By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) - The architect who oversaw the selection of plans for Japan's new Olympic stadium defended the controversial design on Thursday, saying ballooning costs were not his fault even as the government appeared poised to consider cost-cutting changes.
Last month's announcement that costs for the new National Stadium had surged to $2.1 billion, nearly double original estimates, set off a firestorm among the public, skeptical about spending so much when the country is still recovering from the 2011 disasters that left nearly 20,000 dead.
The anger over the stadium designed by U.K.-based architect Zaha Hadid has also become a headache for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his support ratings already battered by efforts to pass widely opposed security laws, making officials eager to find ways to pacify the public.
Tadao Ando, the architect who headed a committee that chose Hadid's design in a 2012 competition, said he wanted the design -- compared by critics to a spaceship and bicycle helmet -- to stay, and that the soaring costs, which rose to 252 billion yen ($2.03 billion), was not the committee's fault.
"Just like all of you, I want to ask, why does it cost 252 billion yen? Aren't there ways of bringing this down?" Ando told a packed news conference in Tokyo.
"As a citizen of this country, I think that surely something can be done."
Government officials have begun searching for ways to cut costs, media reports say, including changing the design or possibly even opting for a new one. But others argue that doing so would delay the stadium's completion and damage Japan's global reputation.
"While listening to the voices of the people, I want to push forward with preparations to make the Olympics a success," Abe told reporters.
Yoshihiro Kizawa, an official at the organization in charge of the stadium, said the government has not yet made any requests for change. Soaring construction and labor costs, along with a rise in Japan's sales tax, are blamed for much of the price surge.
The topic has become a staple of talk shows and newspaper front pages, with many emphasizing that the stadium -- which will replace a now-destroyed venue built when Tokyo hosted the 1964 Olympics -- is by far the most expensive Olympic stadium in recent history. The stadium for the London 2012 Games cost $700 million.
Some have blamed the Pritzker Prize-winning Ando, who until Thursday had remained largely invisible, for not pinning down costs when the committee chose Hadid's design from a short list of 11 submitted by both Japanese and foreign firms.
Ando said poor health -- including major surgery last year in which his pancreas and spleen were removed -- had limited his participation in a key meeting last week. "Somehow my missing that has made everything my fault," he said.
But he added that the committee was only tasked with choosing a design that could be produced at the target budget of 130 billion yen, and that costs crept up during later stages of drafting which he, and the committee, were not part of.
A desire to showcase Japanese know-how and bring the Olympics back to Tokyo after the city lost the 2016 Games to Rio de Janeiro may also have influenced their selection of the plans, which he termed "dynamic, advanced and symbolic."
"I really want to keep that design but the price doesn't match," Ando said.
"It's a piece of art that everyone around the world will see, a piece of art that needs to also fit the needs of sports -- a very difficult thing," he added.
"I thought Japan could carry this off when a lot of other places couldn't."
(Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)