BUILT TO BREATHE

TOKYO-BORN KOICHI TAKADA FELL IN LOVE WITH MAN­HAT­TAN, BUT IT SOON BE­GAN TO SUF­FO­CATE HIM. NOW BASED IN SYD­NEY, THE UN­CON­VEN­TIONAL AR­CHI­TECT IS ON A QUEST TO BRING NA­TURE BACK INTO UR­BAN LIFE.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - MOTORING - STORY MI­LANDA ROUT K POR­TRAIT NIC WALKER

You may not have heard of Koichi Takada but you will soon enough, be­cause the Ja­panese-born Australian-based ar­chi­tect is about to start chang­ing the sky­lines of Syd­ney, Bris­bane, Los An­ge­les, Tokyo and Mex­ico City. Eight of his projects will be com­pleted in the next 18 months and you won’t be able to miss them. One is a $525 mil­lion fu­tur­is­tic apart­ment/re­tail struc­ture called In­fin­ity, shaped like a gi­ant loop; an­other is Arc, a 22-storey build­ing with pub­lic rooftop gar­dens cov­ered in strik­ing curved white ribcages.

Many more de­vel­op­ments are in the pipe­line, such as the 33-storey Bris­bane build­ing with a wa­ter­fall that cas­cades from a rooftop pool to ground level, and the 70-storey “Sky Trees” tower in Los An­ge­les, im­prob­a­bly de­signed to com­bine the look of a 1000-year-old Cal­i­for­nian red­wood tree with Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe’s iconic fly­ing skirt.

“I was once de­scribed as the master of curves,” Takada tells WISH in his of­fice in Syd­ney’s Surry Hills. “In na­ture, noth­ing is straight and ev­ery tree has a dif­fer­ent shape or pro­por­tions. Na­ture con­stantly adapts to the chang­ing en­vi­ron­ment and I see ar­chi­tec­ture as be­ing very sim­i­lar to na­ture.”

Po­lite and softly spo­ken in per­son, the 46-year-old in his prac­tice is a rule breaker who cre­ates con­tro­versy with his de­signs, and likes to push de­vel­op­ers and coun­cils to see how far they will bend. His In­fin­ity project in Syd­ney’s Green Square (the former in­dus­trial area de­vel­oped into a brand new sub­urb) shocked many with its au­dac­ity; his plans for a 120m wa­ter­fall in Queens­land’s capital have cre­ated an out­cry; an­other pro­posal in Mel­bourne’s in­ner-city Colling­wood has just been dumped as too am­bi­tious (it was de­scribed by one councillor as a “bo­gan, sparkling white Las Ve­gas build­ing Pho­to­shopped on to a map” of the sub­urb).

“I do get my­self into trou­ble,” he says, with a sly smile, of his 10 years run­ning his own prac­tice. “I like to push the bound­aries of ar­chi­tec­tural de­sign. For Green Square we said, why don’t we cre­ate some­thing to show the spirit of the fu­ture? That is how we started. Highly con­tro­ver­sial. I was la­belled the ‘bad boy’ of ar­chi­tec­ture be­cause of this, be­cause we pushed so hard.”

But the re­sult is in­cred­i­ble. Takada likens the struc­ture to a roller­coaster and he is not wrong. Scat­tered with parks and gar­dens on the top curves of the build­ing, the mixed-used de­vel­op­ment is cen­tred around a pub­lic plaza with restau­rants and cafes.

“I was in­spired by the Syd­ney land­scape be­cause the to­pog­ra­phy goes up and down,’’ he says. The 401 apart­ments have all sold – $380 mil­lion worth in just one day when it launched in 2015, and $3.6m for the pen­t­house in 2017, a record for the area at the time. Con­struc­tion is due to fin­ish by the start of next year.

The In­fin­ity project is a good place to start in try­ing to un­der­stand what in­spires Takada as an ar­chi­tect and why he be­lieves it is so im­por­tant to bring na­ture and the sur­round­ing land­scape into his work, whether it be the in­te­ri­ors of a restau­rant or mixed-used apart­ment build­ing or a pri­vate res­i­dence. His fix­a­tion can be traced back to his stay in New York when he was study­ing ar­chi­tec­ture.

“I think I was 16 years old when I first saw an image of Man­hat­tan and it was like an elec­tric shock,” says Takada, who was born in Tokyo. “So then I thought, I

want to go there and find out why I am so drawn to it and why I am so pas­sion­ate about this image of build­ings. And I went at 18. No one could hold me back. My mum was cry­ing when I left.”

Takada knew no­body when he ar­rived in the Big Ap­ple and could barely speak English. “It was 1990 and it was still a very dan­ger­ous time. Man­hat­tan was not as safe as it is to­day,” he says. “I re­mem­ber my taxi driver asked did I come by my­self, I said yes, and he said, my god, you are brave! But I still re­mem­ber com­ing up from the Lin­coln Tun­nel from the air­port and see­ing the build­ings for the first time, and I got a shiver. I still do. That de­fined the be­gin­ning of my ca­reer. I lived there for four years to com­plete my de­gree.”

He lived down­town, be­tween 1st Av­enue and 18th Street, in an area called Stuyvesant Town, which is a post-war hous­ing de­vel­op­ment. But he hated liv­ing in the con­crete jun­gle that was Man­hat­tan. It came as a shock. “It be­came too much. To live in New York was my dream but it be­came my night­mare,” Takada re­calls. “It was too close. I started ques­tion­ing ar­chi­tec­ture, I ques­tioned the city, I ques­tioned se­cu­rity, how peo­ple in­ter­acted, good peo­ple, bad peo­ple.”

