I imagine most everyone on the planet has already heard the Summer Olympics will be held in Tokyo in 2020. In my mind this is a pretty uncontroversial event, but every time an Olympic site is under consideration the pundits fight like like trolls on the internet. Things can pretty easily get right up and over the top. It’s surreal how talk of corruption sits so easily with dreams for the future when it comes to something like this. After so many years there should be consensus, or a passable facsimile at least, and we could stop arguing, but that appears to be wishful thinking. Maybe it's the pure potential that drives all the heat. The Olympics are what we make them, and they can go either way, and that's why the arguments and the speculation continue even after the last firework is fired and all the athletes have made their ways back home.
What the olympics will mean for Tokyo is still unknown. The Fukushima disaster looms, and that is more than enough, but there are other issues, like shrinking and aging populations, a massive disaster area to the north, not to mention a 20 year economic slump, that might be addressed if the folks in charge had the desire to take those things on.
In the press, Naomi Pollock points out that the Olympic legacy was much larger in 1964 than they will be this time around. And not surprisingly there is already news that new construction will be hard for some Tokyo-ites. Hiroko Tabuchi made a pretty good summary of the tech vs social aspects recently in the New York Times. One of our office partners, Christian Dimmer, is quoted near the end of the NY Times article, and he makes the argument that spending a lot of money on great architecture would be a bit wasted if the architecture doesn't do more than look good. Which is the real issue at hand, when it comes right down to it.Last month Fumihiko Maki held a conference to discuss just a part of the story, and gathered an audience that was standing room only, and needed to be accommodated by setting up a video screen in another room. Who says architects don't care?
Actually, Maki has been very vocal about the design for the Olympic Stadium by Zaha Hadid, which he thinks is too large for its site. What is cool about him though is that he has gone out of his way to not make it about Zaha, nor about the design. Instead he critiques the planning of the competition and the process of picking the final design.
With this going on in front of us we decided to cut studio and join the conference when we had the chance. One of our students, Reiki Ohya took some notes, which I have added to, and laid down here. Maki makes a pretty straightforward argument, but worth thinking about, especially in Tokyo, a city that has often made plans for what it should look like, but almost never carries them out.
The title of the conference translates roughly as “The New National Stadium in Gaien – Rethinking its Design in the Context of History”. Panelists included Maki himself, the architectural historian Hidenobu Jinnai, sociologist Shinji Miyadai, and architect Hidetoshi Ohno (FYI, he was my phd advisor a few years back). The basis of the gathering was an article written by Maki in August in the JIA magazine, that maki penned in advance of the announcement of the Olympic bid winner.
So what was it all about? Basically 4 things
first - The competition asked for program that meant filling the site to its full extent, without any explanation for why it was needed other than to fill a wish-list disconnected from reality.
second - Even though this is one a historically significant site, complicated even by Tokyo standards, there was no requirement for serious site analysis in the competition, nor models to judge the real effect.
third - The competition was limited to superstars - such a missed opportunity to find fresh minds and fresh ideas.
fourth - the scale of the project needs serious crowd and safety solutions, which are under the control of a supervisor rather than the designer.
The overarching issue is that for such a massive competition, and with a budget to match, the roughness of the competition has left too many questions and as a result the design needs to be rethought. It is not fair to the architects who participated and especially not fair to Zaha Hadid who now needs to deal with a lot of scrutiny that was not her doing.
The conference went on to explain these points more fully with input from each of the speakers. Maki kicked things off by talking about walking near the site in his youth when he was going to school and seeing the great European-style park. It stood out in Tokyo for its Beaux-Arts style, deliberately created in contrast to its sibling to the West (Yoyogi park), which was made in a Japanese style, with free-form paths and organic planning. Filling this small site with a massive building will necessarily overwhelm it and ruin the effect of the original design. He goes on to compare the new stadium proposal with the stadium in Beijing (designed by Herzog + Demeuron), which is about the same size, but with a much larger site.
