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“We are developing a new profession”: Samantha Cotterell

“We are developing a  new profession”: Samantha Cotterell

Interview: Michael J. Rennschmied,
Pictures: Design Sport

Doha based company Designsport specializes in the development of sport through architecture, sport overlay design and major event infrastructure. Coliseum spoke again to Founder and CEO Samantha Cotterell about designing for Qatar’s major sporting events and her involvement in India’s Commonwealth Games last year.

Coliseum: “Let us start from where we left off last time. What has changed since then? You said you had finished your work in India.”

Samantha Cotterell: “Yes, we finished the project in India at the end of October 2010. Working on the Delhi Commonwealth Games was a very exciting and challenging project! As the world knows, the media were extremely disparaging of event preparations for the Commonwealth Games, however, once the Opening Ceremony was staged and the first competitions began, the world could not ignore the evidence that Delhi had in fact risen to the challenge and successfully débuted on the stage of multisport mega events! From an Overlay perspective the project was a great success! When I say ‘Overlay’ I mean the entire project of building a team of local architects, mentoring them through the process, designing, developing and delivering. We have left a legacy to the Sport world of India and gained much in personal experience in return. India is a very complex and wonderful place which I could talk about for hours – but I won’t hijack your interview!

Coliseum: “What exactly was your job in India in relation to the Commonwealth Games?”

Samantha Cotterell: “I was Overlays Expert Advisor to Organising Committee. My role on paper was to advise across all matters pertaining to venue development, operational design, overlay design, development and implementation. However, in practice, my role included running the Overlays Department. My DESIGNSPORT colleague and I hired local architects to form the Overlays Team and together we mentored this budding young team to understand overlays and deliver the whole project. It is amusing the manner in which I was engaged actually. I was
headhunted through Facebook! At the time I was contacted I immediately said I was not available for the job – it was already too late to plan the overlays for a major multi-sport event. But the Indians can be very insistent and hence managed to have me travel to Delhi to assess the situation. I proceeded to make them an offer I thought they would refuse, it was also unconventional in the sense that part of the first phase of works I proposed to carry out in the DESIGNSPORT studio in Qatar and once we had reached a base design we would use that to mentor and train the architects in India. This proposal was done as a kick start to a long process that was considerably delayed – much to my surprise they accepted and so our adventure began!”

Coliseum: “Which specific venues did you work on?”

Samantha Cotterell: “All venues. I was in charge of all competition and non-competition venues including Opening and Closing Ceremonie’s and Athlete Village. We worked with government authorities, local architecture studios, Ministries, all major stakeholders including International Sporting Federations, the Commonwealth Games Federation, to ensure that our designs were taken into consideration in the base building constructions. This was a challenging time as the whole of Delhi was one large construction site and delays were threatening the project. This meant that authorities were not receptive to our requests for changes – and hence further delays and cost. But it was an essential part of transforming venues from ‘legacy mode’ to ‘event mode’. As part of the job we set up all the tender documents for procuring construction and delivery of the overlays, we worked with the overlay vendors, preparing the detailed design, site-managing the build and overseeing the decommission and restoration of all sites.”
Coliseum: “What we heard here from the media was that it was a mixture of corrupt affairs, the fact that everything was done at the last minute and that when the first teams arrived the accommodation was not presentable. I also read that the Commonwealth Games failed to attract any extra tourists, so obviously the marketing side also failed to make these games attractive. I think it was not only the negative press – they had different reasons to hit on India – but my personal opinion is that it was much too early to give these games to India. What do you think?”
Samantha Cotterell: “Absolutely not! It is a little like saying ‘when is the right time to have a baby?’ There is no right time! Nothing prepares you for the overwhelming change to your world. The Games are like that! They come along and change the life of a city and its inhabitants forever. In fact it seems to me that it is better just to take the leap and deal with issues as they arise – the experience will only improve life! Hosting a multisport event is a historical step for any country and one for which no amount of preparation will suffice. Having said that, there is no excuse as to how things were played out in Delhi Politics and corruption took centre stage and prevented India from righteously showcasing its abilities, its ambitions and its glory.”

