Jilly Traganou is an architect and Associate Professor in Spatial Design Studies. Her recent publications include a book titled Designing the Olympics: Representation, Participation, Contestation (Routledge, 2016). She is the author of The Tokaido Road: Traveling and Representation in Edo and Meiji Japan (RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), a co-editor with Miodrag Mitrasinovic of Travel, Space, Architecture (Ashgate, 2009) and a contributor to several books, most recently the Routledge Companion to Design Studies (2016). Professor Traganou has been Fellow of the Japan Foundation, the European Union Science and Technology postdoctoral program, Princeton Program in Hellenic Studies, and Bard Graduate Center, as well as a recipient of two Graham Foundation grants. She has most recently been the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and spent last summer in Rio de Janeiro conducting design research on the last Olympic Games.
Congratulations on your Fulbright Scholarship! I’d like to explore the relationships you find between design, national identity, and citizenship through the categorical range of Representation, Participation, and Contestation. In any order, what has been your experience with each?
When I first started working on this subject, my interest was how national identity was being represented through the design of Olympic artefacts. For example, if we look at the Olympic emblems, we can observe aspects of the international symbolism of the Olympics, through the presence of the rings for instance. At the same time, according to the Olympic protocol, the host city has to portray its own identity. And sometimes it’s re-branding itself to separate from the past and to create a new image for the future. My interest in representation emerged in Greece, where I come from. The 2004 Olympics happened in Athens, and I went back to Athens in 2003 to study the multiple notions of Greek identity being represented through the architecture for the Olympics.
Regarding participation, an important question to ask is: Who is creating the Olympics or deciding what this new identity is, and how can it be expressed through design? Of course we know that the Olympics is a very exclusive operation. There’s a very top-down approach to design with appointed designers, or an occasional contest winner. But there are certain attempts or moments of including other voices. The most common place to find these other voices is in the realm of interpretation of these forms——how people try to understand them, appropriate them, or even create new meanings or forms out of them. The meaning of a design is not always obvious. The variety of meanings that are expressed in the public realm both visually and verbally provides the first cracking of the box of the Olympic organizers being in control of the game. In more recent years there have been some attempts to approach Olympic design as a participatory field to be created to some degree by the public, not only by those exclusively appointed designers.
Contestation, the third part of the book, is the act of questioning and resisting the Olympics. It manifests where people produce new design forms in interaction with, or in opposition to the Olympics, e.g., creating design forms and processes to question who the Olympics are for, expressing their disagreement or empowering communities that have been disenfranchised by Olympic development.
Could you talk about the case studies featured in your book?
In the order of my own history, I researched the Olympics that took place in Athens in 2004, in Tokyo in 1964, and in London in 2012. Also, the book features a chapter on dissent, which looks at how different counter-Olympic movements in different cities have used design. Sometimes not openly confrontational, but more to the point of asking questions or creating space for recuperation.
Are you more interested in how the Olympics affects a place or how the place affects the Olympics? Or do both factor equally?
I’m curious what it would mean to look at how a particular place—a host city—affects the future of the Olympics. So there are some disappointing patterns that are being repeated with each Olympic year. And the designers are possibly accepting the Olympic objective of overachievement, so there is this idea of breaking the record each time with the design, e.g., of a more high-tech or a bigger stadium. I would’ve liked to see a different model in Rio of an Olympic city that would leave a different legacy to the Olympic institution, for an Olympic city that is inclusive, sustainable, equitable and that addresses the issues of poverty that we see in a mega-city like Rio.
While in residence as a Fulbright Scholar in Rio de Janeiro, what were