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Episodes Essay: scraping of Zaha Hadid’s Tokyo 2020 Olympic Stadium by Japan government


This controversy revolves around the stadium meant to be the host for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. With the preparations for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, one of the preparations was to build a new stadium to host the games and in 2012, Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) won the stadium commission through an international competition (Dezeen, 2015a). Soon after ZHA bid won, they started work on the site and after two years, and after Japan had won the bid to host the 2020 Olympics, the controversy began with the main argument against the project being that the architectural design was over budgeted and that it could not be financially sustainable. As a result, ZHA had to revise their design in 2014 with a new design that addressed the previously voiced criticism. However, with criticism still raging on, Japan Sports Council (JSC) canceled the firm’s plans in July 2015, after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe weighed into the issue by announcing that the design plans will be scrapped as a result of spiraling costs and that the project would be started from scratch. This issue ended up being referred to as the Tokyo 2020 Olympic stadium controversy and one of the major architectural controversies of 2015 (Dezeen magazine, 2015b). This paper, therefore, is a presentation f this controversy, and this will be done by discussing the format of display of the controversy, how the episode has been told, the content, participants, and the genealogy of the controversy. This will be done through a review of available literature mainly through online news outlets.

Format of Display

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic stadium controversy has been primarily carried and displayed through new platforms and secondarily through architectural related platforms. Once the controversy broke out and as it continued to play out in 2015, it was brought to the spotlight by media houses. This issues gained major traction especially after the government of Japan got involved in the controversy with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announcing that the stadium was to be started from the scratch gain. At this time, the issue was being covered by reporters in live television news broadcasts. For the international audience, this was being covered by international news media, in particular, the Cable News Network, CNN.

However, now that the issues have been resolved and new architectural design have been adopted for the stadium, the issue has become less of an interest to live television reporting and it is being covered mainly by text content media. For the purpose of this, paper, the display format that has been found to cover the controversy is online text media platforms mainly blogs and media hours news websites.

One of the display formats that have covered the controversy intensively is Dezeen magazine. As stated on their website, Dezeen in the most influential and the most popular architectural and design magazine, and the winner of numerous awards for journalism and publishing (Dezeen, 2015a,b,c.). The site has carried several stories on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic stadium controversy. Four of these stories have been used in this paper and they include, and they mainly focus on various aspects of the controversy. The titles of these stories are; “Japan scraps Zaha Hadid’s Tokyo 2020 Olympic Stadium” (Dezeen magazine, 2015a), “Zaha Hadid’s Tokyo stadium will be “a disgrace to future generations” says Arata Isozaki,” “Zaha Hadid accuses Japanese government and architects of collusion over Tokyo stadium” (Dezeen magazine, 2015b) and “Zaha Hadid refuses to hand over copyright for unpaid Japan stadium designs” (Dezeen magazine, 2015c).

The second platform that has covered the controversy intensively and is a major source for this paper is The Guardian. The Guardian is an international paper with hardcopy publications primarily in the United Kingdom and covers global issues. Just like Dezeen Magazine, the Guardian covers the Tokyo 2020 Olympic stadium controversy from a point of the Japanese government versus the architectural firm, and under the focus of the international Olympic Games. Just like Dezeen, four of these articles covered in the online version of the Guardian have been used as sources in this paper. One of the titles of these articles is “Japan scraps Zaha Hadid plan for Olympic stadium” (Gibson, 2015).

The other popular platform that has been used to carry this controversy is the CNN. The other platform is architect magazine, which is affiliated to the journal of the American institute of architects. In these entire platforms, they are all found online and they were created in 2015, at the height of the controversy. Nevertheless, they have also continued to cover the controversy as it unfolds and a new design is adopted for the stadium.

How the episode is ‘told’

Through the various formats of display discussed above, the episode has been told primarily through articles. These articles are text based and they adopt various styles. Given these are meant to be news articles, the primary objective is to inform the reader while being as relevant and as credible as possible, to do this, the articles adopt a press release style where information is mainly sourced through interview comments/statements made by the parties involved in the controversy. The primary parties in the controversy are the Japanese government and ZHA; the architectural firm (Associated Press, 2015). The content writers, therefore, rely on statements made by these parties, as well as Japanese architects, through interviews or through social media posts.

In addition to text content, photographs have been used. The controversy surrounds between the ‘bike helmet’ stadium design and to, therefore, make the reader have a perfect image when reading the stories, the authors have made use of images to show how the stadium design by ZHS looks like. These pictures form  a major component of the text content used as they complement each other to create the pass the intended message and information o the ready (Davies, 2015; McCurry, 2015). The photographic images serve to contextualize the controversy, especially in the argument that the design costs are over budgeted. In addition, the photographic images used in the new design help to contextualize the design difference between the scrapped ZHA design, and the new design.

