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.
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