Short time, now see

Arriving from Paris, a city whose composition only seldom changes, Tōkyō’s constant metamorphosis is striking. 

As the average lifespan for houses in Japan is around 26 years and every building individually is replaced over time, Japanese cities seem like a living organism and maintain their function rather than their shape. Whereas French cities (and European cities in general) are comparatively inflexible once they are built, those in the Land of the Rising Sun are perpetually altering. 

Although having studied this phenomenon and having been confronted to it repeatedly over the past years, I sometimes still am astonished by reality. 

I have seen houses being demolished in a few days, parking lots appearing right after; I have observed high-rise buildings passing from one – to 24-storeys within only a few weeks; watched workers transforming train tracks and highways in barely more than one night. 

Yet, I have never seen an Olympic stadium being built from scratch. 

About two and a half years ago, an early summer evening of 2017, when I was in Japan and started to gain interest in the impact of the Olympic and Paralympic Games on Tōkyō, I was on my way to an opening show of a small art exhibition. As I biked through the neighbourdhood of Sendagaya, I saw the foundation of what the new National Stadium would one day be. 

The place I was heading for happened to be one street away of the venue, and had a small balcony overviewing the area. While people were sipping their drink and chatting, I leaned on the balustrade, looked at the construction land and started to imagine how this environment would look like in future: how there would be a big sporting facility, how the day of the opening ceremonies of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games thousands of people would be gathering, and how weeks after the sporting event life would go back to normal. From plans and pictures, I knew how it should  look like, but in this calm and peaceful atmosphere, it seemed strangely abstract. 

Unlikely the other Olympic venues, the National Stadium is not under the responsibility of the Tōkyō Metropolitan Government (TMG) or the Tōkyō Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG) but financed by national funds.

Chaired by the Japanese architect Andō Tadao, the Japan Sport Council (JSC) who was the owner of the Tōkyō 1964 Olympics stadium, which was situated at the same place in Kasumigaoka-machi, Shinjuku-ku, assigned the new National Stadium to Zaha Hadid in 2012.

However, the project of the Iraqi-British architect, first seen as a symbol of futuristic Japan, was quickly criticised. First, because of its production costs that were estimated at more than USD 2 billion and which would have made this 80,000-seat stadium the most expensive in the world. Then, because of its design, considered as not adapted to its historical surroundings and therefore overlooking the beauty and richness of the local culture. 

In summer 2015, the project of Zaha Hadid’s stadium got cancelled, and a call for tenders was made in September of the same year. The request was particularly challenging, since its deadline was as of December 2015. Furthermore, the new stadium’s budget was asked to be of USD 1.5 billion maximum, and the project should not only include the architectural design, but also guarantee the cooperation with a construction company and the feasibility on time. As the deadline left just three months to make a proposal from scratch, there were only two Japanese agencies, Itō Toyo’s and Kuma Kengo’s, who replied. Kuma Kengo’s winning design operated by Taisei Corporation was announced in late December of the same year. 

Kuma Kengo’s stadium, partly made of wood (a typical characteristic of Japanese constructions), is seen as a comeback to the countries’ original values. 

With the utilisation of natural materials and the re-interpretation and adaption of traditional Japanese architecture to the 21st century, Kuma Kengo became world-famous. His agency is conducting various projects in Tōkyō and Japan, as well as in other countries around the world like the Saint-Denis Pleyel Train Station in France, which should be accomplished in 2023, one year before the Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games. 

The new National Stadium, which originally was supposed to host the Rugby Worldcup 2019 that currently takes place in Japan, is now almost finished and its completion is scheduled for November 2019. 

It may be relevant to mention that Zaha Hadid, who got the more and more decried, died only some months after the abandon of her stadium, on 31st March 2016 at the age of 65 years after a heart attack. 

Although the time loss due to the reassignment of the stadium’s design, I do have to add that I never had any doubt whether it would be constructed on time. Seeing it at the practically finished state leads me back to that summer night. It makes me think of how we picture the future, how we apprehend the present, and how we remember the past. It illustrates the speed of the Japanese construction industry and is an example for one of the many challenges that Olympic and Paralympic host cities may have to deal with.


The following four pictures were all taken by me, with an interval of about 10 months respectively (16/05/2017, 28/02/2018, 04/12/2018 & 04/10/2019). For the last one, I sought back the above-mentioned house. I was enchanted to find it in the same condition, and moved that I was allowed to climb up the balcony. 

16/05/2017 © Louise Claire Wagner

28/02/2018 © Louise Claire Wagner

04/12/2018 © Louise Claire Wagner

04/10/2019 © Louise Claire Wagner

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