Tokyo Olympic Odyssey
We are still not quite sure what happened a couple of weeks ago. A package was delivered and placed, perhaps because of its appearance (it was a small, almost squared black box, an exercise in reduction except for a rather gaudily large quick response code on its top), in the Applications section of the mail shelf. Later that day, someone in the office noticed that the postmark read “2020.12.22”. Quickly more of us gathered in front of it. Where was the obvious mistake? All six sides of the box were scrutinised. But no indication of the “real” date could be found. As curiosity outlasted unease, we opened the box. Carefully. In it, taped on top of a bubble-wrapped box containing models, photographs, and news clippings, we found an envelope containing, on three printed pages, the following text which we have retyped here (any mistakes are our own):
After several plans to build a new National Stadium for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo had been cancelled, the embarrassment was redeemed by an almost happy ending:1
In July of 2020, the New National Stadium, a ship, anchored under Odaiba’s Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo became the first host of an era of a newfound Olympic spirit. Instead of another reincarnation of a white elephant, the new stadium would not only differentiate the Tokyo Games by ending the ever more ridiculously anachronistic race2 to outdo its predecessor but give the entire Olympic idea a much needed boost. The stadium, after the Tokyo Games, would travel the world from one Olympic host city to the next in what was to become an exciting Olympic Journey for decades to come.
Quickly disproving the initial wholesale criticism that a floating structure would not be suitable for sports events,3 the unexpected stadium design struck many chords:
- with the athletes who enjoyed the cooling effects achieved by the smart design’s use of the location on open water. The organisers’ insistence on the for Tokyo irresponsible timing4 in the midst of the summer heat was so controversial that many athletes who had before threatened to stay away were lured back by the prospect of competing in a “Stadium on the Sea”;
- with the locals in Sendagaya, who had, after years of agony, been presented with a completely unexpected gift: where there had once been the old —and in the process prematurely demolished— stadium and where most residents had succumbed to the idea that their neighbourhood was to be dwarfed by a far too big structure, which in rounds of embarrassing decisions had become a hastily assembled design of unmitigated mediocrity5 before the entire idea was abandoned, the void in the middle of the city was all of a sudden allowed to become a green refuge for all;
- with several members of the national sports committee who felt they had at last been provided an escape-pod: Increasingly plagued by their self-inflicted Procrustean angst,6 they immediately saw the immense potential of the flexibility a moving stadium would give them;7
- with environmentalists around the globe who hailed the inherently sustainable character of such a stadium;8
- with the preservationists: not only was the stadium no longer imposing on their prized Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery and the Jingu Gaien park, it was soon going to leave for good. And even for the short time of its presence, the fact that much of the stadium would be under water was greeted as the perfect response to their most ailing issue: height.9 A concern which was widely considered funny to be still relevant given that the new context10 was more sensitive to depth than height;
- with the financially shrewd in the national and local governments who saw the immense marketability and consequential stream of revenue: The money would flow in when the stadium was sent out to tour the world during the four years after the Olympics and eventually sold to the next host city;
- with architects around the globe, and even with those whose fatal tirades against the original competition’s winning design had led to the disastrous and embarrassing process in the first place, when it became clear that what was happening in front of their eyes was the future of Olympic architecture;11
- with the international organisers: After years of the most serious threat to the Games since Coubertin’s inception in 1896,12 this simple yet radical idea was seen as a life-saving manoeuvre forward;
- in fact, with the entire Olympic community who had become disillusioned with fading interest in the Games and who now saw the beauty of the entire idea reinforced: What better messenger for the Olympic movement and the sports in general if not only a torch but the entire Stadium itself would tour the world.
The planning and construction achieved something hitherto unheard of: Shipbuilders —after years of dwindling work overjoyed by this unsuspected chance to show their prowess in a project of international prestige— and general contractors joined forces. Over a for the scale ridiculously short three years,13 the best of what the nation had to offer turned the radical into the real. The same Olympic spirit that had once, nearly six decades earlier, conquered the hearts and astonishment of the world, did it again, this time showing how a mature nation had taken the lead towards an era of a new sense and sensibility.14
Just when almost everyone seemed happy, the idea was, before taking off after an extremely successful Olympics in Tokyo, drowned by the massive protests from those potential Olympic cities too far away from the seashores to ever receive the stadium, fearing that their location would a priori disqualify them as future hosts.15
A mere two days after the closing ceremony, during which the stadium had actually lifted its anchors and loosened its ties in an emotionally loaded gesture that the Olympics were ending and beginning at the same time, as the Olympic journey was continuing, voices around the world started a heated debate over the stadium’s future. The stadium found itself in a limbo: Tokyo insisted on sending it off as had been meticulously planned —on the first Monday of 2021— after a grand New Year’s Eve finale under Tokyo Gate Bridge; several cities, who saw their own chances to become future hosts diminished by a floating stadium, called for a delay until another solution was found.
Meanwhile, the stadium steadily made money by touring Tokyo Bay and its estuaries on a packed calendar of events.
