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Canadian Olympic House: Canadiana on a tight budget

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by Don Wall

When Canadians turn on their televisions or tap their smartphones to watch Olympic Games coverage from Rio de Janeiro this August, they’ll no doubt nod in approval at the displays of Canadiana at the hyper-patriotic Canada Olympic House (COH), built over two storeys on Rio’s Avenida Borges de Medeiros.
The Canadian Olympic Committee expects some 20,000 visitors to Canadian Olympic House during the Rio Games. Pictured: Celebration Hall.
The Canadian Olympic Committee expects some 20,000 visitors to Canadian Olympic House during the Rio Games. Pictured: Celebration Hall. - Photo: Yabu Pushelberg artist’s conception

Little will they know that the 15,000-square-foot build was a marvel of tight project management, designed and created on a very modest budget and assembled in just two weeks by a primarily Brazilian crew on site under the supervision of COH design house Yabu Pushelberg.

The firm, founded by Order of Canada recipients George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg and active internationally out of offices in New York City and Toronto, was announced as the designer for the COH by the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) on June 2. The firm will be working pro bono.

Sonia Germain, the firm's marketing and public relations manager, said the reveal came as a relief.

"We're super excited to finally be talking about it," she said in an interview. "It's been months in the works. It has been hush-hush until now."

Germain said the project award is an "incredible" honour and opportunity for exposure for Yabu Pushelberg but it also comes with notable constraints. The COH will be housed in spaces that are part of a private aquatic centre and right after the Olympics the installation will have to be removed, so no structural changes will be undertaken. The budget was "very, very small," she said. And Olympic sponsors such as Hudson's Bay Co. (HBC), Canadian Tire and Molson Coors Canada play major roles in the project which, while welcomed for making the project possible, meant frequent consultation and branding displays.

"Each room is sponsored by a different organization that is a sponsor of the Canadian Olympic team, and Canadian Tire is one of the primary sponsors of this space, so the Celebration Lounge is sponsored by Canadian Tire specifically," explained Germain, giving an example.

But "there was some flexibility in that," she said, noting Yabu Pushelberg was able to browse through Canadian Tire's inventory of modular indoor-outdoor furnishings in planning room configurations.

Public spaces at the COH include a wide-open reception area and gift shop, the Welcome Hall and Celebration Lounge and an outdoor patio. Moss and Lam art studios have created Canadian-themed art including a major canoe-paddle-styled ceiling installation.

Germain said the mobile from Moss and Lam looks "incredible" and will be a focal point for visitors.

"We didn't want it to be kitschy or too obvious either," said Germain. "We wanted to incorporate some of that Canadiana, and the warmth people feel hopefully when they meet Canadians, or visit Canada, but not be too obvious."

The installation timetable leaves no room for delays. The work begins two weeks prior to the opening ceremonies on Aug. 5. A Yabu Pushelberg project manager will be working with a local contractor over that period on the job, Germain explained, and a two-person design team from her firm will go towards the end of the installation to style and accessorize the spaces, working with George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg to add finishing touches. Moss and Lam will also be sending a small team for a few days to install its four custom art installations.

Completion is targeted for Aug. 2 or 3, Germain says, and the COH will open Aug. 4, the day before the start of the Games.

With no structural reconfigurations contemplated, Germain talked about "applying things to different surfaces, painting a staircase...putting vinyl on the flooring that will have Canadian Olympic team graphics on it," covering the walls with plywood and other available materials, wrapping the Welcome Hall with HBC-branded drapery and covering windows with transparent vinyl to permit light into the space.

The COC notes in a statement that the COH is intended to be the Olympic Games destination for family of Canada's athletes and also serves as a destination for family and friends of coaches, support staff, Mission Team members, partners and special guests.

"The main purpose of that space is to allow athletes and their families to watch some of the Olympic coverage," Germain said about the Welcome Hall. "So there are a lot of screens in this room and they are available from every vantage point. The furniture is all reconfigurable and the existing flooring is covered with carpets, and rugs, and all of that will be removed once the Olympics are over."

COH officials are expecting some 20,000 visitors during the two-week Games. A spokesperson for the COC said the cost of installing the COH was not being revealed.

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