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Koichi Takada, the architect who invites nature into Australian cities

So the dark side of nature, too, then.
The dark side of nature, if you like. Growing up, we lived right next to this big river. During a storm or typhoon, you’d have to move up [to higher ground]. This, in some ways, was thrilling as a child! [Laughs] But I suppose all that influenced the way I grew up, and that’s apparent in my work. It’s about almost trying to naturalise an urbanised city, and bringing back old childhood memories of nature, back into the future.

When it comes to design, what are your commandments?
Really, the challenge is, “How can we make buildings that bring that element of the natural environment and somehow marry them – or invite nature – into the form or context of our cities?” This is the only way to battle things like climate change, or ensure the greening of cities.

What’s the holiest place – built or natural – that you have ever been in?
I go to Meiji Jingu shrine in the heart of Tokyo. It’s artificially made – a bit like Manhattan’s Central Park – and there used to be an Edo castle [from Japan’s prosperous Edo period, which lasted more than 250 years into the mid-1800s], though it disappeared after World War II. It’s been created for the public to visit, with a shrine and forest. You come from this busy life, go inside and transcend, almost like you’re connecting to the universe, spiritually speaking.

Money

A word that’s often considered synonymous with your work is “luxury”.
Often with “luxury”, people talk about wealth, shininess and materiality. But for me, it’s about the richness of lifestyle and bringing nature back into  the city. The process of greening, to us, is a luxury.  It does cost. But it also contributes to a good cause. With materials, people often say, “I don’t like to maintain any natural products” – like stone benchtops in the kitchen. But it’s natural; you’re meant to maintain it, you’re meant to create a relationship with the natural product. And if it does things – goes grey or black – it gives you personality. It’s actually very good; it’s a bit like wine.

In the past few years, your firm, Koichi Takada Architects, has expanded from being a very small team to now working on projects in Sydney, Melbourne, Los Angeles and Tokyo.
When we established [in 2008], we never thought we would grow to 30 people. We wanted to focus on the projects we had enough time to do well: small- to medium-sized projects. But a lot of clients said, “Well, can you do large-scale projects?” We created a lot of repetition. Practice makes perfect! As my dad used to say, “Don’t follow money; money will follow you if you do a good job.”

What are you personally happy to spend a lot of money on?
[Laughs] Everybody goes through phases. You do cars, you do fashion. You think, “Well, I want to eat anything I want to eat.” But now, I’m doing the opposite, because I want to be healthy. And I stopped driving, and instead cycle. I used to buy very expensive fashion brands; now I want to buy local brands. It’s interesting how things reverse.

Bodies

Architecture is a discipline that requires very long hours. Does it take a toll on you physically?
Yes, and I want to be fit. [Laughs] I want to be the fittest architect!

What do you need to do to achieve that?
We try to structure it. We used to do crazy hours; late nights; this is true. When you’re starting up a practice, you have to go through that steep  learning curve. But now we’re well-balanced. At lunchtime, for instance, I dedicate myself to one hour of exercise. A fit body means a fit mind.

How do you feel about the idea of your buildings outliving your body?
We need to be very conscious of creating something that is ideally timeless, but the reality is that you have to appeal to the fashion, too, so people connect to it instantly. In the long term, designing is not just for today, but for tomorrow and the next generation. This is really a serious, big question of how we naturalise and humanise architecture. It’s not just making a commercially viable project, but something that brings you back to earth, brings you back to a more human scale. Otherwise architecture feels so removed.

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.

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