Florian Busch, the architect who floated the Tokyo 2020 Olympic stadium

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

Florian Busch is constantly assessing space as related to culture. It’s a vital part of his work as an architect in Tokyo.

Take his comparison of the relationship between spirituality and space in his homeland and adopted home:

“In a typical German town, like most European towns dating back hundreds of years, the church is the center,” he explains. “It was built to embody the absoluteness of the one infallible God. Everything else takes a subservient role.

“Compare that to the Japanese idea of sacred spaces: a mountain that is a god, a tree that is a god, a shrine that is hidden in the mountains — all of these smaller spaces are equally important. But it is in the experience to get there that expresses your religious experience, reflected structurally in the path and then the torii gates. But unlike in Europe, the building at the end may not be designed to be a revelation; it is the path that gets you there — a perhaps much more profound, multilayered experience.”

To Busch, the actual spaces in Japan physically manifest the cultural idea of “the way” at the same time European spaces emphasize one truth, a Manichaean separation of the world into light and darkness.

“It’s a fundamentally different way of conceiving things. Philosophically it’s fascinating, and if you try to understand deeply, then you can experience space in Japan or in other cultures with a different perspective.”

Busch’s began developing insights into Japan in 2004 when, as a young graduate of Bauhaus University in Weimar and the Architectural Association in London, he snagged a job with acclaimed Japanese architect Toyo Ito. For four years with Ito’s company he traveled the globe, based in Tokyo but working in Spain, France, Germany, Singapore and Taiwan. Busch regards Ito as a “father figure,” but one who also taught him the importance of a fresh, youthful perspective.

“Visibly enjoying being surrounded by people decades younger than himself, Ito-san was always the youngest in the office as in the most curious, the most ambitious,” he recalls. “It was a really eye-opening experience for me to feel that energy every day.”

When he struck out on his own in 2009 to establish Florian Busch Architects, Busch wanted to meld that youthful energy with his own distinct, contemplative perspective. FBA’s ethos includes a commitment to urbanism within a city, the study of people, spaces and their interactions, with a focus on cultural influences and sustainable development.

To that end, Busch offers frequent social and cultural analysis on urban planning for his adopted city, Tokyo. Not only does he travel the world, giving lectures and engaging with the next generation of architects, he also publishes social commentary on FBA’s website.

Tokyo’s Olympic moment

Busch’s most recent commentary was built around a “package from the future”: a satirical assemblage of mocked-up newspaper and magazine clippings from 2020 lauding an imagined Tokyo 2020 Floating Stadium, along with scale models of the waterborne structure, all mysteriously mailed to FBA’s office.

It was Busch’s vision for an alternative to the recent controversy and chaos of the real-life stadium bidding process. Japanese architectural powerhouse Kengo Kuma won a second competition for design plans — just beating Busch’s mentor, Ito — after the original winning bid from the late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid was thrown out by the Japanese government due to escalating costs and negative “public sentiment.”

Busch’s first point of criticism lies with the entire competitive process itself.

“What was most important to me about the Floating Stadium idea was to emphasize the collective effort of everyone working together for a common goal,” he says. “We are wasting a chance, as humanity, in not embracing the potential that comes with a collective effort.”

Included in the “mysterious package postmarked from Tokyo 2020” were details on the Floating Stadium as a joint creative effort, as a flexible and transportable structure that would serve a variety of functions post-Olympics, and stand as a symbol of global goodwill and sustainability to be passed on to future hosts of the Olympic Games.

“Modern society is driven by individual vanity and the limitations that come with it,” Busch continues. “To me, the whole process of the Tokyo 2020 stadium bid was interestingly non-Japanese as it opposed Japanese cultural values and so bluntly lacked the vision of the 1964 Games.”

With the mock-up Floating Stadium, Busch hoped to showcase 21st-century values centered around sustainability.

“They could have — should have — shown a much bigger vision to the world of what it means to build a stadium in this age. And first on the list is to honor Tokyo’s Olympic heritage: How could we keep the old stadium and be proud of it?”

Tokyo lost a historic chance to show the world a positive outcome of collaboration, Busch says.

“If we go back to the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and 1972 in Munich, it was not even two decades from World War II, but with the support of the world and with a spirit of collective national effort, both Germany and Japan triumphed — really, economic miracles due to national collaborations that only 20 years before had been a collective drive to annihilate and destroy.”

Despite the tragedy that overshadowed the Munich Games, where 11 Israeli athletes and coaches and a West German police officer were killed by Palestinian terrorists, Busch praises the united vision of city planners as “revolutionary” in terms of its focus on freedom, equality and democracy, and the iconic Munich Olympiastadion built for the occasion as “an architectural and spatial monument against Nazism.”

