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The Things Architects Do #10: Pull Out All Stops

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“Pull out all stops” is one of those many curious English-language idioms that seem to exist to torment learners despite hardly anyone ever using them. This one is derived from an organist pulling out all stops on a church organ in order to deliver the full force of its sound. The stops are those knobs on the left and right of the keyboards of this organ at the 1876 First Reformed Episcopal Church at 551 Madison Ave, New York.


In passing, this is the 4/380 Möller Church Pipe Organ installed in 1911 at the Cadet Chapel at West Point Military Academy. It’s a beast. It’s easy to imagine a terrifying fury shaking one to the heart of one’s very soul. Or whatever.

In practical usage, pulling out all stops means doing everything one can possibly do and that’s what Zaha Hadid Architects were doing on August 25 when they uploaded to YouTube a video explaining the logic underpinning their revised design for the New National Stadium in Tokyo and why they should continue with the project. It’s a fascinating video document. We get to learn about all the bits ZHA have gotten into the habit of never mentioning when they present their projects.

It’s neither unkind nor unfair to say that the general public’s perception of ZH is that she plays by her own rules, ignoring the science bits and the money bits in the name of higher art.

This carefully cultivated image has come back to bite and so ZHA the ruthless commercial architecture firm has had to come forward and justify its proposal in terms of everything architects less stellar hold dear. Sunlight. Illumination. Crowd control. Climate control. Structure. Sight lines. Visual impact. Versatility. Reusability. Sustainability. Project management. Delivery.

ZHA might’ve had an easier ride in Tokyo if they had cultivated a history of directly and clearly communicating the logic underlying all their other projects.

• • •

Let’s go through that again and see what humble skills ZHA have been forced to admit possessing and using. We need to remember the video appears to be addressed to some unspoken powers that be in Japan, but the real audience is English speakers with some capacity as opinion formers. These may or may not be the same people but, for the purposes of media management, it’s you and me. We need to accept that uploading a video to YouTube is now a primary means of architectural communication. And we need to question why this video was made for us. We are complicit.


To hammer home the same point, Japanese is not the primary language of this video because (and without getting all autopoietic about it) Japanese is not the primary language of the audience these architectural communications are directed at. We don’t get to see things like this very often but I hope it’s the beginning of a new honesty in architectural presentations. It’s still baby steps for ZHA and we must forgive the odd lapse like the succession of highly contrived money shots six seconds in.

cherry blossoms.jpg

Old habits die hard. In the second viz see how the lens flare indicates the batter’s circle and tells our eye where to start? Our eye goes directly up to the pitcher’s mound highlit by shadows from a different sun prior to the more tumescent building beyond. Once there, infernal but obliging birds and backlit cloud continue the sweep of the roof into the landscape. After that, a short drop down to first base and that diagonal line back to the beginning. It’s a satisfying picture. A baseball could conceivably travel that very path.

Did you notice the cherry blossoms recycled from the first image? I don’t think the sun in Tokyo during cherry blossom season sun sets due north but what am sure of is that those cherry blossoms will cut no ice with the Japanese. Only the most uncultured and insensitive glorify the vulgar and showy display of full-bloom. We’ve been here before.

But who cares? Themoney shots fade to Dame Zaha saying a few words about the importance of the project won in an international competition after two years of hard work by their team. The choice of location/set is intriguing. The visual message of “I’m doing fine without you” is at odds with the act of saying it.


I’m less sure why their team has to be introduced as “credible” [it means even less in Japanese] unless it’s to slight their competitors.


Other than this, we hear no more of Dame Zaha. It was a good call to not have her say too much or Patrik Schumacher say anything. The remainder of the video is delivered in English by what sounds like a robot. Robot says things like:

“ZHA have experience working with clients to deliver projects on time and within budget.”


Media spin: Much is made of ZHA’s experience with stadium design and with the 2012 London Aquatic Centre. Its undersizing is presented as a triumph of legacy planning.

“The project was successfully redesigned to achieve a revised budget.”
“The project has since become very popular and well used by the public.” 

well used.jpg

ARUP’s stadium experience, however, is vast, as is Nikken Sekkei’s. You probably couldn’t ask for a better concentration of engineering and construction expertise.


There is no mention Qatar or the 2022 World Cup. We don’t have time to dwell on it because of this next bomshell.

ZHA can generate PoMo meaning stuff if they have to!  


“The site is the site of the  Tokyo 1964 Olympic Stadium and is an appropriate place to build a building that aspires to exceed mere function and become a symbol of Japan’s renewal and long-term optimism for the future.”

The only purpose of a sentence such as this is to mean whatever people want it to mean. Other sentences prime viewers to appreciate the images they accompany.

“The basic components of stadium design are extrapolated to connect the stadium to its specific context of Gai-En, and beyond to Japanese culture as an expressive but efficient design.” 


