Metropolis

Japan’s National Planter

The sylvan, understated Olympic stadium was built for 60,000 fans. Architect Kengo Kuma thinks it’s fitting that it’s empty.

Police officers move towards their position ahead of the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games near the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on July 23, 2021. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP) (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)
No guests, just greenery. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/Getty Images

The Olympics, and accordingly Olympic architecture, are supposed to be triumphant. Exuberant. They emphasize spectacle, showmanship, and national pride. Look no further than the old National Stadium in Tokyo designed by Kenzo Tange for the 1964 Olympics—a dramatic, monumental design with its famous swooping, suspended roof. Or Ai Weiwei’s mind-numbing Bird’s Nest in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, like a mega-cocoon for a steely monster, stretched-out steel beams zigzagging every which way. Zaha Hadid’s initial design for the new National Stadium in Tokyo stunned with its futuristic, turbocharged bicycle helmet shape.

Advertisement

But after Hadid’s plan was deemed too expensive and Kengo Kuma was selected to design the venue instead, he set out to build the opposite of a proud, mighty stadium. In one sense it’s tragic that the venue will be largely empty for the duration of the Games. But it’s also fitting.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The stadium design, in which the 60,000 seats are colored in five different earth tones to create a forest-pattern mosaic, makes the stadium look occupied and alive even without spectators. “The mosaic design is a natural solution to the problem of no spectators at the Olympics,” Kuma told me during a recent interview. “By accident, the idea is perfectly fitting the situation with COVID.”

Advertisement

But the design is also apt on a deeper level. While Tange’s design was representative of a 1960s Japan experiencing revolutionary economic growth, the new National Stadium is built for a different era. “The new era isn’t about expansion,” Kuma said. “Intimacy and human experience should be the theme of the new era. My proposal is very intimate and very human.” Kuma, 66 and possessing a casual, academic demeanor, is one of the most notable and active architects in Japan. He’s best known for the Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum, V&A Dundee in Scotland, the Dallas Rolex Tower, and now, the National Stadium.

For these Games, Kuma created a stadium that’s humble as far as mega-arenas go, designed to blend in with its surroundings and age gracefully. Although gigantic in size, the National Stadium is a simple ellipse created to be as short and inconspicuous as possible, and covered in greenery to best fit in with the surrounding woods of the Meiji Shrine outer gardens. The wooden beams on the roof and the multilayered shadows that they bring inside the stadium makes the interior almost feel like a forest itself.

Advertisement

Creative resources were not spent on a bombastic shape, but instead on a clever design that maximizes ventilation by bringing seasonal winds into the building, as well as using local wood from all 47 of Japan’s prefectures. As Dutch architect Martin van der Linden put it, the design is “definitely not iconic … But I personally like it very much, especially once the vegetation is blooming and the stadium will look like a large planter.”

Advertisement
Fireworks go off around the Olympic Stadium after the lighting of the Olympic Flame during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, in Tokyo, on July 23, 2021. (Photo by Jewel SAMAD / AFP) (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images)
The Olympics’ opening ceremony. JEWEL SAMAD/Getty Images
Advertisement

Despite its scale, the building is classic Kuma. His broader architectural philosophy opposes 20th century, industrial, efficient, corporate architecture and strives toward more human design. I saw this philosophy on full display in an ongoing exhibit of Kuma’s designs at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo as a part of the Japan Cultural Expo. A self-declared enemy of boxes, Kuma strives to create architecture that brings people into a more dynamic, joyful world of walkable streets.

Advertisement

“In a modern society, an intimate street can become new co-working spaces and playing spaces for children,” said Kuma. Kuma envisions a city of intimate, mellow walkways and parks, rich with places to live, work, and play. Majesty of the sort usually required by the Games isn’t really on his mind.

Advertisement

One of Kuma’s core themes—oblique angles—is premised on how humans are creatures that wander freely over the earth’s varied surfaces, and aren’t meant to be trapped in boxes or grids. His iconic Dallas Rolex Tower in Texas utilizes this principle to gently twist out from its foundation, creating a less oppressive high-rise building that looks just as much like terrain as it does the average skyscraper. Another theme, soft surfaces, can be seen in the Takayanagi Community Center here in Japan. The building is made with a thatch roof and translucent washi paper for more gentle, textured partitioning as opposed to hard walls or glass.

Advertisement

“Some people think of Kuma’s architecture as made to be photogenic,” exhibit curator Kenjiro Hosaka said. “We wanted visitors to understand that his designs are created out of necessity.”

Advertisement
A portrait of Kengo Kuma, standing with his arms crossed and wearing a black shirt.
Kengo Kuma J.C. Carbonne/Courtesy of The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
Advertisement

Far from the monument to a resurgent Japan that organizers’ envisioned, Kuma envisions that the National Stadium will be a part of an era of economic contraction and human intimacy. It’s a vision that runs counter to what the Olympics have been in practice, with a focus on growth and victory, and which local activists criticize as primarily an opportunity for corporate profit-grabbing with little benefits to citizens. (Most economists agree that the Olympics have primarily negative effects on host cities.) The Tokyo Olympics have been no different, which went on to be held this year despite most Japanese people opposing the games for much of the second half of 2020 and first half of 2021.

Advertisement

The Games were not only held despite coronavirus, which is now rampaging through Tokyo. The Games were held in summer to satisfy American TV networks, despite the fact that the Tokyo 1964 Olympics were held in October due to the city’s dangerous summer heat. (Which has gotten worse in the last 50 years due to climate change.) Over the years, Olympic construction has displaced millions and millions of mostly poor residents in host cities. A body of scholarly and journalistic work shows that the Olympics have criminalized nearby poverty, contributed to gentrification and displacement, increased policing and surveillance, and exploited laborers in Tokyo and other cities around the world.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The exhibit at the MOMAT shows that this Olympic world is the very opposite of Kuma’s ideal. Also featured in the MOMAT exhibit is a unique project for which Kuma’s firm tracked cats in Tokyo with GPS to take lessons from Tokyo’s feline residents about how to build better public spaces. Some of the conclusions are remarkably apt for humans. For example, how cats prefer quarters that are a good fit for their small body sizes. “We all need space at the right scale for our bodies,” writes Kuma, “and more room does not necessarily make our lives richer.”

Advertisement

The firm also observed that the cats had paths through the city that wandered and wiggled freely along the topography—the very opposite of the square, thick lines of a typical city plan. “Each cat’s trajectory is free,” writes Kuma, “and these are just the kind of routes we want to take ourselves in the post-COVID, post-2020 world.”

Kuma said that he sees a younger generation of architects in Japan emphasizing local and recycled building materials, lots of greenery, and sustainable designs built not for cars or industry, but for human beings. As the National Stadium goes on to be used in future sporting and cultural events in Tokyo, it won’t live on as a monument to the disaster and triumph of these coronavirus Olympics, or as a harbinger of some sort of new era in Japan, but instead as one piece of a warmer and gentler Tokyo.

“I have hope for the future of the Japanese city,” Kuma said. And it’s clear that this future is one that couldn’t care less about the Olympics.

Advertisement