Koichi Takada: “I’ve learned to adapt and evolve — just like nature.”

Koichi Takada: “I’ve learned to adapt and evolve — just like nature.”

From a young age, creativity has taken Koichi Takada around the globe. First following his father’s Japanese sound engineering business throughout Asia, and then chasing his own career in architecture from New York to London, Tokyo to Sydney. This hunger to discover new places and cultures, paired with tutelage from outstanding architectural minds like Rem Koolhaas and Farshid Moussavi, has shaped Koichi’s radical thinking. The pioneering architect draws on nature to inform both the function and aesthetics of his designs, creating climatically smart yet inherently beautiful buildings. After traveling the world for work, it was Sydney that enamoured Koichi and enticed him to plant his roots, build his eponymous firm and raise his family. We chat to Koichi about driving urgent change in the building industry and finding the balanced connection with nature in Sydney.

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On your global upbringing

I was born in Hong Kong, but we lived in Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo. Then I went to university in New York. My dad’s company is responsible for about 25% of the speakers in the world… he’s a great businessman. He started as an employee and ended up owning the company. At that time, manufacturing in Japan was too expensive, so we moved around creating factories. There was always music playing in our home, and when Dad was in control, the whole house shook. Although our windows rattled, it was completely soundproof and the neighbors wouldn’t hear a thing. It was a complex set up that produced beautiful, rich sound. Dad hated when speakers started turning into headphones. He doesn’t believe that music should be heard in isolation, but instead needs the context of sharing the sounds with the environment and the people. 

On travel shaping your creativity

When I arrived in New York and walked out of the subway, I looked up at the skyscrapers. The scale was overwhelming. I couldn’t stand the power and ambition behind these highrises. Then I stepped into Central Park and instantly loved it — it felt democratic and more aligned with human scale. It forced you to stop looking up at the buildings and to be in nature. I played baseball in Central Park every weekend to escape and breathe and it was this experience that really made me question why architecture couldn’t be like Central Park. Why couldn’t you plant trees on the façades of buildings? Then my professor in New York, Peter Sweeny, who really invested his time in me, recommended I go to London and learn from the incredible architects there. I instantly liked London, because the scale dropped. 

On your move to Sydney

London had quite difficult circumstances with the IRA bombings. So I went back to Japan and worked with Atsushi Kitagawara. While there we were invited to participate in stage two of the competition to design the new Museum of Contemporary Art of Australia in Sydney. When I hopped off the plane in Sydney, it was love at first sight. I instantly thought: wow I could live here. I remember walking around the Botanical Gardens and spotting these unbelievable plants that I’d never seen before.

Pushing the limits of design to dream up a rotating house inspired by sunflowers.  Images courtesy Koichi Takada Architects.

On putting down roots in Australia

Nature is a big reason why I have stayed in Sydney all of these years. I feel very part of this country and city that I love so much. A lot of the right elements are here to help inspire you as a creative. Being in Australia is what people say is like being in paradise. Sydney is really accomplishing a balance between city and nature and there is ambition to do better in terms of sustainability. 

I played baseball in Central Park every weekend to escape and breathe and it was this experience that really made me question why architecture couldn’t be like Central Park. Why couldn’t you plant trees on the façades of buildings?

On designing future houses

We were approached by Bloomberg Green to demonstrate an architectural possibility for the New European Bauhaus, so we designed a house inspired by sunflowers. I recently visited this part of Italy, where there was a field of sunflowers. In the morning I saw the sunflowers watching me, then at the end of the day, their faces were looking the other way They follow the sun, which is fascinating. Therefore the house we designed from this rotates, the solar panels follow the sun, it harvests rainwater and has natural ventilation. It’s about creating dynamic architecture as opposed to a static station, one that can adapt to its environment. When the president of the European Union, Ursula von der Leyen, declared she wanted a New European Bauhaus, she spoke about how form should follow function. However, the solution is not just about the formula behind science and engineering. If you applied pure formula to cities it would be boring and destroy the character. This then, is where architects and creatives can contribute.  

