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World Perspective | Recreation

A 'Smart Arena' in a Tokyo Suburb Is Winning Fans

This venue can change shape and size. Its men's rooms can even become ladies'.


OMIYA, Japan — It's been called the world's largest seashell, a stranded Starship Enterprise and a leading candidate for the UFO hall of fame. This week, the Saitama Super Arena opened to the rhythmic thunder of muscle-bound taiko drummers and referee whistles.

Ten years and $700 million after it was conceived, this stadium, touted as one of the most advanced in the world, was bathed in the roar of capacity crowds as the U.S. men's basketball Dream Team played Spain on Tuesday and Japan on Wednesday en route to the Sydney Olympics.

"It's an impressive arena. You really feel close to the action," said Shinobu Ishii, a 24-year-old self-avowed basketball fanatic. "It was also really exciting to see an American team play in Japan."

City planners around the world have long grappled with a key problem: how to wring the most out of their local sports showcases. Trying to jam under one roof a football stadium, a basketball arena, a convention hall and stages for huge rock concerts and intimate concertos has all too often resulted in major design compromises. Many communities give up and build several venues.

In Japan, however, land is so expensive that the construction of a number of sites is often not an option. So a decade ago, the Saitama prefecture decided to tackle the challenge and create a regional center for this Tokyo suburb.

"We're really trying to forge our own identity," said Yoshiaki Tachikawa, an assistant director with the local Saitama government. "For far too long, we've been part of Tokyo's shadow."

The result is a single building that can be used as a stadium for nearly 40,000 fans, an arena for 20,000 or an intimate hall for 5,000. Walls, ceiling, floors, seats, concession stands and even plumbing move to make each configuration appear purpose-built.

The flexibility is especially important for smaller events. "Otherwise you always feel like you're playing at the end of a football stadium," said Gordon Wood, a partner at the U.S. architectural firm Ellerbe Becket, the lead designer.

Even the new arena's bathrooms can adjust to better suit the male-female ratio of a given crowd.

"I really appreciate how many toilets they have for women," 24-year-old retail worker Kimiyo Hori said with a laugh as she watched the game Wednesday.

The core of the project is the arena's movable-block technology. To permit the change from an oval-shaped stadium to a more circular arena, blocks of side seats collapse, allowing the 10-story, 15,000-ton south end to "migrate" 239 feet on rails to link with the north end. The transition can be accomplished in 20 minutes by one person flipping a few switches.

Somewhat more complicated is knowing which switches to flip for each of 14-plus configurations.

"For the past several months, we've been doing drills," said Shigekazu Matsuzaki, head of construction with Taisei Construction Corp., the lead contractor. "For instance, what do you do for a basketball game in the afternoon and a concert at night?"

Designer Tadao Kamei of Nikken Sekkei Ltd. said one of the project's most anxiety-provoking moments came when it was finally time to try out the docking system. Fortunately, everything checked out.

"There was really no way to test it until all the pieces were in place," Kamei said.

In the U.S., economics generally drive stadium decisions. In Japan, it's more often local pride. The publicly funded Saitama arena doesn't have a home team lined up, nor are there many corporate boxes. Even designers admit that the project--conceived during Japan's bubble period and financed when public treasuries were flush--may never be duplicated.

But the "smart arena" design offers inspiration for more modest projects, its designers say, in the same way elements of Toronto's retractable SkyDome showed up in later domed stadiums. Smaller U.S. cities have expressed interest in the Saitama concept, while elements of the seating bowl and wraparound concourses were used at Staples Center.

"I see it more as a Formula One race car," said Dan Meis, a former partner at Ellerbe Becket and now a principal at L.A.'s NBBJ design firm. "The Formula One costs $1 million, but if you just take the suspension, you can afford to put it in your own car."


Rie Sasaki of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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