. Too bad it’s so inconveniently located in the eastern Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district of Montreal.

Legend also has it that when rocker Ozzy Osbourne  was asked if he would like to hold the Black Sabbath Reunion show at this particular venue, the Prince of Darkness replied:  “I’m n-n-n-n-n-not playing in THAT!

Love it or hate, one thing is for sure: when it comes to the Olympic Stadium, no one is left indifferent. That’s especially true for First Engineer Claude Phaneuf and world renowned architect Roger Taillibert, the creator and the artist who were in charge of bringing Mayor Jean Drapeau’s dream to life in 1972.

The 76 and 88 year old gentlemen have had enough.

They were [not so gently/politely] told to keep quiet for the last 40 years and even barred from entering the structure. But now, in their twilight years and with the ongoing Charbonneau commission (a public inquiry in Quebec, Canada into potential corruption in the management of public construction contracts), they feel that they have nothing left to lose.

The almost affable, grumpy old men went on Larry King-esque French-Canadian talk show Les Francs-tireurs (Straight Shooters) and proceeded to name names and burn bridges.

Claude Phaneuf even has a Web site dedicated to telling the undisputed truth behind the structure he still proudly refers to as the “9th Wonder of the World”.

I don’t blame them.  They had the perfect project on their hands and were victims of blatant greed, incompetence and sabotage.

The Vision
Building off the success of the 1967 Expo, Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau wanted to cement Montreal’s place in the world as a truly International City. What better way to do so than host the XXI Olympic Games? This ambitious endeavor would also allow the city to foster its youth and provide them with ultra-modern training and exercise facilities.

Montreal needed something big. A great stadium capable of holding international games, concerts and other shows.

This Stadium will be Montreal’s Emblem and its tower will be the city’s Symbol.”

The Analysis and Planning
Phaneuf and Drapeau had done their homework. In 1971, the Mayor sent the engineer abroad to visit the Olympic villages of Mexico and Munich, where the previous games had been held in 1968 and 1972, as well as countless stadiums across the United States to study the various architectures, visibility lines, operating costs, spectator comfort, things to consider and mistakes to be avoided and most importantly: what could be done better.

After going through a thorough selection process, they decided to retain the services of Roger Taillibert, a renowned French architect who was completing Paris’ Parc des Princes, the Olympic Stadium’s “little brother”, at the time.  Taillibert was so good at what he did that he became France’s de facto architect in the 60’s, because he had proven himself time and time again to be a visionary who could design and build the most amazing structures at a very reasonable cost.

Phaneuf knew exactly what he wanted. He believed that the stadium would need to have a “European exterior design but North American interior mode of operation”. He knew Taillibert was the right man for the job.

Risk Management
Drapeau and Phaneuf loved the architecture of the Parc des Princes. Taillibert had completed the project in 1972 for the modest sum of $18 million. Better yet, there were some construction glitches that appeared, which is normal for any ultra-modern structure, but these were dealt with and repaired long before construction began on the Olympic Stadium.

So Taillibert, Phaneuf and Drapeau agreed: why not make a bigger, better and more spectacular version of the Parc des Princes? They had the blueprints, they had the expertise and the lessons learned from the Parc des Princes meant construction errors could be avoided.

Realistic Estimates
Yes they were. Phaneuf prides himself to this day that “had the Quebec government and the RIO (Régie des installations olympiques) not forcibly removed Taillibert and his entire team from the project and prostituted the contract to the highest bidders, the debt would have been paid in full by 1980”. Here are the numbers for both Stadiums:

Parc des Princes

Actual cost – $18M

Olympic Stadium

Actual cost – $1,244.6M

Almost 5 billion (!) dollars if you factor in inflation

Budgeted Cost – $12M Budgeted cost – $71.06M

That was something else Mayor Drapeau loved about Taillibert’s plans: The price.

The estimate for constructing the Olympic Stadium was impressively low, a key point for the mayor who vowed his city would suffer no deficits from the Games and the construction of the massive amphitheater.

“The Montreal Olympics can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby,” he bragged to reporters.

Proper Project Management
There’s a reason why Taillibert’s projects were always delivered on time and according to budgets.

