Theatre Professor Designs Second Olympics Museum

Set designer Haibo Yu creates a cutting-edge concept for the project honoring the 2004 Athens games

Depiction of statue forest for proposed Athens Olympics Museum

A forest of statues depicts competitors from the ancient Olympic Games.

This hall recalls previous Olympic Games and will include the flag of the 2012 Games in London.

RIVERSIDE, Calif.—When officials in Greece began assembling a team to create a museum dedicated to the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, they knew whom they wanted to design the project: Haibo Yu, a professor of theatre at the University of California, Riverside.

Yu, who is known internationally for his theater set designs, was the chief designer of the Olympics museum in Beijing, on which construction began in summer 2011. He spent the summer creating concepts and technical drawings for nine rooms that will comprise the first phase of the Olympic Museum of Athens, which will be housed in the neoclassical Zappeion building in the heart of Athens. The structure currently is used as a national conference center.

A model of the Olympics stadium suspended within an arched ceiling will be reflected in a massive mirror on the floor.

Officials at Cleverbank, the Greek strategic consulting company that developed the master plan for the 2004 Olympics Organizing Committee, told Yu it was important that the museum reflect the spirit of Athens as the birthplace of the Olympic spirit, its role as host to the 1896 Games—often described as the first Olympic Games of the modern era—and the “Welcome Home” theme of the 28th Olympiad.

“They gave me a script, a list of what they wanted,” Yu explained. “As a designer it was my job to provide the form for display, and highlights to make it more visually exciting.”

Designing sets for the theater and display halls for museums share the common element of storytelling, using different art forms, Yu said. But there are significant differences.

A recreation of the statue of Zeus that resided in a temple on Mount Olympia will occupy one hall of the Olympics museum in Athens that Haibo Yu designed.

“Technically or artistically speaking, in theater your job as a set designer is to interpret the director’s vision and transform that into reality,” he explained. “In designing a museum, you have more responsibility for visual interpretation, and you must respect the heritage and treasures. Theater work is designed to be looked at from a certain distance. A museum is more interactive. You design the space to allow spectators to move within it.”

What Yu designed for the Athens museum is breathtaking and cutting-edge, with LED screens, holograms and spectacular sculptures. His work and reputation “put UCR squarely and firmly onto the world stage,” said Eric Barr, professor and chair of the Department of Theatre at UC Riverside.

“The theatre faculty is obviously very excited by the fact that Haibo Yu was invited to design the Olympic Museum in Beijing,” Barr said. “The fact that his work on that project resulted in him being invited to design the Olympics Museum in Athens, the home of the Olympics, is wonderful. It indicates the excellence and creativity of his work and puts him into a special class of international designers whose work and collaborative skills can meet the most difficult challenges.”

Among the highlights of Yu’s vision for the Athens museum:

  • An interactive, 131-foot-long (40 meters) world map on an LED screen depicting the route of the torch relay.
  • A recreation of the statue of Zeus that resided in a temple on Mount Olympia, created using drawings and historical descriptions.
  • A statue forest depicting competitors from the ancient games, and a wall of TV screens showing the parade of athletes and other images from the 2004 opening ceremonies.

    A hologram depicts a scene from the opening ceremonies of the Athens Games when a spectacular sculpture rose from the water-filled stadium floor and splintered into 18 pieces to represent the islands of Greece.

  • A model of the Olympics stadium suspended within the arched ceiling of one hall, reflected in a massive mirror on the floor measuring nearly 46 feet by 23 feet (14 meters by 7 meters), giving visitors the feeling of viewing the stadium from the air.
  • A hologram depicting a scene from the opening ceremonies when a spectacular sculpture rose from the water-filled stadium floor and splintered into 18 pieces to represent the islands of Greece. Pieces of the original sculpture will be displayed in the room. The hologram will accomplish in minutes the process of reconstructing the splintered sculpture that in reality took two days.

The museum dedicated to the Athens Games will be located in the neoclassical Zappeion building in the heart of Athens.

Yu, who was born in Beijing, is well-known in the United States, Europe, China and Hong Kong for theatrical, television and movie set design. He was part of a team that bid to design the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Although that team was not selected, other designers were impressed with his ideas and invited him to join a team representing Qinghua University and Beijing University of Technology in the competition to design the Olympics museum.

Of the Athens project Yu said, “I feel very privileged to have been asked to design this museum.”

Construction is expected to begin by the end of this year with an anticipated opening in May 2012.

Yu is a member of United Scenic Artists Local 829 and The Society of British Theatre Designers. Among his design credits are “The Adventure of Por Quinly” for South Coast Repertory; “The Best Man” for the East and West Players Theatre in Los Angeles; “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Merry Women of Windsor” and “As You Like It” for Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival; “Stone Angel” for Broomsberry Theatre in London; “Whale” for Harrogate Theatre in England; “Casablanca, The Dance” (associate designer) for Warner Brothers; “The Power of Morality,” a national award ceremony, for China Central TV; “The Opium War” for Xie-Jin Films; and “The Foreign Moon” for Media Asia (Hong Kong) and BBC Films.

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