There are many words for it — fate, kismet, destiny — any of which can describe the moment a 10-year-old boy from Japan’s Kanagawa Prefecture first set foot in the Kenzo Tange-designed Yoyogi National Gymnasium in Tokyo.
The year was 1964 and the vibe in the Japanese capital was hopeful, jubilant even. The announcement a few years prior that Tokyo had been selected to host the 1964 Summer Olympic Games triggered a seismic shift in the way it presented itself to the world. Reminiscent of the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, the city began rebuilding in greater earnest — an increasingly urgent necessity after the devastating aerial bombardment it suffered during World War II.
A surge in architecture and urban regeneration mirrored this zeitgeist and one of the most iconic buildings to be constructed during this era was the Yoyogi National Gymnasium. It was this structure in particular that would have a profound and lasting impact on the young lad from Yokohama. His name? Kengo Kuma.
Those who have visited Tange’s arena, which blends western modernist aesthetics with key tenets of traditional Japanese architecture, know it is hard not to be enraptured by its sweeping curves and dramatic suspended roof, at the time the largest of its kind in the world.
“I was very much impressed by the beauty of the building,” says Kuma. “It had a very unique shape and structural system. And after seeing it, I was always thinking of architecture [as a career].”
Fast forward five decades, it is now Kuma’s turn to present a masterpiece that will inspire the next generation. He won the bid from Zaha Hadid to design the new National Stadium — which was mired in controversy as well as provoked a public outcry due to the escalating costs and worries that it would not be completed in time — for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Perhaps it is just as well that it is Kuma, a local boy, who will fly the flag high for Japan this July.
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