He directly manages his own team of architects and engineers, not “Engineers” and big companies. He is also responsible for making sure the contracts are in order, plans are followed and budgets and expenditures are approved. The result is fascinating: no equipment and materials are stolen, no trucks “deliver” the same shipment 14 times the same day, workers are monitored and contracts are duly filled-out. What a concept!

Likewise, he is renowned for his daring and modern architecture style. He dislikes straight lines and uses circles, ellipsis as well as tailored, pre-manufactured and hollow pieces. His engineers have the savoir-faire required to safely bring to fruition his audacity. It’s quite obvious everyone else involved didn’t.

You know what the sad thing is? When the RIO removed Taillibert and his team from the project on April 12th 1974, he took his plans for the stadium and retractable roof back to France with him. These plans are still in one of his drawers at home (I wish I were kidding) and in 40 years, no one has ever asked for them.

The Outcome
Everything was in place to build something truly special… and like the best laid schemes of mice and men, this one went awry.

The Stadium was not even completed by the time the Olympic Games ended in 1976. Suffice to say that what was supposed to be an architectural masterpiece became a technical and financial catastrophe.

I won’t get into the details of everything that went wrong – I’d need to write a book, not a blog post. I’ll just leave you with these quotes that say it all, yet only scratch the surface, from Taillibert and Phaneuf:

The construction of the Olympic Parkand Stadium showed me a level of organized corruption, theft, mediocrity, sabotage and indifference that I had never witnessed before and have never witnessed since. The system failed completely and every Civil Engineering firm involved knew they could just open this veritable cash register and serve themselves.

Roger Taillibert, Le Devoir, December 19th 2011

To this day, I am proud and could not be more convinced that this was Mr Drapeau’s greatest project [the two others being the Expo 67 and Montreal subway system], the RIO and the Government of Quebec made sure it would be the worst ever – and the most shameful thing I’ve ever been involved in.

Claude Phaneuf, La vraie vérité sur le Stade Olympique de Montréal.


[Not so] Fun Facts

This is roof number four (4!), and in 2012, there was discussion to replace it with a fifth (5!) one. Total cost (excluding reports, trips, verification of said reports): $200M. The original “Taillibert Roof” was never used, even though it was ready to be built in 1976 for $28M. Taillibert and his team had already been forcibly removed from the project. Truly a deplorable case. Phaneuf describes the roof fiasco as “a bunch of amateur industrial painters trying to finish Picasso’s work without any rhyme or reason“.

The price of steel was fixed by the American producers at $200/ton at the beginning of the project. It went up to $900/ton within 6 months and was unjustifiably inflated to a whopping $1200/ton when construction of the stadium began.

Despite being 88 years young, Roger Taillibert is still very active and completed an architectural project in Qatar, the Middle East, in 2011.

Although not completed in time for the 1976 Olympics, construction on finishing the tower recommenced in the 1980s. During this period, however, a large fire set the tower ablaze, causing damage and forcing a scheduled Expos home game to be postponed.

Chunks have been falling off it. In 1986, a large chunk of the tower fell onto the playing field during another Expos game. In 1999, a 350 m2 (3,770 sq ft) portion of the roof collapsed on January 18, dumping ice and snow on workers that were setting up for the annual Montreal Auto Show. More recently, a slab of concrete measuring approximately 8 by 12 metres (26 by 39 ft) fell from the roof of the stadium’s underground parking facility on March 4, 2012. There were no injuries.

One of the most infamous events, which I got to witness firsthand, took place on August 8, 1992. Metallica frontman James Heftfield suffered second and third degree burns to his left arm after mistakenly standing on a pyrotechnics blast during the opening of the song “Fade to Black“. The band’s set had to be cut short. Fans were kept waiting for well over an hour before the next band, Guns ‘N Roses, took the stage. Frontman Axl Rose decided to stop the show after 45 minutes under pretext that his throat hurt. This time the aggrieved audience members rioted and, after looting and destroying everything in sight, they took to the streets of Montreal, overturning cars, smashing windows, looting local stores and setting fires. Total cost of the damages: a little over $1M.

On September 29, 2004, the Expos played their last game in Montreal, losing 9–1 to the Florida Marlins before a crowd of 31,395 spectators.

How could this project have turned out differently if they’d used project management software? We invite you to visit our website, to learn about Genius Project’s numerous features.

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