Kengo Kuma’s National Stadium: Sure to be A Living, Breathing Legacy of the 2020 Olympics

Olympic National Stadium design_Kengo Kuma
Images of Kengo Kuma’s National Stadium

When you walk through Meiji Shrine, a peaceful oasis of green in the middle of Tokyo, your pulse rate drops and you forget the hustle bustle of one of Asia’s most dynamic mega-cities. Its location next to the National Stadium for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the Olympic Village made the wooded park of Meiji Shrine a wonderful place for runners to train, a la middle distance double gold medalist, Peter Snell.

When images of the planned National Stadium for the 2020 Olympics were released, there was a mixture of groans and puzzlement. Globally renown architect, Zaha Hadid, presented a design of sleek modernity. Frankly, I thought it looked like a bicycle helmet, somewhat out of place in its surroundings.

National Stadium and Meiji Shrine_google maps
National Stadium and Meiji Shrine on Google Maps

Then suddenly, in July, 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scratched plans for the design of the new National Stadium planned for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It was revealed that the estimated cost of the stadium ballooned from JPY252 billion, from the original proposal of JPY130 billion, an approximate difference of USD1 billion. Scrapping Hadid’s design meant a massive delay, resulting in a particularly embarrassing broken promise. Plans to have the new national stadium host the 2019 Rugby World Cup also had to be scrapped, resulting in a move of the tournament to Yokohama.

TOCOG quickly put together another search for a stadium designer. And suddenly, Kuma Kengo, whose design was selected, was in the spotlight. Not only will the cost of the Kengo stadium be closer to the originally proposed estimate (JPY150 billion), the design of the stadium will more seamlessly blend into the environment.

Kuma has built a reputation for his use of wood, and plans to employ wood, particularly wood grown in all prefectures of Japan, to fashion a stadium that folds into the relatively green surroundings, as he explains in this Nippon.com interview:

Instead of the old-fashioned idea of putting up a huge monument, my idea is to create a stadium that people will remember as part of the Meiji Shrine outer gardens, the wooded area in which it’s located. And we’re planning to uncover the Shibuya River, which was put underground during the rapid-growth years, and have it flow at surface level through the stadium grounds. I believe that creating something sustainable for future generations, with the surrounding nature open to the public, is a more important considerations than the physical shape of the edifice, and so that’s what I’ve been focusing my efforts on.

Kuma was 10 years old when the 1964 Olympics came to Tokyo. He remembers witnessing the rapid growth of the post-war years, and being amazed in particular by the two complementary buildings of the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, built for the aquatic and basketball events. According to the Nippon.com article, he remembers often visiting the First Gymnasium designed by legendary architect, Tange Kenzo. “The light shining down from the windows in the high ceiling made the water of the pool sparkle. I was captivated by this sublime sight, and that was what made me decide that I wanted to become an architect.”

 

Yusuhara Town Hall_Kengo Kuma
Yusuhara Town Hall

 

Over the years, Kengo has become known for his use of wood in his designs, in ways that recall times when wood was the primary construction material, layered, and exposed to the elements. Design website, Icon, describes Kengo’s work in detail:

Kuma’s approach is perhaps best illustrated by a series of buildings he has built in and around a small town called Yusuhara on Japan’s southern Shikoku island. The Yusuhara Town Hall (2006) sits under a roof and frame of Japanese cedar in a traditional structural arrangement, but one that gives off more than a hint of high-brutalism in the strong articulation of its thick beams and columns. The outside features a series of timber panels of various dimensions, alternating with glazed panels – a genuinely interesting take on the “barcode” facade.

Yuuhara hotel and market_Kengo Kuma
Yusuhara hotel and shops

A small hotel and market (2010) that Kuma built nearby is just as unconventional, with a curtain wall on the main facade made of straw bales and bamboo that can actually be opened out to allow light and ventilation through – a very odd combination of rustic material and hi-tech detailing. But the wooden bridge building (ICON 101) that Kuma built over a road to link a spa and hotel on the outskirts of the town is stranger still. Here is a version of traditional Japanese roof construction blown up to super-large scale, a series of single wooden elements all overlapping and stepping up towards the bridge itself. It is this radical re-imagining of a historic building material or method of construction that one sees time and time again in Kuma’s work.

I’m truly excited for the debut of Kengo Kuma’s national stadium. I feel it will not only be appreciated for its uniquely Japanese sensibilities, but will be a lasting legacy of the 2020 Games, a fitting complement to its green surroundings, particularly the peaceful Meiji Shrine.

“I want to go beyond the era of concrete,” Kuma, 62, said in this Japan Times interview. “What people want is soft, warm and humane architecture. We will show the model of a mature society in the stadium. That’s the way to live a happy life relying on limited natural resources from a small land.”

Kengo Kuma profile
Kengo Kuma