There is no idea which can be fully realized in architecture, as conflicting aesthetical, monetary, governmental and societal pressure prevent radical concepts from becoming reality.
If architectural competitions are to be accepted as devices for fostering innovation, then they are found wanting. Architecture is a lesser discipline compared to painting or poetry, as architecture has to relate to its users, be realized through sufficient funding and be allowed to exist through the site’sgovernment. This complexity means that no architectural idea can be 100 percent realized; there are inevitable negotiations and compromises between various parties, such as the client, government and society itself. This is particularly true when pertaining to civic architecture.
In 2015, Olympic and design aficionados alike were stunned by reports of Zaha Hadid’s scraped Tokyo Olympics 2020 stadium scheme. The discontinuation of the previously approved design was announced by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who cited that escalating costs to the tune of more than double the design’s initial budget was the main rationale behind the organizer’s decision.
Zaha Hadid, a Pritzker Prize award winning architect yet acknowledged diva, submitted her initial scheme in partnership with local firm Nikken Sekkei for the stadium. Understandably, it was not an easy decision to dismiss an already approved design. Although Hadid first garnered the spotlight as a paper architect who seemed satisfied to win competitions without any of her striking sculptural concepts bearing fruition, she has been much more prolific in the past couple of decades. Her distinctive touch has already radically altered the landscape of contemporary architecture around the world, from the United States to Europe, and from the Middle East to Asia.
Concurrently, contemporary international competitions open up architecture to a wider audience while generating innovative new concepts. Japan is a country that seeks to learn, with many lessons that it can also teach; it can execute a concept by an international level competition winner as well as build it to exact specifications. The chance to win an international competition for an extraordinary building in Japan will always captivate the architectural community, as it inspires young architects whose career would skyrocket if they can happen to be the lucky ones chosen.
For example, architects Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Farshid Moussavi (FOA) won the Yokohama International Port Terminal (1995) competition. Their revolutionary design for Osanbashi Pier successfully integrated an architectural program with bifurcation techniques for a new aesthetic in the historic Japanese town. FOA went on to establish a globally respected firm in London, with work generated from the interest following its competition win.
The same year, the brilliant Japanese Pritzker Prize winningarchitect Toyo Ito won a competition to design Sendai Mediatheque. The program combined a modern library, art gallery and a data and media center. The key to the design’s innovation is Ito’s inquiry of spatial roles and functions, resulting in the transparency of interior and exterior workings. While visitors are free to conclude whether Sendai Mediatheque is a new city icon, Ito postulated that his design was inspired by Le Corbusier’s 21st century domino concept(1930).
Both of the above examples illustrate that Japan welcomes and honors international competition winners. In the past couple of decades, Japan has emerged in the forefront for emerging and established architects to realize their vision while pursuing architectural innovation.
The Polemic Olympic Stadium 2020
Hadid’s scrapped Olympic stadium concept, won through a legitimate international competition in 2012, shone a harsh spotlight upon the Japanese government. However, I accept that economic savings is a sound and rational argument. Japan and other Olympic host countries must learn from Beijing’s 2008 Olympic stadium. The so called Bird's Nest stands as an empty monument that cost China US$480 million to build for a two week event. Today, the stadium is difficult to operate and maintain; it has effectively become a monster tourist attraction that racks up a US$11 million annual bill to keep running.
In Hadid’s case, the local government required both the winning design and local project architects to act as an integrated package. During the committee’s follow up competition, Hadid could not participate as up until the end of the time frame, she was unsuccessful in further cooperationwith Nikken Sekkei. At the same time, the government realized with the slow down in Japan’s economy, the ¥258 million price tag for Hadid’s design has become a heavier burden for its public to shoulder. It did not help that Japanese architects including Toyo Ito and Fumihiko Maki exerted further pressure upon their government, arguing that Hadid’s design was more like a giant ivory tower rather than something suitable for Tokyo’s urban context.
Critics around the world argued and counter argued Hadid’s dismissal throughout 2015; the loudest voices were found in prestigious architectural journals and media outlets. The sticking point of the debate was the controversial announcement that the follow up competition winner for the stadium was celebrated Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. Indeed, Kuma was one of the well respected Japanese architects who rallied against Hadid’s colossal design, insisting that it would ruin the adjacent Meiji Jingu Goyen Garden’s scale and atmosphere. The general public responded negatively with an accusation of nepotism. Did the Japanese government discriminate against a non-Japanese designing an important building in its capital? To borrow the Socratic philosophy that an unexamined life is a life not worth living, I will address the pros and cons for Hadid’s scheme one by one.
