By Juliette Olah, published in The Japan Times
Koichi Takada’s career began with a river. The Tokyo-born architect grew up in the 1970s, living a stone’s throw from the scenic banks of the Tama River in the west of the capital. Takada spent his youth enjoying nature, catching shellfish or koi and releasing them back into the river.
However, the formidable grip of postwar urbanization was palpable in the city. As a child, Takada observed as skyscrapers, train stations and modern infrastructure emerged against the backdrop of the placid rice fields and water systems near his home.
“(The) river was my playground, but as a child I could (already) understand that when the river got polluted, all the fish disappeared,” he says. “I was surrounded by incredible nature, but it was disappearing. This so-called commercialization was taking away a basic but fundamental living environment.”
It was this realization, at just 8 years old, that planted a seed that would one day take root to become the basis of Takada’s entire design philosophy, leading him far from his hometown and to the warmer climes of Australia, guided by a longing for literal greener pastures.
After finishing school, and recognizing his talents were best expressed in a creative field, Takada decided to move to New York to study architecture. He planned to immerse himself in the Western ideology of the built environment. Being only 18, Takada’s father succinctly labelled his son’s decision as “crazy.”
“The image of Manhattan was something I had to see. Boundaries are very important in Japanese culture, but after a time, I found that confronting,” Takada says. “I wanted to express myself more. That was the driving force to go to New York: I wanted freedom.”
Riding on a dream, his first impression of Manhattan was unclouded awe.
“I remember coming out of the Lincoln Tunnel in the cab, going from dark to light and feeling an unbelievable emotion seeing the city — wow!” he says, his face lighting up recalling the palatial sights.
Yet, while Takada harbored pristine intentions, a gift oft bestowed on the young, his dream of experiencing New York soon contorted into something more akin to a nightmare. The cramped “concrete jungle” began weighing on him profoundly, to the point that he considered packing up and leaving America.
“It became too much. People weren’t so kind, (they were) too ambitious, and I realized it was quite a naive idea to go there. I thought many times that I should go back to Tokyo,” he reflects.
It was nature, yet again, that eventually provided respite for the young architect in New York.
“One day I went to Central Park and thought ‘I can breathe again!’ I felt so relieved,” he recalls.
From that point on, Takada visited the park each Saturday. It became his retreat from the city’s relentless urban compaction and a space to get to know the locals through a shared love of baseball.
Identifying the source of his relief in New York prompted Takada to question the culture that was being established around architectural practices and city planning. He found himself pondering radical ideological questions about design — the sincere musings of which would go on to spur the creation of his life’s work and legacy — questions like, “Why can’t a building be like Central Park?” and “Why can’t Central Park and a building form a skyscraper?”
With a renewed focus, Takada threw himself into reading books about biometric architecture, a discipline famously practiced by Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926)that aims to reconnect humans to their environment and uses natural processes to inform the design decisions applied to man-made structures.
After almost four years in New York, Takada transferred to the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, an institution known for its avant-garde approach to design. The school, and the revolutionary London arts scene, crystalized Takada’s vision and propelled his boldness.
“This was very important for me, to understand the attitude of doing something original and cutting edge — being brave enough to be the first to do something,” he asserts.
Upon completing his studies, Takada returned to Tokyo, where he found himself working with several of Japan’s rising design stars. One such mentor was the famously radical Atsushi Kitagawara, known for his theatrical, collage-style buildings. Kitagawa’s designs artfully jumble discordant materials together and play with traditional spatial geometries.
It was after a handful of work trips to Sydney in 1997 that inspired Takada to lay down more permanent roots away from his homeland.
“When I came here (to Australia) the nature was so incredibly beautiful and untouched,” he says. “I felt I was going back to my childhood.”
It being just a few years before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Takada recognized that the city was going through a heightened building phase that he was all too familiar with. This time, he felt he had the ability and a responsibility to use his work to help stimulate a more positive transformation for the city.
Takada now heads his namesake architecture firm, which he founded in 2008, leading a team of 50 at his studio in Sydney. The business recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary and is the force responsible for scattering Takada’s inspired vision across the skylines of Sydney, Brisbane, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Mexico City.
Opposing the all-too-common homogenization of cities around the world, Takada works with a heightened consciousness of the legacy he leaves behind in his work.
“That urbanization that I experienced as a child, it’s so easy to get into that (kind of city development). Your business survives … but what are you actually leaving for the next generation?” Takada asks.
Despite having left more than 20 years ago, Japan is never far from Takada’s field of vision. He has a project in Tokyo’s Shibuya district under construction and says there are potentially more to come.
“I love to keep that connection, I go back every year. I do miss (Japan),” he says. “Going back to my roots in Japanese culture is very important.”
For Takada, fostering a relationship with one’s cultural and biological roots is intrinsic to a congruous, and therefore, content life.
When asked about the landscape of his hometown in western Tokyo today, he smiles fondly and says, “I still go down to the river and touch the water.”