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UK firms set to miss out on Tokyo Games

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With the exception of Zaha Hadid, UK architects look set to miss out on work delivering Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics

On Sunday (8 September), the International Olympic Committee (IOC) handed the Games to the Japanese capital ahead of Madrid and Istanbul. Hadid’s competition-winning centrepiece stadium (AJ 15.11.12) was hailed as the ‘crown jewel’ in the city’s Olympic bid.

But experts fear that, despite the experience gained by UK practices on London 2012, most of the design contracts will go to local firms.

Hanif Kara, of engineers AKTII, who worked on the London Olympic footbridges with Heneghan Peng, said: ‘The lost generation of architects in Japan who had to take a back seat for so long will fight for the work. And we all know they are capable.

‘Even more importantly their construction industry and supply chain is exemplary, so I have some doubts about what opportunities there will be for UK architects.’

Alastair Townsend of Tokyo-based Bakoko (see Comment, below) agreed. He said: ‘Japan already has a surplus of technical expertise in construction, engineering, and design. The country’s own starchitects will, predictably, each get their appointed turns designing the new Olympic venues and buildings.’

However, former RIBA president Angela Brady believed there was still a ‘great opportunity for our architects and engineers, particularly at the early stages of masterplanning’. She added: ‘Perhaps a mission with UKTI to make a presentation would be a good idea – and maybe a RIBA Tokyo chapter?’

Hadid said: ‘Our many congratulations to the Tokyo2020 team, the Japan Sports Council, everyone in Tokyo and all across Japan. The public’s support has been remarkable and we are very proud to be part of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. We have put together an excellent team to deliver a magnificent venue on schedule for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and Tokyo Olympic Games the following year.’

Comment: Alastair Townsend, of Tokyo-based Bakoko

Tokyo’s successful bid to host the 2020 Olympics is great news for beleaguered Japan. You can be assured of one thing: the games will be flawless.

Most of the new venues will be clustered in Tokyo Bay on reclaimed land. The area currently feels empty and over-scaled, with little street life connecting the large apartment towers, convention halls, and warehouses. In this sense, Tokyo Bay already feels like most Olympic sites do five to 10 years after the games have come and gone.

The 2020 Olympics will fill in many large holes. But building stadia alone won’t redress the area’s lack of visionary planning or human-scale liveability.

Tokyo failed in its bid twice before, but this time was different. The tragedies of 2011 ignited a new-found passion and emotion in the city’s bid to host the 2020 games.

Similarly, Tokyo’s Olympic planners need to break free from the safe and predictable objective of flawless physical completion – which we all know they can do – and challenge designers to transform the redeveloped areas with the dense life and vibrancy found throughout the rest of the metropolis.

Even before winning the Olympics, prime minister ShinzŌ Abe’s resurgent LDP government had committed to economic stimulus through major infrastructure projects. This aspect of ‘Abenomics’ is hardly new for Japan, which attempted to spend its way out of the post-bubble recession and, in doing so, ran up enormous national debts. The biggest beneficiaries from that cosy era of state-funded construction were Japan’s mega architecture, engineering, and construction companies, as well as a few notable architects, like Tadao Ando. Will now be any different?

Although Zaha Hadid’s National Stadium was the crown jewel in Tokyo’s Olympic bid, I doubt there will be much involvement by other foreign architects. Japan already has a surplus of technical expertise in construction, engineering, and design.

The county’s own starchitects – some of whom were notably passed over by Hadid’s win – will, predictably, each get their appointed turns designing the new Olympic venues and buildings. I expect to see the projects awarded to all-Japanese teams formed by famous architects working with large established architecture and construction corporations. Nonetheless, I’m positive we will see some remarkable and eye-catching structures emerge in Tokyo Bay.

The real challenge for Tokyo in 2020 will be whether it can serve up an Olympics with the assured style, verve, and infectious atmosphere as London’s 2012 games. For that, you don’t only need technical expertise, experience, public investment, or even giant bird nests. There has to be a strong human element.

As the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe spirals further out of control and the nation picks up the pieces left in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, I’m hopeful that a mature Japan is finally rounding a corner, and will foster the great, yet elusive, lasting social benefits that are attainable through better planning and design.

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