On how this can be mirrored in cities

This dynamic element can inspire the next residential building. Equally, we are increasingly talking about urban farming and how to best use the space available — think spaces with daylight, without daylight, and how we use technology to then facilitate growth. We need the artificial and the natural to combine, then express this juncture in a creative way so people can connect emotionally. If it’s well designed you probably won’t use AC, you’ll have natural ventilation, the home will be working alongside the environment — meaning you are always in touch with nature. The engineer’s realm is about the technical aspects and performance, but the architect’s and designer’s realm is about the emotional connection. So by encouraging everyone to work collaboratively, we could fast track our goals for the future. 

Above: Brisbane’s Urban Forest that is due for completion in 2024 will feature more than 20,000 plants and trees selected from 259 native species. Below: Sydney’s Infinity building was inspired by natural archways in icebergs and the new design language created by Rem Koolhaas’s 2012 CCTV Headquarters in Beijing.

On the urgency for creative collaboration

With architecture, we grew up competing against one another. You were in your own bubble always competing. This way of thinking needs to change, to allow for a more collaborative approach. Using all of our brains together is the best way to attack climate change and come up with the best solutions. If people copy the effective ideas, that’s a good thing. There will always be the next version — like the next smartphone with upgrades and better ideas. We need to bring this spirit of continuously building on previous ideas as fast as we can, so that we can mitigate the problem in time. The car industry, for instance, is progressing at such a great speed. Toyota’s car Mirai, which in Japanese means future, is hydro and what’s coming out of the exhaust is cleaner air than what it took in. Imagine doing that in architecture where the more you build the more you’re cleaning the environment. Looking to other industries makes me hopeful, as there’s so much inspiration we could use in the building industry. My job is to inspire my clients to integrate climate initiatives and ideas into their buildings. Architects need to play an important role as leaders. 

Sydney is really accomplishing a balance between city and nature and there is ambition to do better in terms of sustainability. 

On honoring local heritage

Materiality must be sensitive to a place and respect the natural and cultural heritage of that location. If you look at most cities, there’s this central portion made of glass curtain walls. You can’t see the difference anymore. Identity is being lost. How do we then let nature and culture inspire identity? Our project for the National Museum of Qatar’s gift shop looked at the natural heritage of Doha — it’s a city that appears out of a flat desert. Yet the nomadic Bedouin culture knew how to deal with this challenging desert landscape. So we brought that heritage in to inspire our design.  

On designing in new cultures 

It’s always exciting to design in a city that you’ve never been to. You’re going on an adventure and learning about a culture and its people. That’s the most exciting part of a project. On these jobs, we really need to listen. We need to be flexible. We need to think outside of the box. Having lived in many different cities, I’ve learned to adapt and evolve — just like nature does. Then with your outside experience, you can bring that element of surprise and excitement.  

A cave-inspired design for the Museum Gift Shop that sits in the National Museum of Qatar. Images courtesy Koichi Takada Architects.

On the power of inspiring leaders   

Rem Koolhaas liberated my mindset as an architect. I went to one of his workshops in the 1990s when I was a student. He taught me to think more democratically and not to worry about making the perfect institutional gesture — agitation, he said, is far more important. For instance, when everyone was lining up to design the new World Trade Center in New York, Rem chose to go to Beijing and find a bolder language, direction and future for architecture. The result was the CCTV building. My Infinity building in Sydney has this same DNA. 28 years later I spoke with Rem at the National Museum of Qatar opening and asked ‘do you remember you came to a student workshop in London?’ Rem is a superstar and a very busy guy, but he smiled and said he remembered. For him, that was just one moment in his busy career, but for me, that planted the seed for how my team and I design today. 

Materiality must be sensitive to a place and respect the natural and cultural heritage of that location.

On nearly burning down your favorite building

While I was studying in London, I went to Rome to take molds of the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane to understand how to design from the level of the human eye. We registered our names and were given permission to be there for one week, to try and make sense of Francesco Borromini’s design. We melted the candles into wax and started the mold. But we almost burned the church down! The next day they would not let us back in, and I was blacklisted from my favorite building in the world. It holds a special place in my heart and really is the foundation for how I design with the human benefit in mind. Borromini’s design challenged how we preserve human skill and how we humanize architecture. Next time I’m in Rome, I’ll beg to get in. 