“The design is derived from the articulation of structure and circulation, where structure is required to provide roof cover over long spans without columns and a lot of circulation is required to safely move 80,000 people in and out of the stadium.”

design 2.jpg

The second part of this sentence couldn’t be said more clearly. Its suspicious surfeit of illumination is obviously meant to blind us to the iffy first part. It begins to get messy.

Proposed for practical reasons, the primary structure of two keel arches, have a similar intent in silhouette and symbolism to traditional Japanese landscape bridges, so that the new stadium is based on a key motif from traditional Japanese landscape design and an appropriate addition to the sports landscape of the Gai-En area.”

keel arches.jpg

Who’d have imagined ZHA would one day be making popularistic associations of location and culture to whip up support?  It gets worse.

“With cross ties, Nature is further embodied in the design where the expressed structure creates a distinctive flower petal geometry so familiar in Nature and to the Japanese public who have a close affinity to Nature and the passing of the seasons.” :o<<

cross ties.jpg

You get a real sense for the mighty having fallen when it comes to this next. This is as low as it gets.


We have this flower petal geometry to thank for the elevated walkway that is

“an extension of the Gai-En pedestrian area and allowing extended walks and elevated views over Tokyo.


“All of these public walkways are lined with Japanese timber, giving a tactile familiarity to the stadium which ties it back to the fundamental material of the Japanese environment and experience.”


“The majority of the facade is broken down by the petal geometry and clad in Japanese timber louvres so that the overall effect at pedestrian level is a subtle interplay of Japanese timber cladding giving the experience to the visitor of a direct resonance to the tree-lined landscape of Gai-En, and Japanese culture. 


“The majority of roof structure is provided by catenary beams which resonate the innovation by Kenzo Tange with its catenary beams for the Yoyogi National Gymnasium.”

I’ve got a strong stomach for this kind of stuff, but this is sacrilege. Even the grammar of that sentence is fighting against the meaning it’s being asked to convey.


“We aspired to make the new stadium connect visually and symbolically with this Japanese icon of optimism so that Tokyo 2020 leaves Tokyo with a stadium as well conceived and as beautiful as this stadium from Tokyo 1964.”


“The roof covered in transparent lightweight fabric will allow daylight in allowing good turf growth whilst allowing spectators to experience the pleasure of daylight as they watch the events.

“At night, the roof will glow and take on the appearance of a Japanese lantern.

“Together, the arches, catenary beams and lightweight fabric combine to create an overall effect that represents the traditional craft and modernist innovation of Japan.”

So much for the design, or at least the bits people react to. That’s the most uncomfortable part of the video over, but also its most illuminating part. ZH/ZHA aren’t used to justifying their proposals but facile cultural associations are just that. The only excuse for making them seems to be that, on some level, they’ve come to be seen as sufficient.

❀ ❀ ❀ 

Time schedule comparison: The video moves on to say “starting the design from scratch is an unnecessary risk that we think the government should reconsider if its aim is to achieve a lower price than ¥250 billion.”  


The solution is to “introduce more competition between the contractors yet not lose the benefits of the design.” It’s true that “the basic requirements of seating capacity and support facilities will remain the same.”  This is what a stadium is. They’re the important bits people pay money for.


We’re told the current design is based on the brief the client has been asking for all this time. If there was ever any doubt, this is proof this video was not made for Japanese. “We gave you what you asked for!” is not something clients enjoy hearing or, for that matter, architects say.


The basic conflict is one between Olympic face-saving and legacy cashflow. Athletics would win because it’s the IOC that sells the television rights worldwide. It’s a rock and a hard place for the Japanese government although, on an ethical note, I don’t see why anyone should care if the IOC can sell rights to suitably illuminated HDTV content worldwide in 2020? Justifying a building in terms of IOC’s potential for profits vs. FIFA’s potential for profits is not a strong argument, let’s face it.


The economic case: At 9:07 you will hear the word “sustainable” which is a first for ZHA. To be fair to their reputation, they use the word in its lesser sense of financial sustainability but THE WORD HAS BEEN USED. From now on we can say that ZHA care about sustainability* (*suitably redefined). What follows is a lesson in the basics of stadium design. We learn that size, cost and sustainability are all linked, and that a stadium unable to shrink for football will compromise financial sustainability. I know I know. Let’s let them first get used to using the word.


We learn that lighting for HDTV “requires” lighting racks 50m above ground but I imagine this is something the IOC demands. Graphic comparisons with Beijing and London are useful and informative but ultimately show there’s more than one way to solve the same problem.


As for the roof, we learn that

“the Tokyo summer is hot and humid and that the roof should provide as much solar protection as possible to make the spectators comfortable.”


The serious point is that if one is going to have a roof then it should work for both football and athletics. And, just in case the government was thinking about shifting the facilities outside like HOK Sport did for London’s Olympic stadium, a plausible economic argument involving travel distances is made against doing so.

“The current design, is designed on this basis, and it should be sustainable not only in terms of usage but in terms of revenue generation.”