Coliseum: “Now that the games are over and all the experts like you are leaving, what is the legacy now for India?”

Samantha Cotterell: “India, Delhi has been greatly enriched by the Games. When you go to other cities in India you just don’t breathe the same air as in Delhi. Delhi is now a city that is highly developed compared to other major Indian cities. In a compressed amount of time it gained an International Airport of the highest standards, a metro system that has nothing to envy any western system, a system of highways and roads that now facilitate circulation to, from and within the city. It boasts of first class sports facilities that stand out like rare jewels on the chaotic landscape. I think it has left some fantastic facilities for the future development of sport in that country, and I hope they get used the right way. Additionally, India now has a legacy in terms of human resources. The Games trained an enormous workforce in areas of expertise and professions that will greatly benefit developing India. The legacy element is a core interest of Designsport. We are concerned with the development of the profession of the ‘sport architect’ and how this role supports bidding nations, host nations and all sporting authorities of the industry. We are developing a new profession through our commitment to the promotion of sport through architecture, design and new media.Designsport’s legacy was training a team of thirty architects who can now take on sporting events in India with a certain amount of expertise. Some of our Architects have gone into positions with the IPL (Indian Premier League) and others with the Sports Authority of India. We witnessed a very steep learning curve in the architects we trained. When they first arrived on the job, most of them were junior architects, only a few years out of university. We threw them in at the deep end and offered much support but essentially relied on their abilities to grasp things quickly and hit the ground running! They had a very detailed and tedious task, they were in charge of many aspects beyond their scope and hence have come out with considerable experience and a good understanding of international sporting event requirements. They are of course no experts but they have an experience and they will continue to grow.”

Coliseum: “So what next? You are Qatar based and Qatar now got the big shot so what’s your plan for 2022?”

Samantha Cotterell: “Well…Qatar 2022 is the business of a small core group at this stage. Of course, like everyone, we would like to be involved and we look forward to such a possibility. However, at the moment we are involved in two exciting large projects in Qatar. I am currently the Advisor to the Director of Venues for the Arab Games where my role is similar to the role I had in India. The other project is a master plan to set up the framework for the development of sport in the country of Qatar. We are part of a consortium with Populous and MI Associates and my role is as local design lead. These are the two big projects for this year and, of course, we have a few other things in the pipeline which we are not allowed to talk about…so fingers crossed.”

Coliseum: “Qatar seems to be at the start of the whole sport thing. I think it is not just about building nice venues, you have to start from the grass roots. In the Middle East sport is not really the main topic for the locals during the day and you have to implant the sporting or healthy lifestyle into their daily life, much the same as in India.”

Samantha Cotterell: “That’s right. This region does not have a sporting culture per se, but Qatar is a visionary country with enormous means and it has identified sport as a major force for developing a nation. The Qatar Olympic Committee has developed several initiatives to bring sport to the community and steer the country into a more sporting existence. It is recognized that sport is not just for the elite and that only a developed sporting nation can support the creation of elite athletes.I remember being told by the ex-CEO of the Australian Institute of Sport about a study which was carried out in Australia and which says that Australia is struggling to produce the top athletes of due to the sedentary lifestyle of children who today play on play stations and computers instead of playing outdoor developing basic motor skills by kicking around a ball, running, engaging in physical activity.The health implications of this are quite severe and are costing the government in health services when these children grow into adults. Australia used to be the great sporting nation but today it is a nation struggling with a growing rate of diabetes and other diseases associated with sedentary living. This shows that it really is important to introduce sport from the earliest age to support the healthy development of an entire population – Qatar appears to be taking all this very seriously!”

Coliseum: “We were thinking the Olympic bid would perhaps follow the World Cup win.”
Samantha Cotterell: “I am sure Qatar is thinking the same thing! And wouldn’t THAT be a great project to work on!!!”

Coliseum: “Samantha, again it was a pleasure talking to you; thanks.

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“Delhi’s Debut: Exceeding all expectations”

“Delhi’s Debut: Exceeding all expectations”

HOST CITY speaks to the overlay experts that helped carry Delhi over the finish line to successfully make its debut on the stage of world class multi-sport events by hosting the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games

Of all the fierce competitions that caught the world’s attention during the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the one that will surely be remembered most in years to come is the one in which the organisers overcame major obstacles, heavy criticism and negative perceptions in the final sprint to prepare infrastructure for the event.

