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Tokyo 2020 Olympics venues: the retrofit games

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New-builds account for only a handful of venues hosting the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo – some were even used in the 1964 games. Rupert Bickersteth reports

The venue plan concept for the Toyko games is ‘Infinite Excitement’. Daunting (or perhaps exhausting) though that might seem, these Olympics have proved a gargantuan undertaking for the host nation, with more than 40 venues to prepare for competition – either renovating, repurposing (sometimes temporarily) or in just a handful of instances, building from scratch.

Tokyo’s plan consists of two thematic and operational zones. The ’Heritage Zone’ is home to several historic venues from the Tokyo 1964 Olympics that will be used again for the 2020 games, extending and sustaining the legacy of the ’64 games. The ’Tokyo Bay Zone’ will serve as a model for innovative urban development and symbolises the future of the city. These two zones expand across the city to form an ‘infinity’ symbol, with the Athletes’ Village positioned at the intersection – or, as the Olympic Committee is calling it, ’the physical and spiritual heart of the games’. 

Photo main

Photo main

The ‘infinity’ symbol created by the two zones of Olympic venues embodies the ’boundless passion, commitment and inspiration of the world’s elite athletes, the limitless potential of future generations, and the lasting legacy that will be passed on to the people of Tokyo, Japan and the world’

A few football matches will be held at stadiums beyond Tokyo, in the cities of Yokohama and Sendai among others. Japanese stadiums have recently had experience hosting large international crowds for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, including the Sapporo Dome by Hiroshi Hara (2001). Seven different stadiums will be used for football altogether, five of which hosted matches at the 2002 World Cup. Japan will only see one purpose-built stadium used during the Olympics, which is the new national Olympic Stadium, built on the site of the old National Stadium which hosted the 1964 games and was demolished in 2015.

International stadium yokohama  nissan stadium masaphoto shutterstock

International stadium yokohama nissan stadium masaphoto shutterstock

Source: Masaphoto / Shutterstock

International Stadium Yokohama (also known as Nissan Stadium) was Japan’s largest stadium before the new national Olympic Stadium was completed, and hosted the Rugby World Cup final on 2 November 2019

Originally a Zaha Hadid Architects design was given the go-ahead for the new flagship Olympic stadium, but it was scrapped by Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe after a public outcry because of spiralling costs. Several prominent Japanese architects, including Toyo Ito and Fumihiko Maki, had criticised Hadid’s design, with Ito comparing it to a turtle and Maki calling it a white elephant. At the time Hadid said, ‘They don’t want a foreigner to build in Tokyo for a national stadium. On the other hand, they all have work abroad.’ 

Following a rebid, Kengo Kuma and Associates was chosen to replace the original design and his timber stadium, featuring over 70,000 cubic feet of larch and cedar wood from nearly all of Japan’s 47 prefectures, was completed at the end of November 2019. 

Shutterstock 1594076329

Shutterstock 1594076329

Source: Shutterstock

The distinct layers and open-air columns of Kengo Kuma’s Olympic stadium are references to the 1,300-year-old Gojunoto pagoda at Horyuji Temple in Ikaruga, the oldest timber building in the world

As is the case with most Olympic villages, several architects have been involved in creating the athletes’ accommodation. The Olympic village and eight out of the 42 competition venues will be brand new – and all eight have been designed by Japanese architects. Laudably, at this time of growing climate emergency and a call to prioritise retrofitting, 25 venues will be used as they currently exist and the rest will be repurposed or temporary structures. While Kuma is arguably an architect of international significance, it is perhaps notable that the games isn’t banking on the brand recognition of a foreign-born design team for any of its lead projects, like, for example, Rio de Janerio’s Arenas Cariocas designed by WilkinsonEyre for the 2016 games. 

Olympic village paralympic village june 2019 tokyo metropolitan government

Olympic village paralympic village june 2019 tokyo metropolitan government

Source: Tokyo Metropolitan Government

Olympic and Paralympic Village under construction, June 2019

While it might seem positive that the Tokyo games have been designed by Japanese practices, the reality is more complex. Large, old and well-established firms have won the bids to design the venues and, importantly, a lot of the associated development prompted by hosting the Olympics has also gone to a handful of big practices, greatly reducing the opportunities for smaller architecture studios.

Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, founder Atelier Bow-Wow, a Tokyo-based practice founded in 1992 specialising in domestic and cultural buildings, has said that many smaller studios have been forced to look for work outside Tokyo.

’We independent artists are banned and totally deleted from the list of the designers. They want a big firm, a corporate firm to work together with a construction company. There’s no chance for independent architects. We are totally kicked out of Tokyo,’ he said.

Atelier Bow-Wow’s work is regularly featured in the international architectural press and was part of the landmark 2017 Barbican exhibition A Japanese House.

As the work of London Legacy Development Corporation and the wider redevelopment of Olympic sites from the 2012 games continues to present new urban and architectural challenges, it is yet to be seen what the lasting impact of the Tokyo games will have on the Japanese capital, its built environment and the fortunes of the nation’s architects.

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