In its design of the new U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum, architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro wanted the building to represent the physical prowess of some of the world’s most talented athletes. But they also wanted the space to acknowledge that physical prowess—and physical ability—take many forms.
“We were quite in awe of Olympians and Paralympians, the sacrifices of their lives, and the extraordinary accomplishments they’re able to make,” says Benjamin Gilmartin, a partner at DS+R, the New York-based firm known for its work on the High Line in New York and the Broad art museum in Los Angeles. “We wanted to think about a museum that felt as aspirational, and that could be a suitable theater for telling the life stories of these incredible people, and we wanted to make the most accessible museum in the country, and among the most in the world.”
The museum, which opened in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in July 2020, includes memorabilia and historical documents tracking the stories of more than 100 years of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams. It has everything from the scoreboard that marked the U.S. men’s hockey team’s victory over the Soviet Union in 1980 to a near-complete set of Olympic medals to the uniforms and equipment used by athletes in competition. With recent revelations of longstanding and widespread abuse within the USA Gymnastics organization, the museum’s mostly celebratory subject matter may need to evolve over time, but for now, the collection is focused on the aspirational side of becoming and being an Olympian or Paralympian.
The museum’s design, which earned DS+R its place as one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies for 2021, was focused primarily on accessibility. “From the point of view of universal access, we always thought the museum should be a spiral, like a more contemporary rethinking of the Guggenheim,” says Gilmartin, referring to the spiraling art museum in New York, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. “That simple gesture of connectivity was the biggest architectural idea of the project.”
Visitors enter the museum on the ground floor, take a room-sized elevator to the top of the building, and gradually wind their way down the spiral, passing through the galleries in a single swoop. Crucially, Gilmartin says, the design ensures that all visitors experience the museum the same way, no matter their physical ability. “Nobody takes stairs while another person takes an elevator at a different place,” he says. “Everybody moves along the same route.”
Initially, the spiral was at the center of the building, but as the design evolved it moved out toward the building’s edge where the spiraling ramps could be more gradual. This was just one of the outcomes of early involvement from actual Paralympians, who offered input on how the space could be more responsive to people of varying physical abilities.
“The consultation with Paralympians, from the earliest days of programming and concept design with the client and the whole team, was to think about what kinds of things make that experience feel comfortable and natural to people walking, people in wheelchairs, young, old, etcetera,” Gilmartin says. The designers got feedback on things such as the materiality of floor surfaces and the carpeting on the ramps, as well as guidance on ensuring the ramp inclinations were gentle and the spaces wide enough that wheelchair users and people walking could descend side by side. “There was a lot of input that helped us understand how to make it as inclusive and refined as we could.”
On the outside, the building shifts its focus from the way bodies move to the bodies themselves. An origami-like folded structure covered in 9,000 individually shaped metal scales, the building evokes what Gilmartin calls “the feeling of the tension of the muscles of an athlete.” The building is almost winding up, like a sprinter ready to burst off the starting line. And though they’re stationary, the metal scales become kind of like the Olympian’s uniform, “that would stretch elastically and tightly on the building and reveal the way that the structure inside was performing or straining to keep the building up,” Gilmartin says.
The building also focuses on accessibility and movement at its edges. Located near downtown Colorado Springs but cut off from nearby neighborhoods by 12 active rail lines, the project added a wheelchair-accessible pedestrian bridge to increase its connectivity.
For visitors, the result is not a typical museum experience. Instead of going to the museum just to see and learn, the process of arriving and moving through the space becomes an extension of the exhibits within—a visceral way to connect with the stories of athletes whose physical abilities are so much greater and yet so similar to our own.