The period of the 1960s witnessed the heightened success of Japan’s metamorphic transformation into a developed country with ranking economies and buzzing urban structures. The country’s coveted goal of building a radical and distinctive identity, post-war, gained new momentum with the 1964 Summer Olympics that were to be held in Tokyo. And so came the existence of an ingenious architectural icon, the infamous Yoyogi National Gymnasium, designed to host thousands of spectators across the globe, to the famed quadrennial multi-sport event.
The Yoyogi National Gymnasium was designed by Kenzo Tange, an eminent architect who flourished in the post-war reconstruction of Japan and urban design in affluent cities worldwide. This monumental gymnasium marked the epitome of Tange’s career that catapulted him into an illustrious international career that earned him the Pritzker prize in 1987.
A prime structure in Modernist Architecture
Located in the Shibuya district, the complex is described as an amalgamation of vernacular Japanese styles and contemporary design principles. A pioneer of the Metabolism movement in architecture, Tange designed the sporting complex with a dynamic form, that resembles a desert tent or the very native Japanese pagoda.
The Yoyogi National Gymnasium along with its many accolades, at the time of completion, was also known to hold the world’s largest suspended roof structure that elegantly integrates with the surrounding landscape.
The complex is based on the main spine that consists of two 126-meter long steel cables, 13” in diameter each anchored to two towers that describe a parabolic curve to form a catenary roof model. Smaller wires are further placed perpendicular to the spine to complete the extensive roof that offers an intriguing duo: a convex and concave surface at once. This technical expertise also termed as “hyperbolic paraboloid” was previously used by Tange to create the saddle at Hiroshima Peace Park. The roof although a technological marvel of modern times, employs elements of vernacular Japanese architecture, especially the Shinto shrines.
With the capacity to host 10,000 viewers, the sporting complex is efficaciously planned and consists of two major spaces: the main gym and the little gym.
The main gym
Taking inspiration from Eero Saarinen’s Ingalls Rink and Yale University’s hockey venue, Tange curated a visual delight in the form of a spiral-shaped stadium. This structure is composed of two arcs of circles with different radii and the extremities of the two opposite ends grow into a sharp tip. The gym is conveniently planned such that it brings out prevalent symmetry in the structure, by distributing the stands to the north and south and emphasizing the east-west direction in both the roof and entrances.
The little gym
The smaller pavilion which holds approximately 5,300 people is used for various small Olympic events. The roof is constructed as a laminar structure, following a principle similar to a mesh of wires with hard edges. This space can also accommodate larger events such as basketball and ice hockey. The structure is based on a circular plan with displaced non-concentric circles that surround the main platform that holds the event. The displaced ring-like circular tracks form the seating space for spectators and are in accordance with the entry and exit points to the complex. Seen at a distance, the gym resembles a snail.
Kenzo Tange has accentuated the surface of the complex by utilizing rhythmic openings and cantilevers that results in a veritable illusion of a massive levitating structure. The entrances also sport V-shaped metal structures of varying size that induce dynamism to the monumental complex.
The curved surfaces of the suspended roof structure form a triangular void that has been used as an entrance to the complex. This void also aids the complex to create an illusion as if it were “rising from the ground”.
Kenzo Tange has always been renowned for his experimentation with materials such as metal, steel, and concrete; most of them being popular materials that belonged to the Brutalist era in the mid-’60s. The Yoyogi National Gymnasium likewise exhibits exposed concrete in its versatile form. The suspended roof supported by sturdy steel wires and complex mesh structures together provides multiple panoramic views unique to each point of perception in the sporting complex.
The Yoyogi National Gymnasium speaks volumes of the creative capabilities of Kenzo Tange and the many other structural engineers who have put together a notable edifice that carries with it an uplifting story of post-war Japan. The complex remarked an advanced approach towards urban design, redefining aesthetics and paving new paths for designers and architects who went on to sculpt an avant-garde Japan we now know of. Even after 50 years, the structure is still enjoyed by many of its tourists and continues to be an important site that celebrates sports and fashion.