The Akasaka Prince is no more. When I first went to Japan, in the boom year of 1990, I stayed in this faceted skyscraper in the middle of Tokyo. Designed by Kenzo Tange and completed in 1982, it represented everything I came to love about the country, from its minimalist rooms to its elaborate gardens, and especially its view over a sprawl that seemed as extensive as that of L.A., but as dense as midtown Manhattan. I tried to book myself there when I went back recently, but found that it is abandoned, after housing some refugees from the 2011 tsunami, as the family that owns it  bickers (so my Tokyo sources tell me) and a developer plans an office building for the site
Japan keeps falling apart and keeps building. Despite a recession that has lasted almost without a break for two decades, despite the aging and shrinking of its population, and despite a national debt that makes ours look like a molehill, there are still cranes busy all around Tokyo and Japan's other cities, new infrastructure being built, and a sense that the country needs to make itself better. Much of the current expenditure is for projects that are meant to help those hurt by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, though how much of that is well-spent is a matter of considerable public debate. As I write this, the prime minister has dissolved parliament again, promising yet another government in a country that switches leaders about once a year or more.
Amid all of these contradictions, Tokyo made news in the world of architecture last week with the announcement that a jury had selected Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, to design a new national stadium. Set to replace the aging venue of that name in Yoyogi Park, right next to Tange’s greatest masterpiece, the 1964 Olympic Stadium, this slithering behemoth (yes, that is possible, just look at the renderings) will anchor the country’s bid for the 2020 Olympic Games.
This is only the second time that the city, usually so protective of its local architects, has opened itself up to international designers. The results of the last competition, the Tokyo Forum, won in 1989 by Rafael Viñoly, FAIA, with one of his predictably boring designs, went hugely over budget. Perhaps it took this long for the city to get up the courage to try again, and we can only hope that Hadid will be able to build what looks like a complex structure somewhere close to budget and schedule.
I find the design exhilarating, even, dare I say, sexy. All of the finalists essentially struggled with the same question: Once you create the large void at the building’s center, and surround it with stands that will have the correct sight lines and the necessary services, what do you do to shape a cocoon at a gigantic scale? Hadid’s solution is to draw the edges out into roof and walkway extensions that cross the park, dissolve the building’s mass, and make the edges of this public structure as porous as possible. Toyo Ito, Hon. FAIA, did it in a small way in his design for the Kaohsiung Stadium in Taiwan in 2009, opening and extending one side of the structure, but here, the whole building seems to ooze.
I have to say that several of the other projects interested me. I was surprised by the inventiveness of stadium expert Populous’s vision. Working with Rod Sheard, the firm created a field of bubbles that would draw together the whole of Yoyogi Park into an artificial landscape. Kazuyo Sejima’s firm, Sanaa, proposed a cake of rippling layers, while both UN Studio and Ito came with restrained containers. The most exiting design for me was that by the small firm Dorell Ghotmeh Tane (DGT), which buried the whole building under a landscaped hill.
The Hadid proposal will, if it is built, extend the work she did with the London Aquatic Center—quite literally with its larger swoops and scale. I look forward to seeing it built, but still wonder when Tokyo will confront both what is good about its past and a new reality in which continual construction must, it seems to me, make way for intelligent reconstruction.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.