The remainder of the video thrashes out options for temporary seating and reasons for not doing it although this too is not ruled out as an option. Again, it all makes sense despite perhaps overestimating the success of the temporary seating at the London Aquatics Centre. My default stance is always to not believe any publicity emanating from this practice, but I was convinced of the rationality of the design of the bowl, seating and facilities. I also appreciated the helpful comparisons.


Environmental impact card + Revenue card: Caught up in this lovefest, I was sustainably surprised to be told the swooshy silhouette is not some design whimsy but the direct result of trying to maximize the number of seats that can be sold at a premium. A maximum height of 44 meters and an apparent low of 24 metres at the ends is a fortuitous side effect .


On the dark side, it also seems to be an opportunity to poison the ground for fellow Pritzker Prize winner Toyo Ito and his proposal that looks like a breath of fresh air – albeit it not in a good way.


Around the 17:00 mark of the video we start to bring it all together and wrap it up. The structural concept for the roof is now presented as having been chosen so its construction can proceed in parallel with that of the seating bowl, thus saving time. I have a lot of respect for whoever thought of finding and presenting the time and cost advantages of the structural design. It’s something useful we can appreciate. Imagine. We almost never would have known.


Just when you think it’s not possible to move any further away from “I like curves” as necessary and sufficient design justification, the construction efficiency and cost of the keel arch design is compared to other designs employing the same principle. It’s convincing. Less convincing is their explanation of those costs but again, this is meant to convince us, not the Japanese government. I’ll follow the traffic signal conventions to indicate how much of this next I’d accept on trust.

“The determining factor in the price is the market and the demand for materials and labour. The design is not the determining factor in these circumstances. Rather, the design should be seen as the only way to achieve value for money in the market. Without a designer’s contractual commitment as regards time and cost, there would be considerable risk of achieving value and the return on investment. Giving the design responsibility to the contractors means that there is no real definition of value or quality except for a price and a time schedule. A new concept design submitted with a price cannot be trusted after [only] five months of design work. It takes much more time to determine a new design with complete price certainty and by the time that certainty is achieved it will be too late. The Japanese public will get less for their money with this approach. So why take the risk? There is a design that will achieve quality, and it can be changed to meet a new budget.” 

There’s a lot of talk about “the design” but do they mean the sensible bits that seem to work well? Or the flower petals? The first part of this final salvo makes us think they mean the fundamental configuration but the final sentence lets us think they mean the ROOF

Just before the video ends is some extended criticism of the London stadium. It’s overly long but, to be fair, probably justified. Despite this barrage of negativity, the concluding summary is good and I almost found myself feeling sorry for ZHA. All in all, the video makes some very good points that have been obscured until now.

Specific suggestions for cost reductions include ditching the Skything and the air conditioning [!] for the seating area. It’s hinted that even the roof can be redesigned. Suddenly it’s only a roof after all and it’s the other stuff that’s important. I can’t help feeling this is all a bit late. The most beneficial legacy this project can have on future architectural projects is more honesty about the things that really matter. Truly, we never stopped believing they were the things that really determined a design.


I don’t know who I’m being called upon to tweet my indignation to or solidarity with. Despite whatever positive things I’ve said about this project and the intermittent outbursts of honesty in the video, the real function of this video is to alter how this project will be thought about in the future. Regardless of the actual outcome of the project, this video is intended to remain in our view histories forever proclaiming what will come to be presented as some sort of moral victory.


My fascination with this whole story centres around the valid point that “the design” – if we’re talking about the roof – “should be changed now to get certainty on costs.” This is another sensible suggestion. It also means ZHA are willing to go through another roof redesign in order to keep this job going. Already it’s gone from this


to this.


It might not yet be over. Personally, I hope ZHA does get to continue the project. They themselves have admitted that all that you see in this next image was the brief.


What ZHA have stopped short of admitting is that these bits are “the design” that shouldn’t be changed, and not the flower petal bits. This is disingenuous for they well know which bits can be easily disposed with and redesigned in a flash. Nothing to do with the Skytrail is necessary. With the roof, the main support trusses are essential. The cross bracing is too, but not because it looks like a flower. Whether it needs to have the hell formed out of it like a foam bicycle helmet is for contractors to decide, but now seems to be a good time to explore methods of cross bracing less architecturally expressive of costing a fortune.

For many people, very little of what they once liked about this project will remain. It will all have been disposable. It was all unnecessary to begin with. 

I sincerely hope the result shows to the world in HDTV that the best possible stadium comes from 1) getting the important bits right and 2) less architecture obscuring them.



  • what came first?
    chicken or egg is long conversation.
    but the petal or rhino model, bridge or rhino model, structurally resolved efficient truss or rhino model, that I would suspect is a far shorter conversation.
    Mr Utzon was a far more honest, he sold the shape and trusted in those who would follow.
    go Kenzo go