For­tu­nately he found his respite up north in the ex­tra­or­di­nary 350-hectare ex­panse that is Cen­tral Park. “When I went there, I got this in­cred­i­ble feel­ing, like my god, I can ac­tu­ally breathe again,” he re­calls. “That was the sanc­tu­ary that I found in my life in New York. Ev­ery week­end, I’d end up go­ing back to the park with­out fail. Al­ways Cen­tral Park at six in the morn­ing.” Takada then re­alised na­ture was key to New York­ers cop­ing with high-den­sity liv­ing and this changed his ap­proach to plan­ning. How could he in­cor­po­rate that idea of breath­ing space into ur­ban ar­chi­tec­ture?

“I started look­ing at ar­chi­tec­ture in re­la­tion to na­ture,” he says. “Then I thought, in Ja­pan there is a his­tory of tra­di­tional ar­chi­tec­ture which, in fact, is all about na­ture. All the shrines, the vil­lages, all the ryokan [inns], it is re­ally about re­spect­ing na­ture. So I started form­ing these ques­tions in my head: how can we draw in­spi­ra­tion from na­ture? How can we work with na­ture? How can we bring na­ture back into the city and in­te­grate it with a build­ing?”

The other sig­nif­i­cant in­flu­ence on Takada was meet­ing the “star ar­chi­tects” while he was study­ing in New York and then in Lon­don. One of them was the late great Zaha Ha­did, whom he helped out by trans­port­ing some very heavy boxes of colour sam­ples from New York to Lon­don for her. “She was so ap­pre­cia­tive that she rang me,” he re­calls. “I re­mem­ber her husky voice. My god, Zaha rang me! As a stu­dent I looked up to her so much as she has cul­ti­vated the

“It be­came too much. To live in New York was my dream but it be­came my night­mare.”

fron­tier of ar­chi­tec­ture and pushed the bound­aries – that spirit, her spirit was in­cred­i­ble.”

But it was meet­ing Dutch ar­chi­tect Rem Kool­haas that was a game changer for Takada. The Pritzker Prize-win­ner steered him to­wards an ar­chi­tec­ture that re­flects the land­scape, rather than be­ing a “copy and paste” of medi­ocre high-rise build­ings, which look the same in ev­ery ma­jor city and have no con­nec­tion to the sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment. “We have lost the point of dif­fer­ence,” Takada says of high-den­sity ar­chi­tec­ture. “There is no sense of place.” In­stead he looks to early build­ings for in­spi­ra­tion – ones that, per­haps iron­i­cally, were of­ten built with­out ar­chi­tects but had to match the en­vi­ron­ment so the oc­cu­pants could sur­vive against the el­e­ments.

“This was re­spond­ing to na­ture, the tem­per­a­ture,” Takada says of the con­struc­tion. “They didn’t have air­con­di­tion­ing so they had to ask them­selves, how can we cool down the house? [To­day] we are so used this com­fort of air­con­di­tion­ing and heat­ing and we are mak­ing space­ships that do not in­ter­act with na­ture. In so many build­ings, you can­not even open the win­dow.”

Takada re­turned to Tokyo after his stud­ies but his work soon took him to Syd­ney, and he fell in love with the en­vi­ron­ment here. “Syd­ney has the city and na­ture in bal­ance,” he says. Takada stayed and started his own de­sign prac­tice in 2008. One of his first clients was model Jen­nifer Hawkins and her hus­band, builder Jake Wall. They have now worked to­gether on three homes.

“There are clients that re­ally help you grow as a prac­tice and with­out them I wouldn’t be here,” he says of the part­ner­ship. “They were so gen­er­ous and they saw some­thing in me that I didn’t be­lieve I had at the time.”

The lat­est home, in New­port in Syd­ney’s north­ern beaches, is an ex­tra­or­di­nary lo­ca­tion with a pri­vate beach on Pittwa­ter. It is a true re­treat for the busy Hawkins and Wall and Takada said he sim­ply “let na­ture in” when he de­signed the house. “The sound of waves break­ing is so calm­ing that we cre­ated this step ter­race that is a bit like a Ro­man am­phithe­atre,” he says. “As a re­sult, the sound of waves trav­els and echoes through­out the rooms.”

Takada now has a team of 50 staff in his busy prac­tice in Syd­ney’s Surry Hills and is eye­ing off even more and big­ger in­ter­na­tional projects. His fo­cus is on cre­at­ing multi-use de­vel­op­ments that are “hu­man­ised” with the de­sign goal of im­prov­ing qual­ity of liv­ing. “Lux­ury to me is al­low­ing space to breathe,” Takada says. “Why can’t we in­cor­po­rate Cen­tral Park like Man­hat­tan did with all our build­ings? We con­stantly draw in­spi­ra­tion from na­ture. That is fun­da­men­tal to our work, I have re­alised after 10 years of my own prac­tice – that is our sig­na­ture.”

“We are mak­ing space­ships that do not in­ter­act with na­ture. In so many build­ings you can­not open a win­dow.”

Clock­wise: an artist’s ren­der­ing of Takada’s pro­posed tower for Bris­bane; the ribs of Arc by Crown Group in the Syd­ney CBD; ren­der­ings of the Sky Trees tower in LA and of the In­fin­ity project in Green Square, Syd­ney

The New­port house Takada built with and for Jen­nifer Hawkins and Jake Wall

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