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The 1964 Olympics certified a new Japan, in steel and on screen

This weekend should have been the focal point of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, which would have brought together the top runners, jumpers, pitchers, lifts and, for the first time, skaters from the most populous city in the world. Let the Simone Biles fan club forgive me, but the event that thrilled me was handball.

Not for the sport, but for the stadium: handball matches were to take place at Yoyogi National Gymnasium, a landmark of modern Japanese architecture designed by Kenzo Tange. The stadium is defined by its massive, leady roof formed by two catenaries (steel cables that extend between concrete pillars, like a suspension bridge) and the perpendicular ribs that come off those fine axes. on the ground. Years ago, walking through Yoyogi Park, I remember standing in front of the roof panels of gym soldiers, marveling at their steel marks. It may have been the most glamorous venue for this year’s Olympics, even though it was built more than half a century ago.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced the first postponement of the Olympic Games: Tokyo 2020, its name unchanged, will now take place in July 2021 if it occurs at all. However, throughout the Japanese capital lies the legacy of another Olympic Games: the 1964 Summer Games, which crowned Tokyo’s 20-year transformation from a bombed-out ruin to an ultramodern megalopolis. (In fact, the “Summer” Games were held in the fall; organizers thought that October in Tokyo would be smarter than the scariest July.) These first Tokyo Olympics served as a rookie ball. for post-war democratic Japan, which was reintroduced into the world not only through sport but also through design.

Preparations turned Tokyo into a city-wide construction site. Author Robert Whiting, stationed with the U.S. Air Force in Tokyo in 1962, describes the pilots and hammersmiths who launched an “overwhelming assault on the senses.” Pedestrians passed by with face masks and earplugs, and salaries were drunk on bars protected by plastic sheets that blocked dust. Japan was just a few years away from becoming the second largest economy in the world, and the 1964 Olympics must have been a boost to economic revival and the recovery of honor.

The carts came out, the high roads came out. The city had a new sewer system, a new port, two new subway lines and heavy pollution. The populated neighborhoods, and their residents, were ruthless in giving way to new works, some magnificent, such as the exquisite Hotel Okura, designed in 1962 by Yoshiro Taniguchi (father of MoMA architect Yoshio Taniguchi) – and very forgettable. The new shinkansen, or bullet train, crashed for the first time between Tokyo and Osaka just a week before the opening ceremony. Until 2008, when the Games opened in Beijing’s great expansion, the Olympics could so profoundly alter a city and a nation.

Tokyo had been awarded at the Games once before; aimed to host the canceled 1940 Olympics, triumphing over the Nazi show in Berlin in 1936. The architects and designers of the 1964 Games had to meet a clear ideological goal: this was to be a showcase for New Japan, pacifist and on. the dawn, largely free of classical Japanese aesthetics or traditional national symbols. No Fuji, no cherry blossoms, no calligraphy. And any expression of national pride had to distance itself as much as possible from the old imperial militarism.

Looking at the Tokyo ’64 gaze fell on Yusaku Kamekura, the dean of Japanese graphic designers, who had swallowed the modern design of Bauhaus professors trained at the Institute of New Architecture and Industrial Arts in Tokyo. When past Olympic posters relied on figurative, often explicit Greco-Roman imagery, Kamekura distilled Tokyo’s ambitions into the simplest of emblems: the five intertwined rings, all gold, topped by a huge red disc, the rising sun.

The Kamekura poster did not quite awaken Western expectations of the “exotic” East for a hard, clean modernity. More impressive than that, he restarted the Japanese flag, which was totally banned during the early years of American occupation as a symbol of a democratic state. The same bold aesthetic would also characterize Kamekura’s second (and, in 1964, baffling technician) Olympic poster, with a photograph of runners in the background made and bloody, black background.

The main ceremonies and athletic events took place in a not at all special stage that has since been demolished. At Komazawa Olympic Park in Setagaya, a control tower designed by Yoshinobu Ashihara took the form of a 165-foot-tall concrete tree; he is still standing, though his brutal candor has been softened with a white paint. It was, however, the slightly smaller Yoyogi Stadium, designed by Tange (who would continue to build Tokyo City Hall and its Park Hyatt Hotel approved by Sofia Coppola) that specifically expressed what Kamekura and the others designers made on paper.

In 1964, Tange Stadium hosted swimming, scuba diving and basketball events, and its marriage of bulls and dynamism spread more strongly than any other that Japan had been restored to, it was even reborn. From the outside, it looks like two wrong halves of a sliced ​​pair, in steel and concrete, even though their real innovation was the roof. Its traction structure is developed on the recently completed Eero Saarinen hockey rink at Yale University and even more so in the Philips pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair, designed in 1958 by its hero Le Corbusier.

More calmly, the gym points to Tange’s most significant work to date: the cenotaph arch at Hiroshima, another reinforced concrete curve. In Hiroshima, the arched concrete of Tange became a mausoleum for Japan’s darkest hour; in Tokyo, it closed a festival of new national life. (Hiroshima’s legacy also underwent the inauguration ceremony, where sprint Yoshinori Sakai, born August 6, 1945, the day the first atomic bomb dropped, ignited the cauldron.)

The 1964 Olympics were the first to be broadcast worldwide, via the first geostationary satellite for commercial use, and Japanese families with growing household budgets could even watch the games in color. Still, the most enduring images of Tokyo ’64 appeared in theaters in director Kon Ichikawa’s three-hour documentary “Tokyo Olympics”. Shot in the wide CinemaScope format, in a rich color, with open phones, “Tokyo Olympiad” is, for several lengths, the greatest film ever made about the Olympics. (You can stream it alongside the Criterion Channel, along with much more horrific movies from the Games, from 1912 to 2012.)

Unlike Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia”, which faced the Berlin Games with the gods of Greek dragging Aryan athletes, the “Tokyo Olympics” takes us into modernity from its initial sequence: a bright white sun against a red sky – the Japanese flag, inverted. -cut to a shattered ball falling into pylons. The facades of the building are broken down into dust, the excavators carry the rubble. We see the foggy Tange Stadium, then the torch relay, and then the crowds chattering to see the young foreigners arriving at Haneda Airport. Inside the stadiums, the telephoto lens allowed Ishikawa to get stunning close-ups of swimmers ‘swimmers and swimmers’ roosters, but in the same way he often fired almost abstract sequences of fences and cyclists blurred in streams of color. .

There are champions and records at the Tokyo Olympiad, but they share screen time with the last places. Gold medal matches are interspersed with forgotten details of the attendees dragging the triple jump track, or shooting the officers pushing away the metal balls. The Japanese Olympic Committee hated the film and commissioned another; Nationalist proponents called it unpatriotic or worse. But Ichikawa’s distillation of national ambition into abstract form was the hallmark of Tokyo 64, and “the Tokyo Olympics” became Japan’s biggest national box office hit, a record that would be maintained. for four decades.

Whether they pass in 2021 or not, the upcoming Tokyo Games will surely have a calmer cultural impact than their predecessor. The first Tokyo 2020 logo was released for alleged plagiarism. The first stage: Zaha Hadid’s initial design was overturned, and was replaced by a more serene and much less expensive wooden stadium, designed by architect Kengo Kuma.

If Tange steel and concrete expressed Japanese ambitions in 1964, they are now natural materials that point to a vision of a future whose challenges are both ecological and economic. But Mr. Kuma, who attended the 1964 Games as a child, considers Tange Stadium to be the trigger for his own architectural career. “Tange treated natural light like a magician,” Mr. Kuma in the Times two years ago, who remembered the discovery of his childhood at Yoyogi National Gymnasium. “From that day on, I wanted to be an architect.”

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