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Japan's Architects Unite Against Tokyo Olympic Stadium

Plans for a new, 80,000-seat stadium to host to 2020 Tokyo Games has been met with fierce criticism from prominent Japanese architects - on both aesthetic and ecological grounds.

Tokyo's future national "bicycle helmet"
Tokyo's future national "bicycle helmet"
Philippe Mesmer

TOKYO — The petition has gathered more than 30,000 signatures since its launch in May. Yet it remains far from reaching its goal — to prevent the building of a new national stadium at the heart of Tokyo, for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and, ultimately, the 2020 Olympic Games.

The controversial edifice, which was conceived by the firm of the 2004 Pritzker Prize winner, Iraqi-born, London-based architect Zaha Hadid, is aimed at seating 80,000. Selected in November 2012, the project should cost an estimated 169 billion yens ($1.65 billion).

The expand=1] new stadium, with its spaceship-like shape — or bicycle helmet look, as critics say — and retractable roof, will be built where Tokyo's 1958 stadium stands. The home of the 1964 Olympics will be demolished, along with the surrounding buildings — some providing social housing.

Critics raise not only concerns about this edifice cost, but about its future once the 2020 Olympics are over. Most, however, worry about the impact of the stadium on Tokyo"s landscape. The issue even brought several of Japan's greatest architects together — a first in the country's history.

In February, the architect Fumihiko Maki, winner of the 1993 Pritzker Prize, called for the project to be dropped. Three months later, Toyo Ito — also a Pritzker Prize winner, in 2013 — suggested to rethink everything and start from scratch. The architect submitted an alternative plan based on the existing, 1958 stadium.

The Japan Institute of Architects, which also stands against the new project, asked for the destruction of the current stadium to be postponed to give a chance for a middle ground. The demolition is scheduled to start in September.

A "monstrosity" within a sacred garden

“The area that includes the current National Olympic Stadium is a preserved area, where construction rules state that no building over 20 meters high can be built,” claims "Guardians of the National Stadium", a group gathering other big names in Japanese architecture.

They call the new stadium the "80,000-seat monstrosity." To them, the project is "out of proportion compared to the surrounding residential area." The group's architects also denounce the structure's footprint, as it will leave almost no safety margin or "breathing space" around the stadium.

The issue is all the more sensitive as the stadium site is part of the Meiji shrine gardens, a vast, green area filled with 12,000 trees. This Shinto — Japan's main religion — memorial was dedicated toEmperor Meiji, who reigned from 1868 to 1912. All the trees were planted during its construction.

Visitors access the shrine through a long path bordered with ginkgo trees. The promenade is particularly popular among Tokyoites. But "with the new structure, the view will lose all its charm," claims the architect Fumihiko Maki.

A visual delight, the Shinto memorial and its gardens are also a lung in a city faced with "heat islands" — areas where human activity, air conditioning and transportation lead to a temperature rise. Tokyo authorities take this issue very seriously, as the average August temperature in the city has raised by 4°C (39°C) in a century (from 1913 to 2013), to reach 33°C (91 °F).

Lost hopes for compromise

Faced with the pressure, the authority running the site, the Japan Sport Council, accepted on May 28 to trim the future stadium height by five meters — from 75 to 70.

The concession wasn't enough for the opponents of the project. On July 5, about 500 protesters marched in Tokyo to demand a complete revising of the plan, and require that the population have a say in the decision-making process.

Architects from Zaha Hadid's firm responded three days later, announcing that they had reworked the project and "refined" the design. A spokesman for the company said that the revised size of the stadium "matched with the client's demands."

Speaking in front of foreign correspondents, the Governor of Tokyo, Yoichi Masuzoe, avoided the question. The project will be realized unless the protests gain in strength, he said. And the destruction of the city's current stadium — which also drew criticism at the time of its construction — will start as planned next month.

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