Zaha Hadid Architects are no longer the architects of the New National Stadium, Tokyo's headline venue for the 2020 Olympic Games. You probably already knew - ZHA have been making quite a fuss about it, with a 1,400-word statement released last month and a 23-minute video released yesterday, both arguing that scrapping their design is a bad idea.
Clearly, brevity is not one of ZHA's strong suits, so for those who don't have 30-plus minutes to chew their way through both video and statement, the basics are as follows: the official reason given by the Japanese government for scrapping the stadium has been the rising costs of the design. ZHA have countered this complaint by saying that the rising costs are not a result of their design but of an uncompetitive tender process for the construction, and of skyrocketing construction prices across the whole of Tokyo. They add that by starting the project from scratch, Japan risks overshooting their 2020 deadline for the Olympic venue.
An extra complication is added by the widespread public dislike of the stadium's design, scale and location - most notably coming in the form of a petition led by Fumihiko Maki and Toyo Ito - which has caused some to speculate that Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is secretly bowing to political pressure. In response, ZHA's video emphasized the features of the design which were either required by the brief or an attempt to respond to the context, in an attempt to absolve themselves from blame.
However, with the decision to start anew now over a month old, the question remains: will ZHA's attempts to win back the project be enough? More importantly, should this campaign be taken seriously?
For the record, I will admit some common ground with ZHA's position: starting from scratch is a massive risk by the Japanese government. If ZHA's (seemingly reasonable) diagnosis of the tender process and Tokyo's rising cost of construction are correct, it is unlikely that a new design to a similar brief would have much more financial success without severely compromising either the initial design or the legacy capabilities of the stadium. Even more worrying is the severely shortened design and construction period of the new design, which risks a poorly resolved or perhaps even unfinished outcome at the 2020 Games.
Click here to watch the video in full or to read a more complete synopsis.
Nevertheless, the video released yesterday was baffling - and not just because it was presented nearly six full weeks after the decision by the Japanese Prime Minister. Someone should tell ZHA that the Japan Sport Council is probably hoping to make some quick decisions at this point in time.
What's more disconcerting is the obvious desperation embodied by the video. For example, a number of times the narrator claims that the requirements of the brief leave "very few design options available," or that the existing proposal is the only possible design to meet those requirements. Architects are natural problem-solvers; it's usually not in their nature to claim that there are no other options available, and when they do so it's often a sign that they are being disingenuous.
More blatantly manipulative is the claim made in the video that "we have been aware since our competition submission in 2012 of the sensitivity of the site location with respect to the size of the stadium." Whether they were aware of this sensitivity so early is difficult to prove, however it certainly seems that they weren't initially taking it very seriously, as the design which they presented at this stage was later significantly scaled down in response to the pressures of both cost and public opinion.
The section is intended to demonstrate the effectiveness of their proposal in comparison to alternative stadium design approaches. However, with all of the points they raise already perfectly well explained earlier in the video, it instead comes across as a petty attack on the work of another group of architects, work which has very little in common with the Tokyo stadium in terms of either design brief or budget. Furthermore, as the video stresses, it's true that while Hadid's London Aquatics Centre is now a popular local swimming pool, the Populous' stadium is only now finishing a difficult conversion to its legacy mode. But it's also true that, during the games themselves, the stadium was a well-received symbol of national pride while some spectators at Hadid's Aquatics Centre had to have their tickets refunded because the roof blocked their view of the diving boards, so perhaps London isn't the place for Zaha Hadid to start throwing stones.
However Populous aren't the only people that Zaha Hadid Architects are willing to drag through the mud in an attempt to clear their own name and save their design: according to the video, an important contributor to the rising cost has been the fact that the contractor's original tender did not account for expensive design features such as the retractable roof or adjustable seating bowl. As these features have been accounted for, the costs have - naturally, obviously - gone up, which raises the question: why didn't ZHA address this with the Japan Sport Council a long, long time ago? Why wasn't it, at the very least, mentioned in their statement from last month? And - given that ZHA recommends re-running the tender process in a more competitive way and fully acknowledges that the same contractors will be in the running again - in the event that the same contractor was re-selected, how would they possibly work with a company they have attempted to publicly shame in this fashion?
Of course, as difficult as this complete lack of decorum is to see, it's probably not enough to declare ZHA undeserving of the project. To do that, I'd like to return, like Sisyphus, to February of 2014.
Back then, Zaha Hadid was embroiled in another controversy around a major stadium design for an important international sporting event: this time it was her Al-Wakrah Stadium, being built for the 2022 Qatar World Cup. There, she was presented with a situation in a foreign country where the market systems used by the local construction industry and enabled by the government would greatly expedite the construction of her project - albeit at the likely expense of a few hundred human lives. When asked about this tricky conundrum, her response was:
"It's not my duty as an architect to look at it. I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it."
In the following months, the debate about these words circled the globe, and it's still very much an unresolved question. But now, 18 months later, Hadid is faced with a situation in a foreign country where the market systems used by the local construction industry and enabled by the government have conspired to kill her project instead of people. This time, buried in the middle of the video, the official response is summed up like this:
"A new process needs to change the market conditions in Tokyo, not the design."
As one of the world's most well-known and sought-after architects, Hadid either has the power and the influence to change political and market situations, in which case it seems reasonable for her to attempt to both save lives and take the Tokyo commission back, or she doesn't, in which case she has wasted time producing a 23-minute video which we have wasted our time watching. Which is it?
Change update: This article was originally titled "Zaha Hadid Doesn't Deserve the Tokyo Stadium Commission, and Here's Why." This headline has since been changed as we felt that the reaction which it incited in many of our readers was coloring their interpretation of the arguments made in the text. The change has been made in the hope that it will encourage more focus on the content of the article and less on the article itself.