Too big, too costly, too ugly – bad start for Tokyo stadium

Olympic project is attracting criticism before even a girder has been put in place

Artist’s impression of the stadium for the the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. Photograph:  Japan Sport Council/AFP

Artist’s impression of the stadium for the the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. Photograph: Japan Sport Council/AFP

 
Five years from now, an audience of billions will be watching the Olympics from Tokyo. But even before a girder of the city’s new Olympic stadium has been laid, it is unloved.

This week the government said it will push ahead with a controversial design, despite criticism from Japan’s top architects, and ballooning costs of 250 billion yen – nearly 90 billion yen more than expected.

The city is at odds with Japan’s government over who will foot the bill. Yoichi Masuzoe, Tokyo’s governor, says the stadium, by far the biggest in Olympic history, is too grandiose and expensive.

The design, by London-based architect Zaha Hadid, has been likened to a 70-metre-high turtle, squatting over one of central Tokyo’s few large green areas. Protesters have vowed to block construction this summer, before it ruins the outer gardens of historic Meiji Shrine and forces the eviction of elderly local residents.

Architectural vandalism

Spiralling budgets and architectural vandalism are an Olympic rite of passage. Many economists blame the cost of hosting the 2004 Games for triggering Greece’s current debt crisis.

The average cost overrun since the 1960 Games has been a whopping 179 per cent. Japan can trace its addiction to government bonds back to its first Olympics in 1964, which also entailed razing much of old Tokyo.

Still, the plan for the 2020 Games “is a mess”, says Toyo Ito, a finalist in the competition to design the stadium. In a sign of growing turmoil, he says, the company supposed to build the stadium’s retractable roof only learned it had been scrapped after Hakubun Shimomura, Japan’s sports minister, let it slip on national television.

To cut costs, Shimomura has ordered the stadium lowered by five metres and roughly a third of its 80,000 seats removed. But he brushed aside demands this week that the entire project be scrapped.

“A large change in the design at this point would keep the stadium from being completed in time, and it was also a big sales point for Tokyo’s bid,” he said.

His demand that Tokyo fork out 50 billion yen toward its construction has led to a face-off with the city’s governor.

Upkeep

Masuzoe says the city will also be forced to pay for its upkeep when the Olympic crowds have left. In May, he memorably compared the government’s bland reassurances that the project is still on course to Japan’s Imperial Army, insisting it was winning the second World War.

With no agreement on who will foot the bill, the Japan Sport Council, the government body overseeing the stadium, has hired a contractor to build it. The council is worried the project will not be finished in time for the Rugby World Cup, which Japan will host in 2019.

Media reports say Masuzoe will be presented with the city’s share of the final tag – far in excess of original estimates – as a fait accompli.

The duel over what was supposed to be the showpiece of the world’s most prestigious sporting event shows Japan’s plan was flawed from the start, say critics.

Many critics say the government is now only sticking to its original plan to save face – and time. The end result is unlikely to make anyone happy.

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