The Tokyo 2020 Olympics will open this week in the here and now of 2021. The world’s biggest sporting and media event will go on mostly as planned, albeit a year later. The delay is, of course, due to the COVID pandemic. It will be a summer Olympics like no other and not in a good way.
Not only have the Tokyo games been postponed by a year, but the stadia and arenas will be mostly devoid of spectators. The athletes will be participating after strict quarantine and coronavirus testing and under the specter of the Japanese government’s official, current COVID state of emergency.
And unlike many recent summer games, most of the venues will be in old, re-purposed buildings, some built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Of the new buildings, these are mostly drab, uninspired or aesthetically “safe” structures that lack the distinct elan and pizzazz worthy of the world’s greatest sporting and cultural event.
As the Guardian newspaper observes, the new buildings …
… mostly look ho-hum and stodgy, corporate, lacking in spark. Yoshiharu Tsukamoto of Atelier Bow-Wow, one of Japan’s livelier practices, has objected that “we independent artists are banned and totally deleted from the list of the designers. There’s no chance for independent architects.” … Much of the character of these buildings is determined by the fact that they are delivered by Japan’s powerful construction companies, to whom architects must play second fiddle. The contractors tend to have the final say on details, which as a result get the life squeezed out of them.
Many of the most beautiful and distinguished buildings, like The Yoyogi National Stadium (sometimes referred to as the National Gymnasium), are older structures built for the ’64 games. Yoyogi was designed by architect Kenzo Tange and remains and enduring, evocative landmark in Tokyo’s pop-cultural epicenter of Shibuya.
This all may seem a bit sad. However, it’s also a testament to an important learned lesson of Olympics past: That much of the astronomical costs and proposed benefits associated with design and construction of big, flashy new venues by internationally-renown “star-chitects” is a boondoggle, a colossal waste of money at taxpayer expense that, for some hosts, is a financial burden for years to come. After many Olympics, scores of sport-specific venues go unused or underused for decades. And in terms sustainability, the more repurposed buildings being used, the better for the environment and the country’s limited resources.
On balance, Tokyo’s relative restraint on over-investing in Olympics infrastructure and shiny, mind-blowing new architecture may actually be the smart move.