On exploring Sydney’s coastline

Heading north from Bondi you can see the dramatic undulations of the cliff faces and you really start to visualise what the Earth is made of. Then heading south, you’re in touch with the water and you can understand the coastal balance of nature and lifestyle. I cycle with my mates early in the morning before sunrise, right down the coast. By not relying on the mechanical engine of a car or motorbike, you start to understand the topography of the Earth and feel connected with the land. I can feel Sydney’s landscape rolling up and down, up and down. I call it a very emotional city, and that dramatic topographical change is what Sydney is all about.

Sculpture by the Sea is also a great way to experience the natural lifestyle of Bondi Beach. I tend to like the pieces that interact with nature — whether it’s with the light or the wind, or through the materials it’s made from like wood or glass. Normally art is housed inside buildings, unscathed by the elements. But this exhibition really challenges each artist to think about the context and the interaction of the artwork.  

Above: The cliff faces north of Bondi; and Arc, the 80m-high towers in Sydney. Bottom: Koichi on a site tour. Images courtesy Koichi Takada Architects.

On exploring the inner city 

To see nature in the inner city, Central Park Sydney and along Broadway and the University of Sydney Campus is a really wonderful urban sanctuary. Right in the mix is White Rabbit Gallery owned by Judith Neilson. The gallery features Chinese artists and it’s really special to see something so different that really provokes you, whether you understand the artist’s culture or not. The gallery creates awareness of what’s happening outside of Australia, with work often depicting conflict or environmental catastrophe. 

Then nearby is Spice Alley. You really have to work to discover it, but once you’re inside all of the high rises disappear. There’s something very human and energetic about the setting, and you’re sitting there eating great Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese or Malaysian food. The space allows people to come together and pack out a small lane with lots of energy. After Covid, I miss that feeling so much.  Just next door is the Old Clare Hotel built inside a heritage building. On top is a rooftop bar with a pool, it’s very cozy and the margaritas are very good.

I cycle with my mates early in the morning before sunrise, right down the coast. By not relying on the mechanical engine of a car or motorbike, you start to understand the topography of the Earth and feel connected with the land.

On hitting the tiles in Sydney 

There’s a karaoke place in Chinatown called Lantern by Wagaya. It’s not only a karaoke place, it’s also a Japanese izakaya where you can sing while eating, and it doesn’t matter if you can’t hold a tune because the rooms are acoustically treated. My wife’s Italian, my friends are French, I’m Japanese, but we all join in on each other’s songs. It is like the United Nations of karaoke. Music takes you beyond language barriers. 

On a window or an aisle seat

Always aisle. I love windows, but it’s too closed in. I need the feeling of more open space. 

On Sydney in one word

Balanced. The nature and the city are really in balance and I remember that was my very first impression of the city. It’s very unique and we must ensure the city maintains this balance.

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Nuggets in this interview

accommodation

Federation Cliff Walk, Sydney

“Heading north from Bondi you can see the dramatic undulations of the cliff faces and you really start to visualise what the Earth is made of.”

–Koichi Takada

accommodation

Sculpture by the Sea, Sydney

“This exhibition really challenges each artist to think about the context and the interaction of the artwork.”

–Koichi Takada

inspiration

White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney

“It’s really special to see something so different that really provokes you, whether you understand the artist’s culture or not.”

–Koichi Takada

food and drink

Spice Alley, Sydney

“There’s something very human and energetic about the setting, and you’re sitting there eating great Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese or Malaysian food.”

–Koichi Takada

food and drink

The Old Clare Hotel, Sydney

“On top is a rooftop bar with a pool, it’s very cozy and the margaritas are very good.”

–Koichi Takada

food and drink

Lantern by Wagaya, Sydney

“It’s an Asian tapas bar, you can sing while eating, and it doesn’t matter if you can’t hold a tune because the rooms are acoustically treated.”

–Koichi Takada

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