Japan Sport Council

While Japan is bent on blaming the architect, Zaha Hadid, the dynamic at fault is global and corrupt.

On Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Tokyo will not move forward with the stadium at the center of its plans for the 2020 Olympic Games. The $2 billion venue—a great cosmic bicycle helmet designed by Zaha Hadid—has become a locus for criticism over soaring costs attached to preparations for the Tokyo Games.

A starchitect’s stadium just went supernova. The implications for the world are larger even than the failed stadium.

Hakubun Shimomura, Japan’s minister for sports, announced that the National Stadium bidding process would be relaunched, according to Agence France Press. While selecting a new design might indicate that Japan is no longer willing to throw good money after bad, there’s no way to be certain that the design alone accounted for the immense construction costs for National Stadium—which, at $2 billion, would have been the most expensive stadium ever realized.

Rendering for the now-scrapped National Stadium in Tokyo. (Zaha Hadid Architects)

The stadium design drew jeers from day one. Some of its fiercest detractors have been Hadid’s peers. Japanese architects—among them luminaries such as Toyo Ito, Kengo Kuma, and Sou Fujimoto—led by the great Fumihiko Maki blasted Hadid’s design for its disregard of scale. (Olly Wainwright has written a complete tick-tock on this debate.) With a capacity for 80,000 fans, National Stadium would have risen more than 230 feet high: that’s as tall as a 20-story building and more than three times the height prescribed for new buildings within the historic Jingu-Gaien district.

Last December, Hadid fired back, calling their complaints “embarrassing for them.” But cooler heads have spoken more civilly in her defense. Tadao Ando, another leader in Japanese architecture, chaired the committee that selected Hadid’s design. While he registered shock that costs have doubled, he has defended the design, arguing that early estimates for the stadium were too low, according to Yomiuri Shimbun, a Tokyo daily.

Is Japan facing a design crisis or a costs crisis? If it’s the latter, changing horse midstream might not necessarily lead to lower costs. Abe and other Japanese leaders believe there’s still time to develop a new stadium in time for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, but the stadium won’t be done before the 2019 Rugby World Cup. So Tokyo will get less up-front use out of any stadium that the city eventually builds.

Meanwhile, construction costs in Japan just reached their highest level since 1993. The rise is due in part to preparations for the Games, but it also owes to the ongoing reconstruction efforts following the earthquake in 2011, plus rising costs for materials and labor shortages. Construction costs in Tokyo are rising faster than other parts of Japan. Hadid’s design can only be blamed for so much.

Choosing a different design might not satisfy Maki and his cohort, in fact. Any stadium built to host 80,000 spectators will loom over the ancient Meiji Shrine; and while it’s hard to imagine a design less suited to Yoyogi Park than Hadid’s hyperdrive venue, there may not be a way to build something new and major and also preserve the tranquility of the neighborhood.

A plan for preserving and upgrading Tokyo’s 1964 Olympic stadium to host the 2020 Olympic Games. (Toyo Ito & Associates, Architects)

Maybe Tokyo will find an architect and a scheme that will work for everyone. But it’s too late to do the sensible thing. That would involve recommitting Tokyo’s 1964 Olympic stadium to the next Olympic Games, as Toyo Ito suggested. Wainwright described Ito’s plans as a “sensible proposal for a lightweight, low-cost alternative,” but it’s too late. The 1964 stadium was razed this year to make way for whatever comes next.

Such a modest plan would have never made it through the first round, of course. Japan would have lost the Olympic bid to Beijing or Doha or Moscow—some illiberal city willing to do what it takes. Going back further than the design process, Japan might have not committed itself to such an exorbitant Olympic Games in the first place if Tokyo was not committed to the required cost or stadium capacity.

No place with real oversight can commit itself to the surreal developments that mega-events entail today. The bid process is a game rigged to favor totalitarian countries, where costs and corruption and the lives of workers are idle concerns. This is a game democracies can’t win, and it’s not the fault of any architect. Instead of competing within this system, Western nations must pressure the International Olympic Committee (and FIFA as well) to accept and endorse bids that are realistic and healthy for cities.

And if they won’t accept that, these groups should find the most god-awful corner on earth and build a permanent site for the Olympics and World Cup there, once and for all.

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