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Renew Feature

Going for gold

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics maps onto existing sites, with layers of history, reuse, and reconstruction

RENEW Jan-March 2020

Gold Getty Images 1202640484

The Athletes’ Village Plaza uses timber from sustainable sources donated by 63 municipalities in Japan. After the Olympics, timber will be returned for reuse in local facilities.

Photo by Clive Rose on GettyImages

Olympic cities are made, not born, so it should come as no surprise that Tokyo, Paris, and Los Angeles, sites of the next three Summer Olympic Games, are all repeat hosts. As costs for staging the three-week event escalate into the double-digit billion-dollar range, cities with prior experience appear to be better equipped to handle the crushing burden by reusing existing venues and architecture.

The 1964 Games in Tokyo—the first time the Olympics took place in Asia—represented a historic moment. Official narratives tend to obscure mention of an earlier attempt, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) first chose Tokyo for the 1940 Games, only to see Japan forfeit in the summer of 1938 after extensive planning had already taken place. (Eventually, the Second World War forced the cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 Games altogether.) Tokyo’s greater metropolitan area therefore has a three-layer Olympic history etched into its topography, involving recycled sites and resuscitated strategies.

An aerial view in 2013 shows the proposed venue for the Olympic Village. The site was overhauled to build housing for 10,000 athletes. After the games, the village will be converted to house 12,000 people in 5,600 apartments.
Photo by Nippon News on Alamy Stock Photo
Construction of the Olympic Village. After the games, the village will be converted to house 12,000 people in 5,600 apartments.
Photo by SetsukoN iStock

Like Boston, Tokyo traces its origins back to the early-17th century. It similarly faces a bay to the east and expands toward contiguous cities in the other three cardinal directions. The city center revolves around the imperial palace and headquarters for the national government, while traditional commercial districts cluster along the Sumida River and Tokyo Bay to its east, educational and cultural institutions sit to its north, and residential developments sprawl westward. Consistently in 1940, 1964, and 2020, venues for the sporting events and athletes’ village gravitated to three distinct zones that roughly match existing urban functions: 1) the symbolic center, where an existing imperial memorial park stands; 2) the bay zone, where reclaimed land has formed new islands; and 3) the extensive western zone, where open green spaces are more readily available.

The biggest dilemma of site planning for the 1940 Games involved the location of the main stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies would be held. Whereas the dense city center was out of the question, the Meiji Shrine Outer Garden—an extraordinary landscaped park roughly two miles away on what at the time was the edge of Tokyo—posed an attractive ready-made solution. It consisted of an art gallery and a sports stadium alongside a collection of athletic fields completed in 1926 in memory of Emperor Meiji, a much-revered monarch credited with the rapid and highly successful modernization of Japan. Advocates and opponents alike asserted the rarity of the Meiji Shrine facilities’ scenic beauty; one side saw it as the best showcase for Japanese cultural sensibility, while the other feared hundreds of thousands of domestics and foreigners trampling its sacred aura.

Meiji Olympic Park
Copyright 1964 by the Organizing Committee for the Games of the XVIII Olympiad, Volume 1, Part 1, page 116

After a protracted dispute among Olympic organizers, the City of Tokyo, the powerful national Shrine Bureau, and the Ministry of Home Affairs, all parties reached an agreement to go elsewhere, another 5 miles southwest to Komazawa. The debates and resolution all came to naught some months later when Japan pulled out as host of the competition to concentrate its resources on war.

American occupation forces razed the Meiji Shrine stadium after Japan’s defeat in 1945. When they departed 12 years later, a replacement building in steel frame and reinforced concrete rose immediately. By the time of the 1964 Olympiad, minor expansions were sufficient for the relatively new structure to serve as the Olympic Stadium. The use of the Meiji Shrine vicinity caused no controversy this time. Postwar nationalism sidestepped emperor worship to emphasize instead urban resurgence through new technology, infrastructure, and transportation (including the high-speed “bullet” train, an airport monorail, and an expressway network all unveiled for the Olympics).

Fast-forward to the 21st century. International controversy once again plagues the same project, the same site. Plans to replace the existing stadium that served in 1964 led to an international design competition won by Zaha Hadid. Alarmed by the escalating construction budget, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe very publicly rejected the design, and a second competition resulted in the winning entry—the now-realized National Stadium—by Kengo Kuma. In addition to cost, the respective factions that supported Hadid and Kuma battled over pressing issues such as the size, look, and sustainability of a stadium to house 68,000 in a hyperconstrained urban center. Even after a conscious reduction, the stadium footprint is currently more than double the size of the original 1920s structure, without a corresponding expansion of the site lot.

In the late 1930s, alternative parts of Tokyo were proposed as better options for Olympic venues to allow more space and coherence in layout. At the outset, the City of Tokyo preferred using Tsukishima, a man-made island in Tokyo Bay. All the athletic facilities could be contained in one unified rectangular area, according to a 1935 plan. Another momentous event scheduled for 1940 in Tokyo, the Japan World Exposition (also ultimately scrapped) proposed to occupy two adjacent reclaimed islands, Harumi and Toyosu, in the same bay. Many large-scale phantom schemes exist for Tokyo Bay; best known to architects would be Kenzō Tange’s 1960 intervention, Plan for Tokyo, which imagined an entire city of integrated highways and clip-on architecture expanding over the water. Tange’s self-initiated scheme did not inspire the 1964 Games to make use of land over sea, even though he did manage to contribute the two memorably futuristic National Gymnasium buildings in the landlocked Yoyogi neighborhood that feature sinuous metal suspension roofs.

Traces of Tange’s idea for megaclusters of residential towers on the bay have been revived in the upcoming Olympic Village of 2020. Appearing on the waterfront of Harumi like a mirage, an instant community of 23 residential structures in the island’s fifth district will first house participating athletes. Unusual sustainable practices include the debut of recyclable cardboard beds and plastic mattresses, and a village plaza made of timber donated by municipalities across the country. After the summer of 2020, the beds turn into paper products, the timber returns to donors for reuse, and the residential units renovate into permanent condominiums for sale. Other reclamation districts such as Ariake and Tatsumi hold expressly built Olympic venues, most of them for aquatic and new sports such as skateboarding and sport climbing.

Yoyogi National Gymnasium, 1970
Photo courtesy of Flickr

The rest of the 2020 Games will take place in existing arenas that dot across the Tokyo suburban greenbelt and nearby prefectures. In contrast, a bit beyond practical proximity, two stadiums in distant Fukushima and Miyagi stand out. (The distance between Tokyo and Fukushima is comparable to the distance between Boston and New Haven, Connecticut.) They are symbolic sites of Japan’s reconstruction efforts after the devastation of these two prefectures by the 2011 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident. The torch relay in Japan, similarly, will begin in Fukushima to emphasize the region’s recovery and the nation’s continued dedication to support communities rebuilding after natural disasters.

Self-dubbed the “reconstruction Olympics,” 2020 repeats the theme of triumphant renewal applied to the two earlier Tokyo Games when a great earthquake (1923) and a world war (1940s) respectively flattened much of the greater metropolitan area. Each time after an epic disaster, Tokyo returned with a successful bid for the Summer Olympics to showcase its resilience.

No matter how resilient, no city can claim to best Mother Nature or the IOC. The marathon, typically a headline event, will not thread through major sites around Tokyo nor enjoy a photo-perfect final lap in the Kuma-designed main stadium. Thanks to anxiety over sweltering August heat, the IOC made the unpopular decision to move the event to Sapporo, located on the northern tip of Japan. Ultimately, the Olympics may change a city for the better but must still yield to the Earth’s climate realities.

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