As the England football squad prepares to fly out to Japan for the World Cup, Building was given a sneak preview of three of the country's spectacular new stadiums built for the tournament.
Japan and South Korea are set to celebrate international football with all the zeal of new converts. While England scrabbles around trying to rebuild Wembley, the joint hosts of next month's World Cup have, between them, built an incredible 19 brand new stadiums at a total cost of £4bn. In combination, the stadiums are unrivalled in their number, size and quality of design, confirming the World Cup's ranking alongside the Olympic Games in the sports architecture top league.

Many of the stadiums are designed for multiple events, including athletics and baseball. Several have been planned as catalysts for urban regeneration or expansion. The stadium at Sapporo, where England confronts arch-rivals Argentina on 7 June, is an entirely enclosed dome; the turf pitch is kept outside and moved inside for matches on hover platforms. Another at Oita, nicknamed "Big Eye" and designed by the grand old man of Japanese architecture, Kisho Kurokawa, sports a retractable roof in which two giant leaves slide up together over the pitch.

Over the following pages, Building presents three of the most spectacular Japanese stadiums, which will host crucial matches over the coming weeks.

Niigata Stadium

The venue for the first match on Japanese soil – Ireland vs Cameroon on 1 June – has been nicknamed "Big Swan". This is because the billowing white fabric roof of Niigata Stadium, on Japan's west coast, evokes a swan alighting on a nearby lagoon. The architect is Japan's multidisciplinary heavyweight Nikken Sekkei. The lightweight roof is constructed of Teflon-coated fabric and supported on a framework of steel trusses. Four huge primary roof arches frame the pitch, and at the perimeter the roof has been scalloped into an attractive series of shallow arches. As well as covering about 90% of the 42,300 seats, the translucent fabric cuts out less than 10% of natural light, increasing visibility and keeping the grass pitch healthy. The stand is formed as a continuous bowl of exposed reinforced concrete, propped by dramatically outward-raking struts. The seating is divided into two distinct tiers. Project details:
architect: Nikken Sekkei
capacity: 42,300 seats
cost: £160m
completed: March 2001

Saitama Stadium

The venue for England's opening match against Sweden on 2 June, and with a seating capacity of 63,700, Saitama Stadium near Tokyo clocks in as Japan's largest soccer-only venue. The advantage is that almost one-quarter of the seats are located closer to the football pitch than any seats in an athletics stadium. Local birdlife is again the inspiration for Azusa Sekkei's building. The two shallow-vaulted translucent roofs, appearing from a distance like a pair of the snowy egrets that inhabit the nearby marshlands, are supported on immense curving space-frames of tubular steel. The continuous stadium bowl below is constructed of earthquake-resistant, exposed reinforced concrete, and supports two giant screens at either end for showing action replays. The stadium comes with a highly unusual subsidiary function: it can serve as an evacuation centre in a national disaster such as a major earthquake. Storage areas incorporated into the stands are stocked with blankets and food to feed 3000 people for 30 days along with 3250 tonnes of rainwater. Project details
architect: Azusa Sekkei
capacity: 63,700 seats
cost: £190m
completion date: July 2001

Miyagi Stadium

Miyagi Stadium in north-east Japan, where England group rivals Sweden and Argentina will do battle on 1 June, wins outright as the most sculptural of the new World Cup stadiums. Two silvery crescent moons of aluminium roofing embrace and partly shade the 49,000-seat stadium. These crescents float over the seating bowl in muscular exposed concrete. The stadium is partly submerged within a beautifully undulating athletic park, a design feature that elegantly dispenses with the need for access stairs or ramps to the lower stand. The higher stand is more conventionally supported on a reinforced concrete frame with raking struts. The stadium is equipped with a 400-metre running track as well as a football pitch. Miyagi Stadium's remarkable freshness and elegance is the result of an architectural competition, which was won by a 30-year-old newcomer Hitoshi Abe. Abe's design inspiration was the battle helmet of the region's feudal warlord. Project details
architect: Hitoshi Abe
capacity: 49,133 seats
cost: £133m
completed: March 2000

When to throw a sickie … Building’s guide to England’s group-stage matches

England vs Sweden
  • Saitama Stadium
  • Sunday, 2 June
  • Kick-off 10.30 am
England vs Argentina
  • Sapporo Dome
  • Friday, 7 June
  • Kick-off 12.30 pm
England vs Nigeria
  • Nagai Stadium, Osaka
  • Wednesday, 12 June
  • Kick-off 7.30 am