When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scrapped Zaha Hadid’s design for the new National Stadium on July 17 last year, many feared the venue might not be completed in time to host the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Twelve months on, despite construction still waiting to start four years before the games begin, Hadid’s replacement, architect Kengo Kuma, has no doubts the stadium will be ready.

“This is a rare case in Japan,” Kuma told The Japan Times in an exclusive interview. “Usually in Japanese construction, first you have the plan and then, when that’s finished, you begin construction.

“This time, the planning team and construction team are both working together from the start with the same goal of not going behind schedule or over the cost. I don’t think there is any precedent in Japanese construction.

“We are confident that we definitely will not go over the cost or the schedule.”

Construction is slated to begin in November, with a completion date set for November 2019 and an estimated cost of ¥149 billion.

When Abe sent Hadid’s plan back to the drawing board 12 months ago, Kuma, one of Japan’s best-known architects, was not even involved in the project.

The Japan Sport Council originally chose British-Iraqi Pritzker Prize-winner Hadid’s futuristic design through an international competition in November 2012, but the scale and appearance of her plan soon attracted criticism.

A group of noted Japanese architects — including Kuma — led a petition against Hadid’s design on the grounds that it was too brash and intrusive for the genteel surroundings of the Meiji Jingu area. That led the JSC to force Hadid’s firm to scale down the size of the design, but it was the stadium’s spiraling cost that ultimately persuaded Abe to pull the plug.

“We must go back to the drawing board,” Abe said as he scrapped Hadid’s plan, which by then had an estimated price tag of ¥252 billion — almost double the original budget. “The cost has just ballooned too much.”

Hadid’s firm complained bitterly that the fixed deadline for completion, skyrocketing Tokyo construction costs and a lack of competition in appointing contractors were to blame for the inflated price tag. But the JSC pressed ahead with a new competition to find a replacement.

With Hadid’s firm out of the running due to its inability to team up with a construction firm, as the competition rules demanded, the JSC unveiled a shortlist of two designs last December. Kuma’s proposal — a sweeping bowl inspired by traditional Japanese architecture and making liberal use of wood — was chosen over one by Toyo Ito.

“For me it’s very special,” said Kuma, who is working in tandem with contractors Taisei Corp. and Azusa Sekkei Co. “Kenzo Tange’s gymnasium for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was what made me want to become an architect.

“I would like children in 2020 to look at the stadium and think to themselves the way I myself thought in 1964, that I want to build something like that one day. It has a completely different meaning for me than it does for other architects.”

But if the JSC thought choosing Kuma’s design would put an end to the controversy, it was in for a rude surprise.

First Hadid’s firm accused Kuma of plagiarizing elements of her original design, a charge Kuma was quick to deny. Then in March it became clear the new plan had not included a cauldron to house the Olympic flame, and that the largely wooden interior of the stadium would make it difficult to do so without falling foul of fire safety regulations.

Kuma, cutting a relaxed figure as he talked at his Tokyo office just a stone’s throw from the stadium site, is confident everything is under control.

“The location of the Olympic flame will be decided by the producer of the opening ceremony when one is appointed,” he said. “The planning team will be able to respond wherever the producer wants it to go. I’m not worried about it at all.

“The original design brief didn’t ask for a cauldron. Neither our design nor (Ito’s) Design B included one. The cauldron isn’t usually something that’s decided by the architect.

“Olympic Minister (Toshiaki) Endo has said that he would like a producer to be in place a year and a half before the Olympics begin. Dealing with that time frame will not be a problem.”

Kuma is understandably keen to break free of the controversies that have dogged the project, and believes his design provides the perfect counterweight to the original National Stadium, which was built in 1958 and was demolished last year.

“I want to express a new, 21st century Japan,” he said. “The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were the Japan of the 20th century, an industrializing society, and it was a great symbol of that. But we are now in a post-industrial society and I want to symbolize the new era.

“I think using wood is the best way to do that. In the industrial society of the 20th century they used concrete and metal. In the post-industrial era we make use of natural materials.”

Kuma’s design features a latticed framework made extensively from wood, embellished by rows of plants on each level of the structure.

“Even though you are using wood, techniques in that field have advanced,” he said. “It’s not the case that using wood means it won’t last for a long time. In fact it’s precisely because you are using wood that it does last for a long time.

“The oldest wooden buildings in the world are 1,400 years old. I can’t claim that this stadium will be around for 1,400 years, but I think it will last a lot longer than the 50 years that the previous National Stadium lasted.”

The abundance of foliage surrounding the stadium has, however, prompted suggestions that it could be vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

“With regards to terrorism, the wooden parts of the stadium are high up, not at ground level,” Kuma said. “The security zone has been simplified and the stadium is hard to attack.”

As one of Japan’s most prominent architects, Kuma is used to being in the public eye. The Olympic spotlight has brought its own particular scrutiny, however, and the Yokohama native admits that the attention has at times been overwhelming.

“Human relationships are complicated,” he said. “When you are involved in such an important national project, everyone in the architecture world wants to have their say.

“When everyone started giving their opinions, at first it was a shock for me. But really I think it’s a good thing. Everyone has their opinion and those opinions have been very useful. Everyone has taken a great interest and that has been a big plus for the project.”

Differences of opinion saw Kuma at loggerheads with Hadid, who died on March 31 of a heart attack in a Miami hospital, where she was being treated for bronchitis.

Hadid had branded Kuma and his colleagues “hypocrites” for their opposition to her design, but Kuma insists it was a battle worth fighting.

“Zaha Hadid’s design was monumental and impressive, but I don’t think it fitted well with the trees from the shrine,” he said.

“The trees of Meiji Jingu are not just a normal forest, they’re part of the shrine. For Japanese people, that has an important meaning. They’re important from a psychological point of view in terms of giving people peace of mind. Building a wooden structure near that forest helps give people mental stability.”

Given Kuma’s workload — he invited The Japan Times to meet him at 10 p.m. — peace of mind must be a valuable commodity indeed.

Abe’s decision to scrap Hadid’s design last summer forced organizers of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, which Japan will host, to find an alternative venue to stage the tournament’s opening game and final.

Failure to finish the stadium in time for the 2020 Olympics would be unthinkable.

“The time frame is limited and we want to do the best job possible,” said Kuma. “We have been working very well together.

“The conditions have been very difficult. The schedule is tight and the costs are tight, so working in such difficult conditions has brought us all together. We’re all feeling very good about this project.”

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