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Can the New National Stadium Be a Touchstone for a More Mature Society?

Haruhiko Goto
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

There is a dark cloud that is called the New National Stadium currently cumulating over Japan’s architectural industry. This due to a series of uproars about the replacement of the existing Kasumigaoka National Stadium, a sacred place among athletes, popularly known as the National Stadium.

Sequence of events in the New National Stadium Japan design competition

The New National Stadium will be an 80,000-seating all-weather stadium, and is being built by the Japan Sport Council (JSC) based on the slogan “Aiming to be No.1 in the world.” The two prerequisites for its construction are, first, that it should meet the international standards for not only athletics but also ball sports such as football and rugby. Secondly, that it should have a retractable roof that is sufficiently sound insulated for holding large concerts and other events in order to sustain the stadiums high running costs. However, these two prerequisites throw up a fundamental contradiction of growing a grass field under a large roof, albeit a moveable one.

The international design competition run by the JSC, officially titled the “International Design Competition for the New National Stadium Japan”, was launched in July 2012. However its purpose was to select a design proposal and design supervisor rather than an architect, making it difficult to call it an official architectural design contest. Furthermore, applicants were restricted to previous winners of international architectural prizes and those with experience of designing stadiums with a seating capacity of 15,000 or more. This has closed the door on architects with no track record. Meanwhile, the two month application period was very tight, few drawings were required, and more critically, the submission of a model was not obligatory. In the end, from all 46 entries, a Iraqi-born deconstructivist female architect Zaha Hadid, residing in the UK, was selected as the winning design for its “strong message that will convey Japan’s technical capability to the world.” Based on this winning proposal a design community to handle the preliminary design and execution has been called through a public proposal. In the end the design office that was selected was Zaha Hadid Architects.

Figure 1 Zaha Hadid’s proposal for the New National Stadium design competition (November 2012)

According to the visual plans that have been released (Fig.1), the New National Stadium proposal seems, by all appearances, unfeasible with its massive streamlined form and floating deck extending over the site like a tentacle. Many people, including myself, doubted whether this design would really appear in Meiji Gaien. Since then, starting with a presentation of the problems in August 2013 by architect Fumihiko Maki, a leading light in the Japans architectural industry, there has been an eruption of disapproving opinions about the New National Stadium Japan proposal. These opinions formed especially after the decision to hold the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo was announced and came from not only architects but also various civic groups.

Challenges facing the New National Stadium Japan

Photo 1 Spectator stand of the current National Stadium overhanging the road (June 2014)

The architecture industry should conduct a thorough discussion on the architectural and aesthetic arguments surrounding this proposal. But many other questions have also been raised about the massive volume of the plan (80,000 seating capacity, 290,000m2 total floor space) and economic factors such as construction costs and maintenance costs that are running up. Another more serious issue was pointed out stating the illegitimacy of developing the historical scenic area of Jingu Gaien. Jingu Gaien was originally selected as the site of the main stadium of the Tokyo Olympics of 1940, cancelled due to the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, but there was much controversy in regards to the scenic conservation and the site was eventually switched to Komazawa. Of course during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Jingu Gaien became the site of the present main stadium with its 50,000-seating capacity. But there is already evidence that the site is too cramped, with part of the spectator stand jutting out over the road (Photo 1). On top of this, the eviction of 120 households from the Kasumigaoka public housing apartment, as a condition of the plan, in order to ensure smooth crowd flow and reduction of fire evacuation issues resulting from the lack of space, in, is perceived as another problem.

Witout doubt the dark cloud that the New National Stadium has brought, is the result of the serious flaws in the competition program. The development of the New National Stadium contained serious challenges from its initial stages.

It can be pointed out that the extra confusion has been caused by a lack of information disclosure and understanding of architectural design contests on the part of the organizer (JSC). For example, it has taken a year and a half to disclose the selection process of the Design Competition held in the fall of 2012. Many other deficiencies have also been pointed out, such as sloppy design specifications and competition requirements. To name a few there was no explanation to overseas applicants about Jingu Gaien being designated Tokyo’s first scenic area, no requirement of a model in order to consider visual harmony with the surrounding environment, no interviews conducted during the second round, and the absence of foreign committee members during the judging process.

New National Stadium Japan as a social public space

Now that we are aware of the issues surrounding the New National Stadium let’s look at this problem in larger perspective. Firstly, Japan has been exposed as having yet to develop the ability to comprehensively manage a coherent process of creating such an international and symbolic structure. This process includes the international design competition stage through basic concept development, preliminary design, design execution, construction management, and facility operation.

The next major issue is the total lack of a governance system , allowing citizens and related professionals to participate in the overall process. A properly designed process and forum for national debate at each stage could have contributed to formulate a more mature society.

It can be perceived that Zaha’s very avant-garde plan of the New National Stadium Japan, has provided us the opportunity to expose hidden social issues, which lie below the surface.

Figure 2 New National Stadium preliminary design proposal (May 2014)

The preliminary design proposal of the New National Stadium Japan (Figure 2) released in May 2014 is rather different from the original Zaha proposal. Due to the fact that stadiums based on international standards have such a strict requirements, the designs end up being similar regardless of who designs them. If the current demands of the JSC for an 80,000-seating all-weather stadium could be mitigated, the consideration of abandoning the idea of a retractable roof, with its various financial, technical, and landscape-related problems could be an potential option. It is also hoped that the design will be made more flexible so that the stadium can be “reduced” after the Olympic games, to a scale that is more suited to the scenic Gaien area. In order to achieve this, the installation of temporary reusable wooden sections for some of the 80,000 seats needed for the Olympic Opening Ceremony could be a solution. This would also be a reflection of our shrinking society, and Japan’s message to the world. At the same time, as a precondition of moving ahead with the construction of the New National Stadium, a future plan for the whole of the scenic area of Jingu Gaien, including the renewal of its facilities, should be drawn up in consultation with the various bodies concerned.

Until now, there has been a tendency to treat the scale of the New National Stadium solely as a architectural challenge. But rather than perceiving this challenge simply as an replacement of the Kasumigaoka National Stadium, could it be possible to consider this opportunity as a touchstone of whether we can produce a social public space for a more mature civil society? It is hoped that we can blow away this hovering dark cloud, by repositioning the New National Stadium as a ‘social’ public space, combining various opinions not only from an architectural perspective but also from a range of other fields such as history, sociology and politics.

Haruhiko Goto
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

1980, B.Eng., Department of Architecture, School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University
1982, M.Eng., Graduate School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University
1987, PhD, Graduate School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University
1990, Associate Professor, Faculty of Engineering, Mie University
1994, Associate Professor, School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University
1998, Professor, School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University
2010 to present, Dean, School of Creative Science and Engineering, Waseda University

Previously held positions include: Chairman, City Planning Institute of Japan; Chairman, Japan Society of Lifology; Vice-Chairman, World Society for Ekistics
Cabinet Office Advisory Council on Decentralization Reform member, MIC Advisory Council on Regional Revitalization member
Prizes received include: Architectural Institute of Japan Prize (Research Thesis); Planning and Design Award, City Planning Institute of Japan

Areas of Specialization
Urban and Regional Design, Landscape and Townscape Architecture

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The Power of Place [Basho no Chikara], translator (author Dolores Hayden) Gakugei Shuppan-sha
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