Fast-forward to today, however, and priorities have changed.

“The 21st century is not about ‘mine is bigger,'” Busch argues, but rather sustainability. “I would have expected Tokyo to show the world this ideal in a beautiful, refined way — Tokyo doesn’t have to prove anything, her aura is refined, she’s indisputably beautiful.”

Obstacles and opportunities

For Busch, positive cultural ideals must be reflected in urban spaces and city identity. He credits his life experiences with fostering within him this perspective on space.

“I am seeing things that I could never have seen or understood or thought about if I had stayed in the same cultural area where I grew up in,” he explains. “At the same time, in parallel to a different perspective on Germany, I am looking at Japanese culture from a point inside but nevertheless still outside; I’m right in the middle of it now, but the fact that I am coming from another culture, I really don’t have a choice but to see things differently.”

Despite the cultural contrasts, Busch quickly felt a commitment to Japan and determination to succeed, though he encountered early obstacles. Just as he started FBA, the reverberations from what Japan calls the “Lehman shock” — the forerunner to the Great Recession — put paid to three planned construction projects, and the first year on his own was “a struggle.”

After two significant early design successes, however, FBA was invited to be show designer for 2011’s Tokyo Design Week, the first foreign architect firm to be thus honored. FBA were responsible for the overall layout of the event and the individual art exhibitions. Busch’s early design plans for the late summer event were thrown out, however, after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, and FBA had to start from scratch.

“Since many foreigners were leaving Japan immediately after the disaster, the organizers were worried I would leave too, but I really wanted to find a way to go ahead with it, to make it meaningful in light of the tragedy,” Busch remembers. Together, they planned a strategy to bring Tohoku culture into Tokyo Design Week.

“It was a highlight in my career with how it affected me, the time of shock, the reaction within the country and the world,” Busch says. In July 2011, together with South Korean performers Noridan, Busch’s company traveled to Yonesaki Elementary School in the small Iwate Prefecture town of the same name, much of which was devastated by the tsunami. As part of the workshop, the students created musical instruments from recycled pet bottles.

“These children had lost their friends, some had become orphans, but working with the teachers, I’ve never seen human eyes so drained by sorrow,” Busch says. “The children were luckily involved in day-to-day things, in our creating a musical space together. Certainly deep down inside, it was still an immediate catastrophe for them, but for the teachers, the grief remained on the surface.”

The children and teachers were invited to Tokyo Design Week, and their instruments became part of a large sculpture in a special section designed by FBA and commissioned by the trade ministry titled “Creating Heritage — Tohoku to the Future.” It was the most successful Tokyo Design Week in the event’s then-26-year history, attracting 91,000 visitors.

Return to revolutionary form

For Busch, the 2011 Tokyo Design Week was a treasured opportunity to unite culture and space, and a part of his past that makes him ever-hopeful for the future in Japan’s teetering architecture world, despite the Olympic Stadium fiasco. Busch sees it as an exciting time for Tokyo, with countless upcoming opportunities to regain its architectural edge.

“In postwar Japan, Tokyo became a proving ground for revolutionary architecture. A group of visionary architects, the Metabolists, enjoyed the trust and support of an ambitious bureaucracy,” he says. “Together they made greatness possible, almost ‘normal.’

“Today, it has become the accepted normal to be conservative,” Busch laments. “This can have catastrophic long-term consequences. It’s never been a good sign for a society when it shies away from the new instead of being ambitious and curious enough to destroy old beliefs and make way for innovation.

“If you look at architectural competitions in Japan today, they have become extremely boring and conservative, and a lot of them are so rigidly constrained that young architects — and there are so many really talented young minds in Japan — are not given the chance to compete. The requirements are absurd, with limiting regulations that mean you can only enter a competition if you’re an established general contractor — a large corporate force already.”

FBA has found recognition internationally as well as inside Japan; they recently won the 2016 Details inside Prize for one of their buildings in Kyoto.

Busch has trust in the younger generation and is satisfied with his current role in-between, within and without, thoughtfully contemplating space.

“We are facing different problems in the modern world, not necessarily facing the darkness and horror of world war, but we are facing greed and individualism and narrow-mindedness,” Busch says. “We must use our collective spirit, our youthful perspectives, to overcome these problems. We must reconsider how we see space and our relationship to others within space, and face the facts of environmental issues with the way we construct our cities instead of denying them.”

Florian Busch Architects: www.florianbusch.com. The Tokyo Olympics Floating Stadium unboxing: www.florianbusch.com/fsp

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