The Japanese government as the building competition’sorganizer made at least two critical errors. Hadid’s profile as an established international architect no doubt swayed the International Olympic Committee to select Japan for itsOlympics 2020 host country. Hadid as a brand name was reliable and helped to promote Japan as the best candidate for one of the world’s best and most watched sporting events.
The second error was discounting that Hadid and Nikken Sekkei has been tweaking her initial scheme over the past two years due to criticism from the architectural community as well as grumbling from the government about budget overruns from the initial ¥169 million. Ignoring these two facts damaged the Japanese samurai code of honor.
The Case for Kengo Kuma
Kengo Kuma is one of Japan’s most important living architects. His 2010 for the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in Dundee, Scotland won a tight international architectural competition. His work there became iconic, and emphasized the integration of public space as it relates to the city center, the river and the museum’s sophisticated amenities. Kuma had to scale down his design due to mounting costs for that project, but he was not subject to a second competition the way Hadid was for the Olympic stadium.
Recently, I visited Nagaoka City Hall in the Japanese city of Niigata, also designed by Kuma. I think this project is very successful because it transformed the traditional governmental premises, opening it up to the public. Anyone can go there and participate in sports or cultural activities; at the same time, civil servants work there fulltime overseeing the city’s administration. Kuma combined traditional materials with the modern scope of a convenient public meeting destination.
In addition, Kuma has recently won a public building competition for a rail station in Saint Denis, France (2015). Kuma's proposal demonstrates his expertise in integrating public spaces, city parks and the station, to reform urbanism with innovative architecture.
If we compare the winning Kuma design for the Olympic 2020 stadium, it displays qualities that are superior to Hadid’s original design for the same project. Kuma chose local materials such as wood, and he has the skill to execute his concept to bind the building closely with nature. Yet critics accuse his selection as being politically motivated, and there are even cries of his concept plagiarizing Hadid’s ideas.
I would like to argue that this is the end of the era for sculptural design as a solution to public buildings. An over the top monolith becomes something that sticks out from the surrounding environment; its shape does not fit with the civic concept of being integrated with society. Hadid, of course, adapts this approach with forms that are significant and often gigantic.
Kuma has an office at Aoyama-dori, in fairly close proximity to the Olympic 2020 site. Surrounded by the Meiji JinguGyoen Garden, he is sensitive to its significance and understandably wishes to maintain its prominence. His schemeutilizes the stadium as an extension of the garden, allowing Tokyo citizens to jog in the stadium garden long after the games’ closing ceremony. The flat roof captures the sun as asource of energy, powering the irrigation system surrounding the stadium while unifying in it.
Kuma’s extensive use of wood throughout most of his design instills calmness and humanizes what would otherwise be perceived as monumental forms. His stadium design feels warm to visitors. The oval arena is surrounded by harmoniously arranged foliage, thoughtfully planted upon large swathes of open air terraces. Hadid, in contrast, avoided these softer materials and elements.
Kuma helps the public understand sustainable building designthrough his roof structure, arena seating and public facilities that can be utilized over a longer life span. His selection of materials, forms and technological innovation was applied for easy and affordable maintenance. Over time, the sustainable features will reduce the building’s running costs. It then makes sense that his design, estimated to be only ¥149 billion or roughly 60 percent of Hadid’s scheme, would be the logical investment for organizers.
The last argument regarding plagiarism, particularly relating to the shape and layout similarities between Kuma and Hadid’s design, can be rejected. An arena capacity of 80,000 people will inevitably result in some structural similarities. Any architect would propose a similar program and seat arrangement given the same brief. Perhaps Kuma himself puts it best: the most important thing is the overall building’s impression. The form should not be its main focus.
By examining Kuma’s oeuvre and past projects, any rational person would realize that respecting the spirit of place from the Meiji Jingu Gyoen Garden is more important than building yet another great, gigantic status symbol with crippling maintenance cost that the city will have to bear. I hope to soon see a new direction in contemporary architecture, with serenity, modesty, elegance and nature incorporated into stadium design.