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Hadid’s curse: Mammoth monstrosity threatens Tokyo’s greenbelt

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

The government needs to pull the plug on the planned new Olympic stadium designed by the celebrity British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.

Time is running out as wrecking balls are set to raze the iconic National Olympic Stadium this summer unless the relevant authorities come to their senses and hit the reset button. Her plan is attracting harsh criticism from the Japanese media, Japan’s leading architects, environmentalists and the public because it is an eyesore in the making that is excessive in every way and will further increase the financial burden this generation is imposing on future generations. TBS recently aired a special television program critical of the project while editorials in the Asahi and Nikkei newspapers condemn it, the latter reminding readers that in 1964 a highway was hastily constructed over the historic Nihonbashi Bridge, a folly that should not be repeated. The media campaign is having an impact as a recent Nikkei poll found that 60 percent of respondents oppose the proposed stadium.

“Hadid’s curse,” as one of my students calls it, is a typical white elephant project, one that is unnecessary and wasteful. It will sit there after the Olympics mostly unused, a symbol of thoughtless excess and mindless consumption. OK, you are thinking, maybe this might accurately reflect the zeitgeist of contemporary Japan, the stadium equivalent of a monstrous Prada bag plopped down in a lovely park. But the glitzy ostentation is really more a retro thing, bringing to mind all those tasteless bubble-era projects that never made any sense, littering the archipelago with concrete symbols of bad ideas and profligate spending. That’s why Japan has so many museums all over the country that don’t have anything worth looking at aside from the buildings. There was money for the construction, but none left over for the art, the emptiness of affluence as installation.

The lesson of previous Olympics is not to build excessively, but to spend wisely and design flexibly to anticipate prospects after the hoopla ends. Olympics last a couple of weeks so it’s important to think about long-term utility and costs. London learned the lesson of Beijing’s folly, creating a stadium that was designed to downsize. After the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Bird’s Nest Stadium is mostly idle, used only 45 days a year because there are very few events that require 90,000 seats.

Organizers are in a rush to build the new Tokyo stadium so it will be ready for a dry run during the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Or, at least, that is their excuse for bulldozing ahead with Hadid’s curse.

According to Hadid: “The stadium will become an integral element of Tokyo’s urban fabric, directly engaging with the surrounding cityscape to connect and carve the elegant forms of the design. The unique structure is both light and cohesive, defining a silhouette that integrates with the city. The perimeter of the stadium will be an inhabited bridge: A continuous exhibition space that creates an exciting new journey for visitors.”

Is Meiji Jingu Gaien really a good landing spot for this spaceship? She should explain to the elderly about how demolishing the apartment complexes they call home fits with that narrative. I am sure they are also excited about being shoved aside to make way for the “continuous exhibition space” and an “inhabited bridge.” And how can a stadium that’s about 20 stories tall nestle into the cityscape as it would tower over everything around it and downsize one of Tokyo’s largest greenbelts.

The government recently acknowledged that it made a colossal mistake by downsizing the original design by 20 percent. This is supposed to bring the cost down from about $3 billion to $1.6 billion, but one suspects that this estimate is worthy of a Pinocchio award. And it will be 70 meters tall, instead of 75 meters, a slightly more svelte silhouette that still clashes with the natural setting in a low-rise area. But what about the ongoing maintenance costs for this facility? Well only about 10 times higher than the costs of maintaining the current very usable facility. A similar retractable roof stadium in Oita Prefecture has problems with its turf and constantly has to replace the sod while the current stadium is lauded for its superb pitch, one that requires far less upkeep. Alas, Hadid’s curse will be a gift that keeps on taking.

Sumiko Enbutsu, an environmental activist and former Japan Times columnist who has authored several books on Tokyo, favors renovation and believes that “the present stadium is perfectly usable for the 2020 Olympics and should be used because of its wonderful history.” In her opinion, the new project is being imposed due to “Japan Sports Council President (Ichiro) Kono’s high-handed behavior beyond the limits of his authority and under the radar (with) old-timer political powers behind him.”

Japan’s stable of Pritzker Prize-winning architects agrees this is a bad idea. Fumihiko Maki, one of Japan’s most renowned architects, believes the structure is too big for the 11-hectare site and will damage the surroundings. In a recent letter sent to the International Olympic Committee, this 85-year-old Pritzker Prize laureate stated that, “the scope and intensity of growing criticism against the project are unparalleled in the history of architecture in Japan.” He also detailed problems with the stadium design, including a lack of, “harmony with its historic and verdant environs, huge construction costs, functional defects (the absence of warming-up grounds is one example) and safety considerations.” He also informed the IOC that the new project may stain its reputation as the Japan Sports Council is desperately trying to shift the blame onto it.

Toyo Ito, another Pritzker Prize laureate, proposes a renovation of the existing stadium, built in 1958 for the 1964 Olympics, that would cost about one third the price of building a new stadium and not be nearly as disruptive to the surrounding greenbelt and community.

Hadid’s curse embraces a discredited and tired “bigger is better” ethos that seems totally at odds with Japan’s spare aesthetic and will indelibly mar the charming park area. It is also out of tune with environmental trends favoring renovation and retrofitting rather than “toss and build” and ignores the IOC’s desire to lower the cost of staging the games. Moreover, according to professor Sachihiko Harashina, a specialist in environmental planning at Chiba University of Commerce, the project fails to meet IOC criteria on impact, sustainability and legacy.

Best-selling writer and sports commentator Robert Whiting, who has called Tokyo home since the 1960s, thinks it looks vulgar.

“Too big, too bloated, too much harm caused to the surroundings,” he says. “It’s an affront against nature and the gods. Where is Kenzo Tange when we need him?”

It was welcome news, therefore, that on June 10, Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe announced his plans to review all of the Olympic venues, so there is hope to put a stop to this philistine undertaking and make this an Olympics Japan can be proud of.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • RedBaronsCuz

    So that is how the cocked up Nihonbashi. I always wondered how they managed to do that. The knee-jerk reaction to potential national glory makes sense now. The architect’s sale’s pitch is completely devoid of any substance.