For foreign companies and experts involved in the planning and delivery of the event, the project was a great adventure. Samantha Cotterell of Designsport was the expert overlay advisor appointed to the organising committee. “Designsport’s experience was very ‘invigorating’,” says Cotterell with a sense of humour, “And reaching the finish line in such splendour made the whole experience extremely rewarding.” “These will be the best Games ever,” organising committee chairman Suresh Kalmadi could be heard saying. This is a cliché that requires context, as every Games delivers its own standard, which indeed is what Delhi did. Against all odds it delivered a moving and rewarding debut on the stage of multisport events, catapulting India into a new historical moment and offering the Commonwealth Games Federation a product that few of its member countries will be able to match.

A pantheon of Hindu Gods on their side

“In the corridors of the organizing committee one could often hear the expression ‘Luckily India has many gods!’ Of course, for much of the time leading up to the event we needed all the godly assistance we could get,” says Cotterell.

According to Designsport, during the years of preparation for the Games the major challenge was the Indian bureaucracy and the lack of a streamlined structure in place to implement and monitor the delivery process. This meant that potential problems were unforeseen and everything took much longer to achieve. But the gods indeed must have been overseeing the process for, despite the many challenges, the project was a great success.

In the last couple of months before the opening ceremony, Delhi was hit by the heaviest monsoons in decades. This further delayed construction works, brought some projects to a permanent standstill and forced the organizing committee to find alternative venues at the last minute. This unforeseen obstacle slowed down the ability of the overlay contractors to take possession of sites from government agencies to be able to carry out their part of the works. This amounted to millions of dollars worth of projects.

As Chief Minister of Delhi Mrs Sheila Dikshit appealed to Lord Indra to stop the downpour, the combination of the rains and the heat brought an outbreak of dengue fever which took a toll on the health of many, putting scores of workers out of action and seriously impacting the delivery of the Games.

Cotterell explains that one of the most amusing obstacles that were faced was the role of Delhi Police. In the years leading up to the event the organising committee did not have adequate security design input at planning stage. Cotterell says: “We trained our team in international security standards, taking what would normally happen in an Olympic Games as our parameter. But then when the Delhi Police were finally mobilised to take charge of the security of the event, we were in full overlay construction mode.

“The games readiness was already under enormous pressure due to delays, rains and dengue fever and the police arrived having their own ideas on how they thought the events should run. Much to our alarm, police could be found on site improvising themselves as overlay designers.”

According to Cotterell, this posed a threat to the successful operations of the games. The Delhi Police are an extremely impenetrable body – to be able to effect change one had to appeal in writing to the highest authority before the command could trickle down to the site and the designs be rectified.

Samantha worked with the highest authorities to explain the reasons for and requirements of the proposed design, and the safety implications of allowing police to affect that design without taking into consideration the ‘big picture’ and stadium operations.

One of the highest profile overlay projects, under the responsibility of Designsport, was the operational design and construction of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, hosting the opening and closing ceremonies and the athletics competition, where the entrance and exit areas had to accommodate the safe movement of 60,000 people.

Samantha also explains that the location of the road races venue, hosting marathon, cycling and race walk competitions, kept shifting due to police intervention and required authorisation from and coordination with Delhi municipality. With changes like this going on right up to the last minute, the designers had to be resourceful.

“All the overlay commodities had already been ordered and delivered to India – no room was left to make any changes. To be able to build the games in the time available was already unlikely. So some of our meetings with the overlay contractors turned into bartering exercises where we would have to ask ‘what do you have that you could exchange for this, what can we take off one venue and put on another venue?’ Eventually we managed to piece the puzzle together and deliver all venues just in time. It was then up to the ceremonies department to stage a spectacular show, which was the turning point for the Games and the beginning of an unforgettable two weeks of smooth running competitions and side events”

Setting the record straight

The organisers took a lot of flak from the press for being behind schedule, but Cotterell is keen to set the record straight. “You can’t just blame the organizing committee for what prevented the smooth preparation of the Games. The government agencies, municipal authorities and the Commonwealth Games Federation, all played a part contributing to the pitfalls. Within the organising committee, contrary to what the media were saying, there were teams of people working around the clock, keeping spirits high, and assembling this extraordinary debut for India.”

