This article titled “Zaha Hadid’s Tokyo Olympic stadium slammed as a ‘monumental mistake’ and a ‘disgrace to future generations'” was written by Oliver Wainwright, for theguardian.com on Thursday 6th November 2014 09.47 UTC
It was supposed to represent a dynamic future vision for Tokyo, flaring up out of the city’s Meiji Jingu park in sinuous white arcs. But Zaha Hadid’s design for the 2020 Olympic stadium has been subjected to a two-year tirade of criticism, alterations and budget cuts – and it’s now facing its fiercest public attack yet.
After viewing the revised stadium designs, which were scaled down by a quarter in July following a 40% reduction in budget, one of the country’s most eminent architects, 83-year-old Arata Isozaki, has launched a blistering assault against the project, declaring it to be a “monumental mistake” and warning it will be a “disgrace to future generations”.
In a lengthy open letter to the Japan Sports Council, the government body in charge of plans for the 2020 games, Isozaki rails against the “distorted” process that has led to “a dull, slow form, like a turtle waiting for Japan to sink so that it can swim away”.
“The sight left me in despair,” he writes, having seen the revised scheme at a current exhibition at Tokyo’s Opera City Art Gallery. “If the stadium gets built the way it is, Tokyo will surely be burdened with a gigantic white elephant.”
It is the latest chapter in a saga that has seen the design subject to widespread opposition, led by a number of Japan’s leading architects. Shortly after the project was unveiled, 86-year-old Pritzker Prize winner Fumihiko Maki organised a symposium to protest against the scheme, joined by Toyo Ito, Kengo Kuma and Sou Fujimoto, resulting in a petition that called for the project to be scrapped, which has since gained 32,000 signatures of support.
Located in the historic outer gardens of the Meiji Shrine, on the site of the existing 50,000-capacity 1964 Olympic national stadium, Hadid’s 80,000-seat venue is planned to writhe across the park in her trademark style of intertwining white sinews, with broad arches rising up to 70m high. The London-based, Iraqi-born architect says the scheme is the result of “three decades of research into Japanese architecture and urbanism,” and promises it will be an “integral element of Tokyo’s urban fabric, directly engaging with the surrounding cityscape”. Yet opponents have pointed out it is grossly out of context, looking like a gigantic bicycle helmet plonked down in the gardens, and standing in flagrant breach of the 15m height limit in force in the area.
“I’m saying it’s just ridiculous,” says Maki, who designed the neighbouring National Gymnasium in 1990, over which Hadid’s scheme will loom. “We are raising our voices, but they don’t listen. We are not a civil society where citizen voices can be critical.”
Responding to outcries of profligate public spending, the JSC reduced the approved budget from 300bn yen (£1.8bn) to 169bn yen (£970m) last year, after sports minister Hakubun Shimomura described it as “too massive a budget”. The revised designs, says Hadid’s practice, will “optimise the investment and make the stadium even more efficient, user-focused, adaptable and sustainable”. Remaining more expensive than any other Olympic stadium in recent years – standing at twice the size of the London Olympic stadium, despite holding the same number of seats – the downsized scheme has done little to appease the project’s critics.
“The new stadium design, though scaled back from the original, is still a mammoth totally out of sync with its verdant surroundings,” says Nobuko Shimizu, chair of the Custodians of the National Stadium group, which is battling to save the existing venue. Over the summer they organised a protest that drew over 500 people marching in support of keeping the existing stadium. “The historic area has been carefully conserved with strict building height limits for any construction in the area,” writes Shimizu in another open letter to the JSC. “Its precious green space serves as an oasis for Tokyoites and visitors alike. The planned 70-metre-high new stadium with its affiliated facilities will inevitably decimate the landscaping and greenery in this area.”
The group has proposed an alternative plan, drawn up by fellow Pritzker Prize-winning architect, Toyo Ito, to adapt and reuse the existing national stadium on the site, citing the Olympic Movement’s Agenda 21, paragraph 3. 2. 3, which states: “A special effort must be made to encourage the best possible use of existing sports facilities, to keep them in good condition and to improve them by increasing safety and reducing their environmental impact.”
Arata Isozaki, meanwhile, who dreamt up visions of gargantuan “skytrees” sprouting across Tokyo in the 1960s, is keen to revive the “dynamism” of Hadid’s original design. He has called for the architect to be sent back to the drawing board, taking into account the new conditions of the revised brief.
In detailed recommendations accompanying his letter, Isozaki suggests that the fundamental problem with the stadium lies in its conception as the centrepiece of the opening ceremony. He says this celebratory bonanza should be held in a separate, purpose-built venue outside the city’s Imperial Palace moat, using the Edo castle walls and keep as a dramatic backdrop. He says Kazuyo Sejima is the right architect for the job.
“This is an opportunity to surpass the format of an opening ceremony on the main athletic field that has been standard ever since the 1936 Berlin Olympics,” he writes. “Such a stage could capitalise on being live for the media age, addressing the 1 billion people watching on TV or online, not just the 100,000 or so people at the venue.” Afterwards, he says, the grandstand could be dismantled into 50 parts for relocation to each of Japan’s prefectures, contributing to the creation of parks or stadiums to commemorate the Olympics. “By doing so, we can create a new format for the Olympics of the 21st century, here in Tokyo.”
In a statement, Zaha Hadid’s practice said: “All projects around the world go through this process of design evolution. The stadium’s scheme design has been developed with our Japanese partners and responds to the revised brief issued by the client earlier this year.” They added that the design requires no construction works or redevelopment costs for use after 2020, when it will be used for “the widest variety of sporting, cultural and community events”.
Responding to criticism last year, project architect Jim Heverin told Kyodo News: “I don‘t think [the design] is something that you can decide by committee. The articulation, how [the design] manifests itself, really needs to come from a single vision, otherwise there won‘t be authorship, there won‘t be an authentic voice behind it.”
In Isozaki’s eyes, design-by-committee is exactly what’s happened, seeing the project “straying off course … leaving the organisers falling into a trap of their own making”.
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