The other method that has been used to tell the episode is the use of videos. Even though this is not a major part of the various platforms that carry the episode, it has been used in two of these and it creates an additional way to understand the story. In Ripley and Hume (2015), McCurry (2015), and Griffiths and Wakatsuki (2015) the videos used have been created by the story authors they represent an overview of the ZHA design.


Essentially, this controversy has varying theoretical topics depending on the point of view adopted, and the various points of view are based on the parties to the controversy. The first theoretical topic is framed by the Japanese government, and it is passed as the reason for the cancellation of ZHA designs, which is a budgetary concern. According to McCurry (2015) and Davies (2015) for the Guardian, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that the design of the stadium was to be started all over again from scratch because of spiraling costs. According to the prime minister, the reason for the review was as a result of the increasing voices of the people concerning the ZHA design for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic stadium.

Budget is a major element in architecture and for this particular project; it is argued that the designs by ZHA carried a $2 billion price tag. However, by 2014 the total costs rose to £1.3 billion (Davies, 2015). According to critics of the ZHA designs, the cost of construction of the stadium has been highly inflated and the design by ZHA had been critiqued by some of the athletes. This also contributed to the prime minister of the country scrapping the project for a restart as he believed that, with the ongoing controversy, it would be impossible to host games which everyone would celebrate, given the stadium was meant to host the opening and the closing ceremony for the 2020 Olympic Games. This concern of dissatisfaction was furthered by the fact that, for the construction of the stadium, some citizens had to be relocated.

According to some of the top architects in Japan, among them, Toyo Ito, Kengo Kuma, Arata Isozaki, and Sou Fujimoto, the stadium design by ZHA was out of scale. Some of these top architects launched a petition which led to ZHA revising their designs (Ripley and Hume, 2015). However, the redesign was also criticized by Japanese architects, for example, Arata Isozaki who branded the remodeled designs as being a monumental mistake that had left him in despair. The original design was ZHA resembled a bike helmet but even after the redesign, top Japanese architects argued that it lacked dynamism.

The other theoretical topic that is evident from this controversy is culture, and in particular, the socio-political aspect of culture. It is worth noting that, ZHA competitive won the bid to design and build the stadium in 2008. ZHA won the bid even with the so called high budget and for the next years up to when Japan and in particular the city of Tokyo was selected to be the host of the 2020 Olympics, the project has proceeded with no criticism. With Tokyo, the host of the 2020 Olympic games and the stadium meant to be the venue for the opening and closing games, controversy grew more loud, given some had criticized it for having to relocate residents on public housing scheme (Griffiths and Wakatsuki, 2015; MASSIE, 2015). This aspect of the controversy is considered to be founded on social and political factors, which for an architect are part of the factors that must be taken into consideration in the process of designing an architectural piece.

Based on the argument that the original and the remodel designs are outsized and a mistake respectively, the theoretical aspect of simple and intuitive, and perceptible for any price of architecture are brought to light. For any architectural design, it has to be both perceptible and at the same time simple while being intuitive. The original ZHA; bike-helmet’ design was intuitive while the second remodeled design was basically simple and as described by one of the top architects in Japan, Isozaki, as lacking the architectural vision of ZHA. This argument comes even with the professional expertise of the ZHA company, which has gained fame in the industry by building the hugely successful London 2012 Olympic aquatic center, and is also constructing a stadium in Qatar for the 2022 football world cup (Ripley and Hume, 2015).


The controversy revolves mainly between Japan and the London-based architectural firm, ZHA. Several players take part in the Japanese size among them, the government and by extension the general public, and some of the top architects in the country. Criticism for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic stadium began soon after the project began with the relocation of resident housing. The concerned public, as well as other interested parties, were not amused by the relocation. Soon after the country won the bid to host the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, controversy heightened with some of the top architects in the country being on the frontline. Some of these architects are Toyo Ito, kengo Kuma, Sou Fujimoto, and Fumihiko Maki (Davies, 2015; Gibson, 2015).

These architects instituted a petition to have the project by ZHA scrapped on the basis of scale. The argument by these architects was that the project was unnecessarily outsized and would cause the taxpayers much more. This is given the country was still recovering from the Fukushima impact. Another architect who has been vocal on this issue is Arata Isozaki, an 84-year-old, and one of the country’s leading architects (Griffiths and Wakatsuki, 2015). Isozaki voiced his concerns after ZHA redesigned the stadium and argued that the new and redesigned plans were shocking and they lacked dynamism. In addition to the redesign, he also argued that is the project was to be constructed with the new design, then the country would be burdened with a white elephant, therefore, emphasizing the cost aspect of the controversy.

