Here in Tokyo, where I am visiting to give a lecture, the talk is all about the new Olympic Stadium. Designed by Zaha Hadid for the 2020 Games, it will accommodate 80,000 spectators in a lozenge-shaped behemoth whose flowing forms are typical of that architect’s recent work. The discussion is not so much about the design, which everybody here claims to like, so much as its size: At almost three million square feet, it will be three times as large as the Olympic Stadium in London. It will also swallow up most of the surrounding park in Shinjuku, necessitating the demolition of a number of apartment buildings—evicting, ironically, some who were relocated by the construction of Kenzo Tange’s 1960 Olympic Stadium. “We do not blame the design,” opposition leader Fumihiko Maki told me, “but the program, which is much too large.”
Instead, he and others opposing the current plan are calling for a much smaller facility, perhaps located somewhere else, that could be temporarily expanded for the games in the manner in which stands were added to Hadid’s Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics. Though this was not a very elegant solution—the temporary stands ruined the design’s fluidity exactly when millions were watching the Games on television, and site lines were not very good in the upper stands—it did prevent the building from becoming an over-scaled white elephant once the Games were over.
This in general is the problem with the Olympics: the Games galvanize their host cities, create a festive atmosphere, spur economic development –and then they are gone. While the Olympic Village usually turns into housing, while infrastructure improvements remain, while parks might be nice open space, and while smaller facilities can even be of use, the major monuments the Games apparently necessitate rarely serve their cities well. The Bird’s Nest in Beijing has sat largely empty since 2008 and there is now talk of it becoming a shopping mall.
This is but a special version of a general situation: Sports facilities are among the least efficient investments you can make. American football stadiums are the worse. Used about a dozen times a year, they sit largely empty for the rest of the time. Even baseball stadiums only are in play about half the year, and then only a few times a week.
What a shame in this case is that the design, at least from the renderings, looks quite beautiful to me. Hadid’s fluid style seems appropriate in the way it melds together and molds the stands, their housing, and the open field into a whole, while exhibiting a grace that updates Tange’s achievement in the same city. If Maki is right, and he is now in conversation with Tadao Ando, who helped write the program, I hope that the design can be, as the fashionable word is, “rightsized.”
That still leaves the question of the insanity of investing so many resources into structures of such little use. There must be a better way to create venues for temporary events. Somebody should devise a competition that would do for sports what Burning Man did for festivals: build it for the event, and then take it down, leaving no trace. Or we should figure out how to reuse and reconfigure existing structures in such a way that such renovations are in turn reversible and adaptable. Great architecture should not just be a beautiful gesture, but a sensible response to a need that celebrates that occasion without binding a population to that event for all time.