I was not sure what that meant actually, so I made a quick comparison using google. The maps reveal a lot more than the issue of scale, and I think Maki understands this point very well. The context is enormously different, since the Japanese land use is still one of small parcels of land, and very fine grained land use. In the Beijing context building big might have made sense, but here the urban form needs a bit more care.Hidenobu Jinnai continued to talk about history. Jinnai is well known in Japan for his research on Venice and his lament that Tokyo, which was once a water city much like Venice, has become detached from its history in a profound way. In this case the history is preserved at the scale of landscape. The Meiji shrine and Yoyogi Park were once connected to the Gaien park by two main roads, creating a kind of link between them that should not be lost. Unfortunately, while he says that, one of the roads was turned into an elevated highway for the last Olympics and is utterly invisible and definitely not a romantic connection anymore, if it ever was one.This argument of history is an elusive one. Tokyo has never really gone for that sort of thing, and expecting much of it now rings a bit odd in my ears. Even Maki built modern when he had the chance. As he himself show, his experience of the site continues into his life as an architect, with his design for the Metropolitan Stadium next to the new Olympic site.
It is a beautiful complex of buildings, but historical is not quite the word I would use to describe it. He points out however that what his own work looks to is not so much about form in architectural terms, but rather about the urban form - the height of the buildings and the way they sit on the site. When working at this scale he says it is absolutely essential that a model showing the entire site is prepared, and he was incredulous that the competition didn't need anything like that, only a few renderings. He asks how it was possible to decide on a winner without that kind of model.
In a comparison he made for his article he shows how much of a jump in scale this new project will be for the area, and its true enough, quite a leap.The sociologist, Miyanodai, jumps in to say that japan needs to have more public participation in building its own cities. That a holistic approach is essential, and yet we live in a cocoon of fiction, like the fiction that nuclear power is safe. He wishes that any urban development will consider the use of all the new projects and places after the Olympics have gone.
The discussion continued for some time, bouncing around the issue of civil society and how little there is of it in Japan, and what society means. Amongst all this talk I found one of the more interesting points was that when the Olympics were held in Tokyo in 1964 the city was changed radically, but that was because it was young and brash. Now that Tokyo is mature, the setting is not the same, and the time is not right for brashness. I am para-phrasing but this theme came up a few times and I wondered at that attitude, as there is so much brashness still in Tokyo, and the future of architecture is still being made here. Sejima and Fujimoto and others are still doing work that could only happen in Japan and that others are copying around the world.
Ironically it was this point that Maki himself joked about, when he critiqued the decision to limit the competition to the super-stars. He proposed the example of Rogers and Piano, and their design for Pompidou, an impossible project by two young men who looked like hippies (his words, I swear), but a fantastic place.
A google search suggests they were not actually so scruffy, but the point remains. This attitude from Maki was actually impressive. He wants the best work, even if we don't know where it is coming from. That the government only wants to back a proven winner is perhaps indication that the country is no longer as sure of itself as it once was.
In the end it seems the government is now asking for the design to be reconsidered and made smaller. Whether that was the result of Maki's efforts or simply government budgetary realism is hard to say, but I suspect he had a role to play.
By chance, I had the opportunity to speak with him a few weeks ago on this matter, when I visited his office with some friends. He wondered aloud why these issue needed to be taken up by him, why a man in his 80's should lead this effort, when so many other great architects could have done so in his place. It was a rhetorical question, but I think the answer is that he is one of only a few people in this country with the stature to say such things and have the kind of reaction that eventually came about. Architects sometimes have influence, but we seldom have very much of it when we are young. It is a good question though. How do we go about earning a better place in the world we are building?
On a final tangent, this month's Japan Architect was devoted to the work of models in Japanese architectural design, and featured SANAA's proposal for the stadium. It is just as large as Zaha's but seems to be less present.
The design process is shown in a series of models from the office, and it looks like they are most certainly thinking about where the building is, urbanistically, and tries to overcome the scale issue with smaller spaces surrounding the main stadium. I wonder what the consensus would have been about this project, had it won. It's still pretty damn big, although I personally think its an awesome design. Zaha's office probably has many similar process models and took many of the same decisions. This whole debate leaves me wondering about what place architects really have in shaping the cities we live in. The people who planned the competition seem to have set the stage for how the city would be used, and the architect could only make it work, or work slightly better. They would never actually decide a lot of the important points. I suppose that is why Maki himself never talks about the design but only the urbanism. What I would wish for is a better process for the competition itself, never mind who wins in the end. We may only ever have the kind of influence Maki or any architect wishes for by becoming politicians ourselves.
keio university's architecture program is probably the best kept secret in the country. Hidden away on a campus an hour from tokyo the curriculum is wide open and connected to a campus-wide project aimed at community-driven innovation. students of economics can take courses in architecture and vice versa but we all are expected to take part in real projects somewhere in the world. there are a few starchitects on the faculty but mostly we are hoping to make a difference.