As a result of the rising criticism of the project, the prime minister of Japan stepped in and in 2015, announced that the entire project by ZHA was to be scrapped and restarted from the scratch. The prime minister cited the need to have games that everyone would celebrate as the reason for the scrapping. This is based on the criticism by the various parties including the general public.

On the other hand, ZHA has continually argued that the Japanese architect opposed to the project are doing not because the project is outsized or over-budgeted as argued, but because they are simply opposed to a foreigner building a stadium that would be used for an international. Given the Olympic is an opportunity to showcase a country, in terms of culture and infrastructure among others, then it would be unfit to host the opening and closing events in a stadium that has been built by a foreigner. This could in part explain the argument to move the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic if the designs were to proceed as planned by ZHA (Associated Press, 2015). As a result, the construction company, ZHA, argue that the controversy regarding the project is simply because the ‘hypocritical’ Japanese architects do not want a foreigner to build a national stadium in Tokyo, while on the other hand, they are working on projects abroad.


ZHA won the competitive bid to construct the Tokyo stadium in 2008. The bid was priced at $2 billion. At the construction venue, the company had to relocate residential housing and this was derided by various parties among them human right activists and some architects. In 2012, Tokyo was selected to host the 2020 Olympic after which criticism for the ZHA project heightened. The project was criticized for being outsized and over budgeted. Some of the top architects in the country criticized the project. Isozaki, one of the acclaimed architects in Japan, called for a dialogue between ZHA and the architects critical of the project, and this saw ZHA revising the designs of the project in July 2014 (Ripley and Hume, 2015).

After the redesign, architects in Japan still remained critical of the project, with even the neutral Isozaki criticizing the redesign as being a white elephant that would be ridiculed by future generations. At the time, ZHA argued that the criticism was not for any architectural reason and the over-budgeting claims passed as the reason were nothing but scapegoat with the real reason for the criticism being that the Japanese architects never wanted a foreigner working in their country, while they have project abroad. In 2015, the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intervened and seemed to heed the call by local architects to scrap ZHA design and start again from scratch (Gibson, 2015; Davies, 2015).


Associated Press, (2015). Japan picks Olympic stadium design to replace Zaha Hadid plan, The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/22/tokyo-replaces-zaha-hadid-design-for-2020-olympic-games-stadium-with-cheaper-alternative on September 8, 2016

Davies, Caroline, (2015). Zaha Hadid hits back over scrapped stadium for 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/28/zaha-hadid-hits-back-scrapped-national-stadium-2020-tokyo-olympics on September 7, 2016.

Dezeen magazine, (2015a). Japan scraps Zaha Hadid’s Tokyo 2020 Olympic Stadium. Retrieved from http://www.dezeen.com/2015/07/17/japan-scraps-zaha-hadid-tokyo-2020-olympic-stadium/ on September 5, 2016

Dezeen magazine, (2015b). Zaha Hadid accuses Japanese government and architects of collusion over Tokyo stadium. Retrieved from http://www.dezeen.com/2015/12/22/zaha-hadid-laments-remarkable-similarities-between-her-design-and-kengo-kuma-winning-tokyo-2020-olympic-stadium/ on September 5, 2016

Dezeen magazine, (2015c). Zaha Hadid refuses to hand over copyright for unpaid Japan stadium designs. Retrieved from http://www.dezeen.com/2016/01/14/zaha-hadid-copyright-unpaid-japanese-stadium-designs-tokyo-2020-olympics/ on September 6, 2016

Gibson, Owen. (2015). Japan scraps Zaha Hadid plan for Olympic stadium. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/17/japan-scraps-zaha-hadids-tokyo-olympic-stadium-design on September 7, 2016

Griffiths, James, and Wakatsuki, Yoko. (2015). Replacement stadium designs unveiled for 2020 Tokyo Olympics, CNN. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2015/12/14/asia/japan-olympics-stadium-design/ on September 3, 2016

MASSIE, CAROLINE. (2015). New Proposed Tokyo National Stadium Renderings Revealed, Architect Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.architectmagazine.com/design/new-proposed-tokyo-national-stadium-renderings-revealed_o on September 8, 2016.

McCurry, Justin. (2015). Zaha Hadid abandons new 2020 Tokyo Olympics stadium bid. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/sep/18/zaha-hadid-abandons-plans-2020-tokyo-olympics on September 4, 2016.

Ripley, Will, and Hume, Tim. (2015). Japan scraps plans for controversial ‘bike helmet’ Olympic stadium, CNN. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2015/07/17/asia/japan-tokyo-olympic-stadium-scrapped/ September 10, 2016.

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