“There was not a clear hierarchical path to reach a decision. In India there are as many bureaucratic levels as there are gods and the only way to get a decision was to go and sit in the General Secretary’s office and get his personal commitment in order to push forwards. Without Lalit Bhanot’s signature, nothing happened.

“There was no particular formality other than having a friendly relationship with the office man who guarded Dr Bhanot’s door; essentially one could just knock on the door and if he wanted to see you he’d invite you to sit down with another five to ten people all trying to have a meeting with him at the same time. It was warm and interesting – you inevitably got involved in the decision making about the work of other departments.”

Accepting that you are working in a different world is essential for a positive experience. “You have to be culturally adaptable. Designsport’s philosophy is to train, mentor and work with a local team of architects. By so doing we build a very dynamic and culturally friendly work environment and also leave a legacy to the country in which we are invited to work.”

Are companies who are not getting involved in India missing opportunities? Cotterell thinks so. Designsport has now set up shop in India and is well positioned to contribute to the design and implementation of facilities and infrastructure for the growing sports industry.

For overseas companies that are prepared to work in India on its own terms, the rewards are great. “We can now say that Designsport survived the challenge – I believe that really shows character, professionalism and stamina – the sort of thing that all developing world countries would need when employing foreign companies to deliver their major projects.”

India’s triumph

Having spent so much time in India preparing for the Games and having spent much time in India as an architecture student, Cotterell is well placed to comment on what the event means for the nation’s development. “It was a historical moment for India. It has changed Delhi forever. Delhi now has an international airport worthy of its name; a metro system that would be the envy of any major European city; a new road system linking major parts of the city and peripheral new towns; Connaught Place, the colonial show piece that is the centre of the city, has been revamped; beautiful hotels and restaurants have come up in beautiful gardens and other exotic parts of the city. – Delhi still has all the charm of its colonial past, now married with the character of its identity as capital city of one of the fastest growing economies in the world – truly a fascinating transition to witness.”

The hosts themselves have shown no surprise that their biggest sports event was a huge international success, because they always knew they would succeed. “The Indians are very playful people – even at the highest level there is a lot of playfulness. It is never devoid of colour or humour – and a belief in fate, that all will be OK.”

Cotterell points out that, paradoxically, the success of the event was not only a confirmation that India is capable of hosting a major international multi-sport event, but it also represents a challenge to the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF). After many trials and tribulations, the CGF is now faced with the fact that India has raised the bar in terms of the financial outlay and the standard of their product to a mini-Olympic Games. The CGF is now faced with having to redimension the expectations in order to stay relevant to most of the member countries which are very small.

Cotterell concludes by saying: “The previous Commonwealth Games were held in Melbourne, Australia. With its privileged status as a major sporting capital of the world, success was guaranteed. India started from a less privileged position in relation to infrastructure and sporting experience and yet succeeded in hosting a magical event. Glasgow has much to live up to!”


“The architect who brings design to sport”

“The architect who brings design to sport”
Designers who specialise in sports event operations are few and far between. Samantha Cotterell of DESIGNSPORT talks about her journey from the catwalk capital to the Asian Games and beyond


