Olympics Architect Wants to Bring Wood Back to Tokyo’s Concrete Jungle

Look around Tokyo and you can still see the concrete legacy left by the 1964 Olympics and the subsequent economic “miracle.” Wood can change that, says the architect of the main stadium for the 2020 Games.

Using Japanese lumber for the centerpiece venue, Kengo Kuma wants to restore woods that Tokyo lost half a century ago in the blitz to build highways, bullet trains and skyscrapers to showcase the recovery from wartime devastation. The design stems from his “natural architecture” concept of making buildings part of a landscape.

“I want to go beyond the era of concrete,” Kuma, 62, says in an interview in his glass-walled office on the top floor of a Tokyo building. “What people want is soft, warm and humane architecture.”

The stadium is modeled on the pagodas of Buddhist temples seen in Japan’s former capitals of Kyoto and Nara. Plants will adorn the eaves so they resemble the woods around the nearby Meiji shrine, a hallowed site dedicated to the souls of Emperor Meiji and his wife.

While the sweeping concrete curves of the Yoyogi National Gymnasium built for 1964 inspired the then 10-year-old Kuma to become an architect, he now sees wood as more representative of contemporary Japan. Wood evolves as time passes, changing color and texture—more suitable, Kuma says, for a nation that’s been through two decades of stagnation.

“We will show the model of a mature society in the stadium,” Kuma says. “That’s the way to live a happy life relying on limited natural resources from a small land.”

Otherwise resource poor, two-thirds of Japan is covered in trees. But lumber only holds a small—albeit growing—share of the construction market because it’s often cheaper to import wood from places such as China, Canada or Indonesia. The government is trying to address this issue, and is offering subsidies to builders of wooden public constructions.

Mother Nature

Kuma’s design for the stadium was chosen in late 2015 in a hastily arranged competition after British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid’s futuristic creation was scrapped as cost estimates ballooned.

The 47.4-meter (156 feet) construction, for which ground was broken in December, is estimated to cost about 150 billion yen ($1.4 billion), compared to the projected 252-billion-yen bill for Hadid’s design. Kuma plans to use about 2,000 cubic meters of locally produced larch and cedar for the stadium, including wood from regions hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

“We will use cedars from almost every Japanese prefecture in the stadium, and display them in a way that makes visitors understand where they come from,” Kuma says. “I hope they will feel proud of the diversity and richness of mother nature.”

The stadium is not without issues. Activist groups last month called for an investigation into the use of plywood possibly originating from Malaysian forests for the construction of the stadium’s base. The groups, which include Rainforest Action Network, say it’s a “significant breach” of Tokyo’s commitment for a sustainable Olympics.

‘Great Bamboo Wall’

The 1923 Great Kanto earthquake and resulting fire, which claimed tens of thousands of lives and razed more than 210,000 houses, prompted authorities after the war to rebuild Tokyo with concrete and steel in readiness for the inevitable natural disasters faced by Japan.

To rectify this, the government plans to provide 7 billion yen in subsidies to builders of wooden public constructions and lumber producers in the current fiscal year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

This push fits in with Kuma’s vision.

Kuma is an admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright, a legendary U.S. architect famed for his philosophy of designing structures in harmony with the environment. This influence could be seen in Kuma’s 2002 “Great Bamboo Wall” project that introduced him to the world.

The house, built in the countryside near Beijing, was made from locally grown bamboo. Kuma and his team got around the issue of the plant cracking when it dries by using a technique of soaking it in oil after boiling. Images of the building were used by film director Zhang Yimou in a promotion video for the 2008 Olympics in the Chinese capital.

Kuma used fire-resistant wood to build the Bato Hiroshige Museum in Nasu, north of Tokyo—a site that displays the traditional Ukiyo-e paintings of Hiroshige Utagawa. Cedars grown in nearby mountains were used for the roof to create an image representing the evening shower in one of the artist’s most famous works. Stone, craft paper and other local materials feature prominently in the building.

“Before 20th century industrialization, Japanese people knew how to satisfy their needs without wasting resources but by recycling them,” Kuma said. “In this century, we have to restore that way of living.”

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