Despite new design, controversy may dog Tokyo’s Olympic stadium long after last lap is run

by

Staff Writer

When a fresh design for the new National Stadium was chosen last month, many believed it would finally put an end to months of chaos over its construction. They were wrong.

Amid allegations that the latest design is “remarkably similar” to the original plan — scrapped by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last summer due to skyrocketing costs — prominent architects and academics warn that past blunders could continue to haunt the project even beyond the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“What has happened in the case of the stadium is very special,” David B. Stewart, professor of architecture at Tokyo Institute of Technology, told The Japan Times. “There are several things that went wrong, and it’s hard to know how they relate to one another. It’s been an extraordinary mess.”

In December, the government selected a design by architect Kengo Kuma in tandem with major construction company Taisei Corp. to build the new National Stadium, replacing the original 2012 competition-winning design by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.

Construction is slated to begin in November, and is set for completion by November 2019.

But the controversy surrounding the stadium has refused to abate. Hadid, who did not enter the second competition after failing to attract a general contractor partner as required, has alleged that Kuma’s stadium layout and seating configuration contain “remarkable similarities” to her original plan.

Hadid also says that the Japan Sport Council, which is responsible for the stadium, is refusing to provide overdue payment for her work unless she hands over the copyright and agrees to sign what amounts to a gag order.

Kuma insists similarities between the two designs are inevitable, given that they must comply with strict building regulations. But not everyone agrees.

“There is some truth to that, but there are ways to make variations,” said Tokyo-based architect Edward Suzuki. “Personally, it is difficult to swallow what he (Kuma) says, because it is too similar.”

Pritzker Prize-winning architect Fumihiko Maki, who led a 2013 petition against Hadid’s design on the grounds that it was too big and intrusive for the site in Tokyo’s leafy Meiji Jingu Shrine area, disagrees.

“I’m not so sure it’s a copy,” he said. “When you look at her submission and now, it doesn’t look the same. The latest scheme she did was a collaboration with Japanese architects. One of those architects is involved in this scheme for the new stadium, so it could have been their scheme, not necessarily Zaha’s scheme.”

Hadid has been vocal in defending herself since Abe decided to scrap her design last July, arguing that a bidding process without competition and inflated construction costs were to blame for the project’s soaring price tag.

In addition, Hadid was frustrated by her relationship with the project’s contractors — a position that traditionally wields great authority in Japan.

“In our experience, the best way to deliver high-quality and cost-effective projects is for the selected designers to work in collaboration with the construction contractor and client as a single team with a single aim,” Hadid’s firm said in a statement after being dropped from the project last summer. “However, we were not permitted to work with the construction contractors.”

Stewart of Tokyo Institute of Technology argues that Hadid ultimately failed to fully understand the business culture in Japan.

“She seems not to have realized that the general contractors are running the show,” said Stewart. “In the second round of the competition it was very clear, because it was a competition between general contractors who then chose an architect. And nobody would go back and select Zaha Hadid.”

Not all fingers, however, have pointed at Hadid when assigning blame for the stadium’s problems.

Architect Maki insists that his opposition to Hadid’s original design, alongside fellow noted architects Toyo Ito and Arata Isozaki, was simply a consequence of the competition’s design brief, which was set by the JSC.

“The program was wrong. It was too big, too complicated and then, maybe, too expensive. And then maybe they would not be able to recover the costs after the Olympics,” said the 87-year-old Maki. “Architects follow what the program asks.

“The JSC are very inept bureaucrats because they haven’t had this kind of experience before. So in a sense, I’m a little bit sympathetic that this task was given to people who aren’t experts.”

Hadid’s original design infuriated some architects for overstepping the design parameters and obstructing the nearby Kokuritsu-Kyogijo subway station, but was still selected by a competition jury headed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando.

“I know several of the people on that committee, and they should have known better,” said Stewart.

But the problems dogging the stadium did not fully enter the public consciousness until Abe pulled the plug on Hadid’s design last summer.

“Most Japanese are unaware that one building can be superior to another in terms of function or aesthetic or anything,” said Stewart. “And what really set off the controversy was when people realized that the costs had gone through the roof.”

Architect Suzuki, however, believes that Abe was quick to manipulate the situation for his own political gain.

“Abe finally gave in to popular demand, saying, ‘because it has become too expensive I’m going to scrap it,’ ” Suzuki said.

“He only did that because he was being bogged down by the populace for his (security legislation) movements. He just wanted to divert attention away from that problem, so he scrapped Zaha to win some popular backing.”

A third-party inquiry last September concluded that officials in charge of building the stadium, including then sports minister Hakubun Shimomura, failed to put a system in place to handle such a complex project.

But the current copyright dispute suggests that the stadium has some way to go before it can free itself of controversy. Maki, for one, believes that the problems will continue long after the 2020 Olympics.

“It’s everybody’s fault, but nobody wants to admit it,” he said. “It’s a human comedy.

“I think it is better than before, but still it may cause a big post-Olympics problem with income versus expenditure. The place will only be open 50 days or something a year. The rest of the year, 300 days, silent. Just a big mass, and nobody wants to have such a thing in the center of Tokyo.

“I hope it doesn’t stay forever. I’m sure, after 50 years, Tokyo or the Japanese government cannot afford to keep it so they will maybe raze it and make a smaller one. Or maybe just an open space.”

  • Ron Lane

    “Most Japanese are unaware that one building can be superior to another in terms of function or aesthetic or anything,” said Stewart.

    Oh, come on. Give the citizens of this country a little more credit than that.

    “I hope it doesn’t stay forever. I’m sure, after 50 years, Tokyo or the
    Japanese government cannot afford to keep it so they will maybe raze it
    and make a smaller one. Or maybe just an open space.”

    Perfect. . . .

  • J.P. Bunny

    “Or maybe just an open space.” Why not start out with that? There are other stadiums in the general area that will serve just as well as this brand new one. It would certainly cost a lot less to build a park that people can use 365 days a year than a seldom used stadium.