Squabbles between architects rarely amount to much more than a clash of Rotring pens and an unspoken agreement that opponents won’t insult each other too vociferously, in public at least. Which is why the architectural spat playing out in Tokyo is attracting so much attention.
On one side is Zaha Hadid, one of the best known and most prolific architects in the world; on the other a group of Japanese architects and critics led by Fumihiko Maki, the elder statesmen of Japanese architecture still going strong at 85.
At issue is Hadid’s design for Japan’s new ¥130bn (€945m) national stadium, the key venue for the 2020 Olympics. Depending on your perspective, the stadium is either a dynamic slice of the future or has all the charm of a run-over bicycle helmet, but what has really upset Japanese architects is the sheer scale of the project. Never mind the cost: it’s the size of the thing and its location right in the middle of Tokyo.
At a sold-out symposium that was streamed live this month, Maki and his supporters set out their case, arguing that the current design for the 80,000-seat stadium is far too big and out of place in its context. It dominates the area, pushing right up against historic Gaien, the outer precinct of Meiji Shrine, which was laid out in the 1920s after the death of Emperor Meiji.
This is not an argument between Japanese and foreign architects. Hadid has her supporters, including Tadao Ando, the pugnacious former boxer whose works have come to be seen as the quintessence of Japanese minimalism. He was chairman of the panel that chose Hadid and was full of praise for her design.
Nor is it a personal attack on the work of the architect, as Sou Fujimoto – who built this year’s Serpentine Pavilion – was quick to point out. What the Japanese side would like to see is some reworking of the design, scaling it back to make it sit more comfortably in its surroundings, preferably with more greenery. The current plan has a stadium three times the size of the one built for London, squeezed into a site that is 30 per cent smaller.
Maki has also emphasised that his issue is not with Hadid’s design but the size of the project, which will be the largest stadium in Olympic history. He fears that the city will be left with an oversized, staggeringly expensive white elephant once the Games are over. The new stadium is due to be completed in time for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Changing the design at this point seems a distant hope, particularly as the city trumpeted the lavish new stadium in its bid for the 2020 Olympics.
One of the most loved buildings in Tokyo is another Olympic venue: Kenzo Tange’s national gymnasium, built for the Games in 1964. No doubt its upturned boat silhouette ruffled feathers at the time but today the building is the finest piece of modern architecture in the city and still in use as a music and sports venue day in, day out. It holds a modest 16,000 people, has room to breathe and Tokyo wouldn’t be the same without it. Will the same be said of Hadid’s vast edifice 50 years after completion?
Fiona Wilson is Monocle's Asia bureau chief.