BY Azby Brown in Opinion | 10 JUL 20
Featured in
Issue 212

Kengo Kuma’s Tokyo Olympic Stadium Reflects His Vision of Everyday Heroism

After years of controversy around Zaha Hadid’s doomed proposal, Kuma’s sober design arrived on time and within budget – only for the games to be postponed 

BY Azby Brown in Opinion | 10 JUL 20

Kengo Kuma flying over the Japan National Stadium, 2020. Courtesy and photograph: Benjamin Lee

Like the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics as a whole, Kengo Kuma’s Japan National Stadium is the child of controversy and delay. Completed in late 2019, Kuma’s neat, docile, rhythmic and greened design may seem conservative compared to the doomed dream it displaced: Zaha Hadid’s original, competition-winning proposal for the same site, which was later abandoned for being too grandiose, costly and environmentally inappropriate. I think Kuma’s stadium is less a product of conservatism, however, than of endemic incompetence in Japanese political circles. This ineptitude has been underscored by the government’s fumbling COVID-19 response, beginning with the controversial quarantining of the Diamond Princess cruise ship in the port of Yokohama, then a belated, half-hearted lockdown coupled with an intentional lack of testing. The Olympics, of course, played a role in this delay, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration resisted calls for postponement until teams from several nations indicated that they would not attend due to health concerns.

Kuma’s office was not even allowed to field an entry for the initial competition. ‘The hurdle for qualification’, he told me, ‘seemed to have been set intentionally high. Entrants had to have won the Pritzker Prize or the Royal Academy Award, or to have already built a major stadium. Not many Japanese architectural firms could qualify.’ With both Richard Rogers and Lord Norman Foster as selection-committee panellists, from the outset the field was more global than home-grown. The consensus seemed to be that an iconic, future-oriented landmark was called for, one that could echo the status of Kenzo Tange’s outstanding Yoyogi Stadium, built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In November 2012, renderings of Hadid’s jaw-dropping winning entry were unveiled. Within weeks, however, the design had become mired in controversy and lampooned as an oversized bicycle helmet or an invading alien spaceship.

Zaha Hadid's design for the Japan National Stadium 2020, architectural rendering. Courtesy: Zaha Hadid Architects 

An unprecedented public protest by prominent and respected Japanese architects, led by éminence grise Fumihiko Maki, focused on the vertical scale of Hadid’s proposal, which would have loomed over the sacred grounds of the adjacent Meiji Shrine and eliminated prized urban green space. The competition brief, which did not adequately consider these issues, is largely responsible for such oversights. Structure-related cost overruns, which raised the price tag to US$2.1 billion – twice the initial estimate – led to a major downsizing, which Hadid presented in May 2015. But her shorter, less capacious design also came under fire. Seen as an unnecessarily flamboyant and expensive luxury, inappropriate to the site and to the Japanese zeitgeist, her bicycle helmet ultimately succumbed in a humiliating bureaucratic denouement for Prime Minister Abe. In late 2015, a new competition pitted Kuma against Toyo Ito, both of whom had protested Hadid’s design. Kuma won.

The resulting lack of time and money available to Kuma certainly affected his design goals and partly accounts for the new stadium’s sobriety, but the building also reflects his vision of desirable priorities for a changing Japanese society. When I asked him what he felt was the most important element of his design, Kuma unhesitatingly replied: ‘Horizontality.’ He elaborated: ‘Hadid’s design was very vertical and heroic, like Tange’s is. His stadium points at the sky, to a future of growth and ambition. And Ito’s plan struck me as heroic too, in a kind of Greek sense, with its tall, monumental columns. But I don’t think that vertical heroism can bring our atomized society together anymore. I’m trying to let our society experience an individual heroism, one that supports a flatter, more democratic society.’

The stadium’s horizontality is intended as an embodiment of this. Kuma’s use of screenlike arrays of timber brought from forests all over the country, cut to the typical dimensions used in domestic architecture, is also an appeal to individual identity. ‘When Japanese people see or touch these wooden elements, I believe they will feel a sense of recognition of something fundamental to their identity, as if the stadium incorporates parts of their own homes.’ The vision Kuma hopes to convey, then, is of a society comprised of everyday heroes who take responsibility for one another: behaviour that has, by and large, been enacted by the Japanese public during the COVID-19 crisis, even when unbidden by a recalcitrant government. Asked about the controversy that doomed Hadid’s original plan and led to the success of his own, Kuma noted simply: ‘It wasn’t her fault.’

This article first appeared in frieze issue 212 with the headline ‘Drama and Delay’.

Azby Brown is lead researcher at Safecast, a citizen-science organization devoted to creating environmental data. He lives in Yokohama, Japan.