The Turtle That Never Was

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

If you’ve already purchased your tickets for the 2020 Olympics so that you can see Zaha Hadid’s award-winning design for the Tokyo National Stadium, I have bad news. Prime Minister Abe announced this week that he’s cancelled the contract and the plans for the stadium and starting again from scratch.  He cited cost as the primary factor: Hadid’s 80,000 seat stadium would cost the country 252 billion yen (US $2 billion), double the original estimate.  


The announcement was a bit of a surprise; until the announcement, Abe and the Tokyo 2020 committee headed by Yoshiro Mori had publicly expressed support for Hadid’s design, despite the torrent of criticism since it was unveiled in 2012.  It was a truly hated design, however.  Hadid’s trademark complex, neofuturistic structure was planned to be built in Tokyo’s historic district near the Meiji Shrine, the site of the old stadium that has been demolished. The building’s futuristic appearance was discordant with the site’s context and blatantly disregarded the 15-meter construction height limit in the historic area. In 2013, a group of renowned architects gathered to protest the stadium’s design in a symposium called “Re-thinking the New National Olympic Stadium in the historical context of Gaien.” They garnered 32,000 signatures in support of their petition opposing its construction.


Meanwhile, on the internet, legions of creative, Photoshop-savvy critics also piped in via social media, likening the design of the stadium to a bicycle helmet, a toilet seat, and a Roomba vacuum cleaner.  In 2014, in a rare show of acquiescence, the architect modified the plans to include lighter and more cost-effective materials but not necessarily to downsize the structure. At the time, the Japan Sports Council had already sliced the budget for the stadium in half, from over $3 billion to 169 billion yen (about $1.3 billion). Later in the year, Hadid slammed the Japanese architects protesting the stadium, suggesting that they were both sore losers and xenophobic in their stance against an Iraqi-British architect building in Japan. The architects, in turn, described the design in various and derogatory terms, including as "like a turtle waiting for Japan to sink so that it can swim away."


The new stadium will have to be designed and built in less than five years—and the World Cup of rugby, which was supposed to take place in the stadium in 2019, will have to find some other venue.  A new competition will be announced before the end of this year.




The New York Times