Japan's Olympics stadium plagued by design woes

Even as the clock ticks away, controversy continues to rage over the design of Japan's new national stadium, which is to be used for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, leading to worries that it may not be completed in time for the Games.

With just six years to go, major decisions have yet to be taken. No completion date has been given. But the earliest that ground-breaking can take place is October 2016, leaving barely three years for a new stadium to be ready for the opening game of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, which Japan will host.

But the rumpus continues over whether the stadium, even with a modification of the original design, is a colossal edifice that clashes with the surrounding cityscape of parks and other sporting facilities.

The influential Asahi Shimbun daily, in an editorial late last month, called for fresh debate to deal with the controversy and warned against making hasty decisions.

Japan, it said, has enough fine stadiums for use in the 2019 Rugby World Cup if the new national stadium cannot be up in time. "Rugby cannot be used as an excuse for any kind of snap decision," the paper said.

British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid won an international competition in November 2012 for the new 80,000-seat stadium, beating 10 other finalists including several Japanese designers.

But critics mauled it, saying her oversized stadium looked out of place in Tokyo's Jingu Gaien area, an expansive green belt lined with gingko trees and featuring baseball grounds, tennis courts, gardens and galleries.

Japanese Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura deemed Ms Hadid's design "too massive", and announced plans last October to reduce the cost and scale of her design. His ministry is in charge of sports as well.

Late last month, the Japan Sports Council (JSC) released a modified design of the stadium, which is now expected to cost 170 billion yen (S$2.1 billion), down from 300 billion yen. But it could take a whopping five billion yen a year to maintain.

The new design reflects a 20 per cent reduction in total floor area and will stand 70m high, 5m shorter than the original but still as tall as a 20-storey building.

The long flowing lines in the roof of the original design, which led people to describe the structure as a spaceship or bicycle helmet, have been abbreviated.

But the stadium will still be packed with the latest technologies.

To enable the stadium to be used for concerts and other events after the Olympics, it will have a retractable roof that improves the acoustics of the venue.

To keep its grass pitch in top condition, parts of the roof will be made of a material that allows more sunlight to filter through.

The stadium will also feature 15,000 movable seats and an air- conditioning system that spews cold air from the back of seats, so as to deal with Tokyo's oppressive summer heat.

The 2020 Olympics will be held from late July to early August, when Tokyo normally sizzles. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics was held in October, a cool month.

Critics say the latest design still does not provide enough open space around the stadium in the event of a disaster.

Costs may also go up when building begins.

Mr Takahashi Moriyama, an architectural economist, pointed out the lack of vacant space to position materials and equipment to build the structure, possibly requiring the closure of surrounding roads during construction.

But Ms Hadid's design is championed by well-known architect Tadao Ando, who was on both the 2012 selection committee that chose her winning design and a subsequent "wise men's" group formed by the JSC, which approved the modified design.

Reports quoted Mr Ando as saying: "The new design is more balanced. As Japan's architectural technology is the best in the world, I think we can pull it off."

But as demolition crews are moving in next month and will take 15 months to dismantle the old stadium, the earliest that ground-breaking can take place is October 2016.

A new stadium has to be built in time for the Rugby World Cup in 2019.

The final approval of the design and details, such as budget and construction schedules, remain to be worked out between the JSC and the government.

As Mr Ando also said: "The schedule is very tight. Actual construction could be difficult."


This article was first published on June 9, 2014.
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