Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

8 June 2015

The ongoing drama surrounding the construction of the new National Stadium in Tokyo, the centrepiece for the 2020 Olympics, took another twist at the weekend: the newspaper Sports Hochi revealed that the government is considering terminating its contract with London-based architect Zaha Hadid unless her design can be modified to allow the construction to come in on budget and on time.

The project has been troubled from the word go: the location in a green pocket of central Tokyo upset local residents; a number of noted Japanese architects came out against the scale and style of the design; and once the construction costs were calculated it turned out the government was looking at an astonishing bill of ¥300bn (over €2bn). After that uproar, modifications were made to the design last year in an attempt to reduce the costs. Hadid accused opponents of hypocrisy and xenophobia. To the dismay of many, the hoardings went up and the old National Stadium from the 1950s was finally demolished.

All systems go, you might have thought. Except it turns out that that the 80,000-seat stadium, as currently designed, might not be finished in time for the Rugby World Cup which Tokyo is hosting in 2019. Also, according to the Yomiuri Newspaper, construction is still going to cost at least ¥250bn (almost €2bn) and the government is now asking Tokyo to chip in for ¥50bn (€360m) or more. Tokyo governor Yoichi Masuzoe is furious, saying that the government can’t suddenly hit Tokyo citizens with such a vast – and potentially even larger – bill and compared it to the Imperial Army during the Second World War, hiding the real facts from the public.

Last week the sports minister, Hakubun Shimomura, said that the complicated construction of the retractable roof should be delayed until after the 2020 Olympics but a group of architects led by Fumihiko Maki, the hugely-respected architect who has been leading the charge against the new stadium, has now come up with a more radical Plan B which involves dropping Hadid from the project altogether.

Maki has never hidden his objections to the design, which has been compared to everything from a spaceship to a turtle. He identified some of the key problems: the cost and amount of time needed to build the retractable roof; the difficulty of growing real grass under cover; and the high maintenance costs, which he thinks will run to ¥7bn (€50m) a year for the next half century. Team Maki’s new plan, released last week, is to scrap the retractable roof altogether and build a more conventional open stadium. The construction would be cheaper and quicker and the maintenance costs would be cut by nearly two-thirds. Building a stadium with 60,000 seats and 20,000 temporary seats, they argue, would also make it a more manageable venue after the Olympics. The construction team, they point out, is already in place but it’s a plan that leaves Hadid out of the equation.

Many felt that the best plan of all would have been to upgrade the old stadium and send out a powerful message about sustainability. But since it’s now a hole in the ground, that option is no longer available.

Fiona Wilson is Monocle’s bureau chief in Asia.

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