Samantha Cotterell began her career as an architect designing museums and art galleries in Milan, the “capital of fashion”. From there she would take summer holidays in the Greek islands, which was where she met some people who were putting together a bid to carry out the design and delivery of the overlays for the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. “They suggested I contribute my CV, which I did flippantly,” Cotterell said in a recent interview with architecture magazine Coliseum. “It wasn’t until six months later that I got a call to say they had won the bid, asking ‘when was I moving to Athens?’” She worked for two years as a senior architect within the organising committee, working on the main Olympic Park. She then spent two years with sport architecture firm Decathlon, which became the main consultant to the contractor for the Olympic Park venues. “My passion for sport events started there in Greece,” she told Coliseum. “Professionally, I felt event architecture was akin to the work I was doing for museums and exhibition centres but had the added excitement and dynamism of the competition and efforts of human spirit – I felt privileged to be involved in the preparation of arenas that contribute to great historical moments.” During the Athens Games, Fiona Smith du Toit, a friend and colleague of Cotterell’s, moved to Doha to take on the role of overlay development programme manager within the organising committee of the 2006 Asian Games. Cotterell was duly approached to take on the role of head of overlay design. Cotterell and Smith du Toit developed a deep understanding of what it takes to host an event from inception to delivery, as well as a working knowledge of all major stakeholders, including athletes, broadcasters, sporting federations, media and sponsors. Realising that this specialist expertise was a unique asset, they began to build DESIGNSPORT in Qatar, enlisting a nomadic group of experienced organising committee professionals. Cotterell tells Host City: ““We now have an exciting young team of architects from different cultures and countries who have gained the necessary working knowledge of designing and delivering major sport events.”

Bringing expertise inside the OC

DESIGNSPORT is a young and dynamic consultancy that is unique in its ability to adapt to working across cultures and languages. The team is diverse and includes architects, engineers, designers, film makers, ex-athletes, researchers and all bring their creative energy to different aspects of the profession to tailor solutions for a variety of clients in the sport industry. Cotterell told the Australian International Sporting Events Secretariat: “Our team members are highly qualified architects and sporting professionals who come from a variety of cultures, languages and experiences. This allows us to move into foreign countries and establish successful working relationships easily – cultural sensitivity and adaptability are essential ingredients to the success of our work.”DESIGNSPORT’s experience across Europe, Arabia and Asia has allowed the company to create a strong team of professionals who are able to mentor and build local teams, leaving a legacy for the country in which they are working. For the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, DESIGNSPORT has built up a team of 25 architects who work inside the organising committee to develop and deliver the overlay for 17 competition venues and 6 non competition venues. Cotterell told Coliseum: “From Athens Olympics to Asian Games and Commonwealth Games we’ve always brought the team in-house. The success of this approach lies in the fact that the designers are an integrated and fundamental component of the organising committee.”

The people and the places

The strength of DESIGNSPORT lies in its people and the relationships that are built through the experience. Cotterell tells Host City: “The highlight of our experience in both Doha and Delhi has been the fabulous team of local architects who undergo an extremely tenuous process and a steep learning curve but who carry the project through to completion often against all odds and with great tenacity.”The team that Cotterell mentored in Doha was formed mainly of Arab women from a variety of backgrounds and countries. “The team was mostly comprised of strong architects capable of walking on site and managing teams of construction workers while managing a complex network of client groups and, of course, their families simultaneously.”In Delhi the common thread within the team is young architects; many fresh graduates from university who, Cotterell says, “have grown from timid young adults to fierce knowledgeable young professionals having to navigate the hierarchy of Indian politics while ensuring they deliver their sporting venues for the imminent Commonwealth Games. “The bonding we have with the professionals we had the honour to know and mentor is testimony to the success of our involvement in these places. What comes from this experience is a great network of people joined together by having shared an intense common experience that few can comprehend – like all extreme life experiences, event building and hosting creates life lasting friendships.”

Where to next?

When asked where DESIGNSPORT is going next, Cotterell says: “I view DESIGNSPORT more as an organisation than a company. Our ambitions reach far beyond the event itself – the company is currently building on its creative energy and will soon unveil its new image. We are developing other divisions of DESIGNSPORT (such as FILMSPORT) in order to continue to expand on our cross-disciplinary intervention in the industry and to develop the profession in areas that have not yet been explored. Of course, we hope to continue to work in new countries and to continue to build on the relationships we have established so far.”Of her experience in India, Cotterell says: “India is a fantastically exciting place at this moment in time. I was in India twenty years ago as an architecture student and traveller; when I came back I could not believe the change. It is a thrill to be invited by the Indian Government to work on one of their most prestigious projects and witness the phenomenon that is this leap into the 21st century – a transition pregnant with complexities and contradictions – just like the nature of the profession itself!


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