Tokyo’s gamble with its Olympic architecture needs to be appreciated

This first of a two-part series examines the use of timber in designing the games village and venues rather than concrete

The Olympic Stadium in Tokyo. Photo: @Tokyo2020 / TwitterThe Olympic Stadium in Tokyo. Photo: @Tokyo2020 / Twitter

‘Anti-sex’ beds are the most trending topic to come out of the Toyko Olympics 2020 which are starting this Friday. Usually, the architecture of the stadiums and venues used to dominate the public conversation leading up to the games but currently the twitterverse is busy debating the design intent of cardboard-based beds (nicknamed as ‘anti-sex’ beds) being provided to athletes at the games village.

This can be symptomatic of the larger change in the flavour of public conversation brought in by growth of social media. But I feel this bizarre conversation is happening because this Olympics has not built its equivalent of the ‘Bird’s Nest’ that would have caught eyeballs.

Tokyo’s conscious decision to focus on sustainability instead of creating an architectural spectacle has made many architectural pundits label it is “ho-hum and stodgy, corporate, lacking in spark”. But this popular narrative is undercutting the significance of the new architectural era that this Olympics seems to be ushering in.

Architects’ obsession with Olympics

The Olympics traditionally have served as the grandest platform for the architecture community to showcase their art. It is mostly forgotten now, but from 1912 to 1948, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) handed out medals for architecture. Gold medals in 1928, 1936, and 1948 were bestowed upon architects for designing Olympic stadiums. The medals were discontinued after 1948 but building iconic stadiums have become an integral part of hosting the games.

Nationalist pride attached with hosting the games meant the host cities and governments were on an active lookout for the most eye-catching designs that could outshine the previous hosts. Design competitions for these stadiums became a battlefield for superstar architects as it provided them an opportunity to realise their wildest of ideas and ensured a spot in the architectural hall of fame. These skyline altering creations, that had little to zilch utility post the games, generally came with a hefty price-tag.

Era of supersized Olympic architecture

Tokyo’s 1964 Olympic stadium, a swooping marvel of cantilevers and hanging roofs and hovering concrete, is widely recognised to have started the era of supersized futuristic stadium designs. The peak of this icon building phenomena was arguably reached with the ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium that headlined the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

It is safe to say that interest in Olympics architecture has been waning since as both London 2012 and Rio 2016 failed to match the buzz created by their predecessors. This was not due to lack of trying. London 2012 had its surrealistically wavy Aquatics Centre designed by the late Zaha Hadid while Rio 2016 sported a Future Arena with a futuristic wood façade. But the public was not impressed. 

A lack of public enthusiasm around Tokyo 2020 architecture seems like a natural progression from London and Rio but there is a difference here.

Breaking the norms

Tokyo made an unusual decision of not to build any conventional architectural masterpiece for its second Olympics hosting stint. It actually irked the elite architecture community by rejecting Zaha Hadid’s design for the main stadium which was adjudged the winner of the official design contest for the stadium. The decision was largely influenced by public outrage at its profane price-tag of $2.3 billion. It was also supported by the unfavourable public opinion about the ‘futuristic’ design by the famed architect (which many likened to a supersized bicycle helmet) and the fact it clashed with the surrounding Meiji Shrine.

Tokyo settled for a considerably cheaper, timber-centric design proposed by local architect Kengo Kuma who described his design as a ‘living tree’. This had a domino effect on the overall design theme for the Olympics as the use of local timber became the architectural statement for the event instead of celebrity architects or weird shapes.

Is timber sustainable?

Timber as a building material has a problematic history. Environmentalists declared it unsustainable decades back as it was primarily responsible for rapid deforestation. Modern engineers and architects also disliked it for its combustible nature which made buildings highly prone to fire hazards. As a result, timber almost completely disappeared from public buildings, with steel and concrete taking its place. But of late, timber is making a comeback.

New knowledge regarding the adverse climate impact of steel and cement has forced many to reconsider timber. Arguments are being made that if cultivated and managed properly, timber can be considered a renewable source of building material. Engineering concerns have also been overcome by technological advancements which can make timber non-combustible. Further, engineered wood has reduced dependence on old trees to meet demand for long spanning elements necessary in modern construction.

There still exist genuine environmental concerns that this may lead to deforestation or mono-culture. Something which is being addressed by certification of wood and insistence on locally produced timber.

This relook has been most pronounced in Japan, where it is seen as desirable to use some aspect of wood in the building structural system, especially in public buildings. Tokyo 2020 timber architecture is a logical extension of this rediscovery process even though Kuma attributes much of it to his attempt to pay homage to traditional Japanese architecture.

Completed plaza in Olympic and Paralympic village before interior finish in April 2020. Photo: Olympics.comCompleted plaza in Olympic and Paralympic village before interior finish in April 2020. Photo:

Betting on timber

Timber is used in the eaves that line the outer periphery, the roof trusses and the interior of the stadium. The roof has a truss structure which combines steel beams and laminated lumber with a medium cross-section. This not only made deep cantilevers needed in a stadium design possible but also innovatively utilised the axial stiffness of wood to minimise deformation of the roof trusses due to wind or earthquakes.

Most of the components of the stadium were assembled in modules, making it easier to replace the timber with new wood when it deteriorates with age.

Timber has also been used in other venues and structures being used for the event. An All-timber Village Plaza — a hub for the athletes with a general store, cafe and media centre — is designed in a way that all the timber can be recycled to be used for ‘public benches or parts of school buildings’ after the event.

Much like the ‘anti-sex’ beds that are actually designed to be recycled into paper products after the Games and are not some prude tactic to police bedroom activities of atheletes as speculated on Twitter.

Beyond timber: Harnessing the wind and rain

Determined to lower the environmental impact of the Olympics infrastructure, Kuma’s design incorporates many energy and water saving measures. The stadium architecture facilitates natural ventilation to eliminate need for air-conditioning equipment. The layers of eaves around the stadium have empty spaces at the top and the third layer to allow in breezes and help control the temperature of the playing area and spectator stands. Eaves are deliberately oriented in a way to guide the wind into the stands ensuring natural air circulation can help discharge heat and moisture. This is supported by185 fans and mist-cooling systems in case natural wind is found to be inadequate.

The stadium also boasts of a large transparent membrane of photovoltaic cells set on the top edge of its roof. It would significantly augment the electricity need of the stadium. It also harvests rain from the roof and pavement. Water is collected in underground water tanks and used as irrigation water for the turf on the playing field and for more than 47,000 medium and small-sized trees that have been planted on and around the stadium.

Now that no spectators will be allowed into the stadiums due to novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) safety concerns, efficiency or sufficiency of these new green systems won’t be put to test. But Tokyo’s real environmental achievement is actually in things it decided not to build.

This is the first in a two-part series. Read the second part here