Built for the 1964 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, the Yoyogi National Gymnasium has become an architectural icon for its distinctive design. Designed by one of Japan’s most famous modernist architects, Kenzo Tange, the gymnasium is a hybridization of western modernist aesthetics and traditional Japanese architecture.
Tange’s innovative structural design creates dramatic sweeping curves that appear to effortlessly drape from two large, central supporting cables. It’s dynamically suspended roof and rough materials form one of the most iconic building profiles in the world.
Sitting within one of the largest parks in the metropolitan region of Tokyo, Tange uses the context as a way in which to integrate his building into the landscape. The subtle curves of the structural cables, the sweeping roof plane, and the curving concrete base seem to emerge from the site appearing as one integrated entity.
The gymnasium is the larger of two arenas for the 1964 Summer Olympic Games both of which are designed by Tange and employ similar structural principles and aesthetics. The smaller pavilion which holds approximately 5,300 people is used for various small Olympic events, whereas the national gymnasium was designed to be occupied by 10,500 people primarily for the Olympic swimming and diving competitions. However, it was able to be transformed into a space to accommodate for larger events such as basketball and ice hockey.
Influenced by Le Corbusier’s Philips Pavilion and Eero Saarinen’s hockey stadium at Yale University, Tange became intrigued with structure and its tensile and geometric potential. Similar to Saarinen’s design for Yale’s hockey stadium, Tange employs a central structural spine from where the structure and roof originates. Two large steel cables [13” in diameter] are supported between two structural towers in addition to being anchored into concrete supports on the ground. The suspended cables form a tensile tent-like roofing structure; a series of pre-stressed cables are suspended off of the two main cables that drape toward the concrete structure that creates the base of the gymnasium as well as providing the necessary structure for the seating within the stadium.
The result is a symmetrical suspension structure that elegantly draping from the central structural spine. It‘s flowing surfaces make the minimal surface structure appear as a fabric suspended by two simple supports that’s being pulled into tension by the landscape. The fusion of Japanese architectural aesthetic and western modernist design, the gymnasium’s structural system resembles a snails shell, but in a more contextual sense, the gymnasiums low profile and sweeping roof forms some semblance to that of an abstracted Japanese pagoda.
When the Yoyogi National Gymnasium was completed it was the largest suspended roof span in the world. It’s dynamic form and structural expressionism has made the gymnasium one of Kenzo Tange’s most important works, as well as a progressive architectural icon. Today, it is one of Tokyo’s most sought after tourist destinations, while continuing to be an international venue for sports and fashion.
“We Japanese architects, in our endeavours to resolve the problems facing modern Japan, have devoted a great deal of attention to the Japanese tradition, and have, in the end, arrived at the point which I have sought to elucidate for you. If, however, there can be detected a trace of tradition in my works or in those of my generation, then our creative powers have not been at their best, then we are still in the throes of evolving our creativity. I want, by all means, my buildings to be free of the label ‘traditional.’ –Kenzo Tange