The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan



Politics in a Helmet

Olympics project receiving unjust criticism

By Riccardo Tossani

With emotions running high on the perceived injustices surrounding the proposed Olympic National Stadium project, achieving any meaningful understanding will only occur if we separate the two core issues at hand.

The first is socially sustainable planning; the second is architecture.

With regard to the former, and according to an excellent article by Robert Whiting in the July 2014 ACCJ Journal (“Dark Side of the Games”), the same morally and socially corrupt practices that led up to the 1964 Olympics projects are at risk of coming into play for the forthcoming 2020 event.

But the outraged, shrill voices of activists trying to make themselves heard—through mainstream and social media—are confusing the two core issues at stake.

Architecture is a complex, emotional, and subjective act of will and vision.

The bolder it is, the less it will be immediately understood by the general public, which often leads to rejection and outright revolt.

Zaha Hadid’s stadium design for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games has been compared to a bicycle helmet.

Ironically, this resonates with Kenzo Tange’s 1964 Olympic National Gymnasium in Yoyogi, the form of which, according to the architect, is derived from a samurai helmet.

While at least symbolic of Japanese apparel, the relevance of a warrior’s helmet to the benign nature of sports remains a mystery, particularly in post-war Japan.

Detractors probably abounded in the run-up to this eccentric project. It has proven, however, to be a timeless masterpiece of architecture that has inspired legions of young architects around the world with its mix of bold, unconventional lines and sublime grace.

An aspirational building ahead of its time, courageously leaning forward to the future, the design was nevertheless approved, budgeted, and built thanks to the corrupt practices outlined by Whiting.

While Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Hadid’s “bicycle helmet” design might appear less iconically Japanese, this baseless metaphor at least relates to sports.

Like Tange’s gymnasium, Hadid’s stadium design beautifully exemplifies Japanese society in its most enlightened state. It will be an astonishing addition to the pantheon of monuments that make Tokyo a world city, located among the commercial monuments occupying the front row.

Like Tange’s provocative predecessor, Hadid’s avant-garde statement will benefit from corrupt practices embedded in the politico-construction-industrial complex, deaf to voices of dissent.

Unlike some questionable and socially disruptive urban planning initiatives proposed, this stadium’s architecture has a character befitting a 21st-century city of 35 million inhabitants.

Admittedly, this comes at the expense of the demolition of a nondescript stadium and the displacement of several groves of trees. In my view this is a small price to pay for an extraordinary amenity and an enduring architectural masterpiece.

Tour de force
Olympic projects that require relocation of residents and the spending of public funds at a time of crisis, and that lack the engagement of, and accountability to, the electorate, are irrelevant to the selection of Hadid’s architectural tour de force.

Such arguments should be kept separate.

Anti-Olympics protestors, social activists, and concerned dissenters need to tune their collective voice and focus their scattered logic on the very real social, political, and qualitative environmental issues that are present elsewhere.

Only then do they stand a chance (though unlikely) of being heard. Loose, ill-formed critiques of a project unfairly chosen as the lightning rod of minority discord will get these protesters nowhere.



Riccardo Tossani is the principal architect and urban designer at Riccardo Tossani Architecture, Inc. (, established in Tokyo in 1997.