But two months before the Grand Finale, in the morning of an unusually foggy first of November, the stadium had disappeared. In the beginning, it was simply assumed that it had, a little earlier than scheduled, relocated to another part of Tokyo Bay for the next event. Until, after several hours of reconnaissance, the stadium was declared missing. The news spread quickly. Among many initial rumours, two theories became the most often cited: One claimed that it had been stolen by a collective of all those envious cities and, considering the effort which they would have had to invest in this kind of hijacking venture, was almost certain never to be found again. Another, not completely implausible theory was that, as a precautionary measure, officials had taken the initiative and sealed the stadium before tying it to the bottom of the sea until all disputes were settled. Many privately funded diving teams tried but were prevented from search missions, allegedly because of safety concerns, only fuelling the speculation that it must be down there…
The text was not addressed to anyone, and yet the original content (hand-marked photographs, news clippings, models) suggests that the package was not distributed in bulk to many others. Perhaps, then, it was only to disseminate the relieving insights in our not so distant future: Much simpler and saner than what we are forced to believe today.
Tokyo, June 2017, FBA
- In the wake of a cruel process involving a competition to find an architect to design the stadium which would help Tokyo to secure the bid as host city, only to drop that architect after two years in a dubious procedure, a not unimportant byproduct was this sobering realisation by many architects around the world: Dutifully abiding by and not questioning the competition brief could lead to disastrous consequences. The widespread consensus was that the clumsy and senselessly overblown brief of the original competition had been the culprit at the root of the ensuing mess. But self-critical voices were heard saying that it was the docile non-questioning by “us architects” which ultimately allowed it to happen. ↩︎
- The original competition brief’s lack of vision was manifest in an overblown wish list of program. Instead of seizing the opportunity to make a statement about where we should be headed, the eclectic group of organisers had put together a brief of the past, just another grand scheme intended as a vulgar display of power, disconnected from the presence, oblivious of the future, destined to failure. ↩︎
- Experts from all fields delivered evidence after evidence that precisely the most often heard point of contention —untameable motion— propelled the stadium design forward into a direction away from all the preconceived inevitability of the past and contemporary trends. The groundbreaking idea came by moving onto water. ↩︎
- Unlike 1964, when sense had prevailed over monetary interest and the games took place in October, the organisers, pressured by the world’s broadcasting schedules, showed no mercy. ↩︎
- To the extent where the original brief had been an overblown panoply of exploiting Olympic sources of income, the stadium (for which the construction had already begun) was a display of myopia, providing lacklustre answers to the wrong questions and fig leaves to environmentally sustainable design concerns. ↩︎
- Of course many more institutions had been involved, but ultimately, they had agreed to both the bed and the size of the victim themselves: An urban site way too small to fit their crazily uncontrolled ambitions. ↩︎
- One of the main concerns, the seating capacity, was solved with elegance: The roof not only became the fourth tier but allowed for easy docking and extending onto bridges and temporary structures quickly erected on the shores. A great many designs for temporary seating and additional amenities on the shores, on bridges, on other ships and floating structures were presented and turned concern into euphoria. ↩︎
- Already a showcase of technological advances (water, sun, and wind would provide all energetic needs), the entire stadium was not only built from over 80% recycled material but itself to be reused over and over again for Olympiads to come, a complete departure from the many pictures of abandoned stadia around the world. ↩︎
- The height and the detailed design for the roof evolved from a pragmatic realisation by a team who researched all of the world’s bridges spanning over bays, estuaries and rivers deep enough for the stadium: The number of bridges that can be passed under decreases exponentially to the increase in moulded depth of a ship. The reach of the stadium could be drastically amplified by lowering the total height it would rise above water as well as limiting its draught. Every centimetre counted. At the end, the stadium would rise above sea level so little that it recalled the city-wide height limit of 31m which, incidentally, had been lifted in preparation for Tokyo’s first Olympic Games in 1964. ↩︎
- Speaking of context, a renown architectural theorist concluded cleverly: “Like most stadia, it doesn’t care about nor need a specific context; yet unlike these static stadia, which really should care about the context but often can’t because of their sheer size, the floating stadium is ready to enhance whatever context it is docked onto and is ready to leave before the hangover after the party sets in.” ↩︎
- Watching from Rainbow Bridge, under which the stadium had anchored, and from the temporary structures erected in the vicinity, excited crowds celebrated. Ships, boats, rafts, and many other floating objects filled the bay and enjoyed being active part of the Games. The new stadium achieved what had been thought lost in the past olympics’ fetishisation of control and power: to become a living spectacle for all. The stadium had become a place where the future presented itself in a natural merging of fun, environment, ecology, openness, life. ↩︎
- So greedily disproportionate had the allotting of revenue become that hosting the Olympics was synonymous with causing a financial disaster for the host city. The consequential opposition to hosting the games by an ever-growing number of cities led to fears that the era of modern-day Olympics was soon to end, or worse, become the playground for the prestige-yearning rich. ↩︎
- Apparently, the design had started 18 months earlier, only weeks after the announcement of the dubious second “competition’s” winner five months after the official scrapping of the original design. Once the feasibility of the design had been proved and any budget issues declared irrelevant (in fact, the stadium was to make a sizeable profit by the time it was sold to the next city), the timeframe had been the major concern. Having aborted two stadium design processes, the organisers could not afford to fail. Yet the unequivocal success proved all critics wrong. ↩︎
- Unlike the years running up to 1964, when one of the main goals was to use the Olympic stage in order to show the world that a nation was not only back from the ashes but had taken the technological lead with (arguably for the Games irrelevant) projects such as the bullet train, 2020 was about a much more relaxed and mature way to look for potential solutions in the 21st century. ↩︎
- An argument which had been heard ever since the decision for the host of 2024 Olympics: Although still in its early stages of construction, the idea of the floating stadium had clearly helped swing the votes in favour of one of the candidates. ↩︎