HKS Urban Designer Takeshi Kamiya is Living the Dream with His Latest Project in Japan

HKS Urban Designer Takeshi Kamiya is Living the Dream with His Latest Project in Japan

Takeshi Kamiya is a sucker for new places. Every time he lands in a new city he sets out to find the spots that would represent the city on a postcard. His strolls through public plazas, mountains, parks, markets, and more, often lead him down a long list of questions:

How do people spend their life in the city? What are the most popular local foods, why are they so popular, and what is the history behind them? Does the region have any influences from outside cultures?

“I’m a curious person,” Kamiya said. “I just cannot stop exploring things.”

At HKS, he has made a living out of traveling to new cities and contextualizing them for clients as the firm’s Studio Practice Leader, Urban Design and Planning. He also heads the HKS Tokyo office, often serving as a client liaison for HKS projects in Japan.

Last year, Kamiya was in Japan to help HKS announce a new 10,000-seat waterfront arena in Kobe that will be one of the country’s first multi-purpose sports and entertainment venues.

The project marks a personal milestone for the designer, too. He was in architecture school in Kobe in 1995, when a 7.2-magnitude earthquake killed more than 6,000 people and left the city in shambles. Kamiya moved to the U.S. in 1998 but always hoped to return one day and contribute to the city in some way.

His dream is finally coming true but he isn’t just giving back to Kobe; he’s giving back to his entire country through the expertise he’s accumulated over the years while living in the U.S.

Takeshi Kamiya's fascination with water began in elementary school.
Takeshi Kamiya's fascination with water began in elementary school.

Designing Cities

Kamiya became interested in urban design while traveling the world from Japan as an undergraduate architecture student and learning how architecture helps define a city’s identity.

His 1996 trip to New York City changed the game. He was fascinated with the city’s manmade and ever-changing landscape.

“It’s such a great thing if you can make a living by traveling around and looking at new places but designing a portion of them – wouldn’t that be fantastic?” he kept thinking during the trip.

“It’s such a great thing if you can make a living by traveling around and looking at new places but designing a portion of them – wouldn’t that be fantastic?”

Japan didn’t offer any programs in urban design at the time so Kamiya turned to New York once again for inspiration. He enrolled in the Pratt Institute’s graduate program in urban design in hopes of converting his passion for travel and exploration into a career path.

Those 18 months have turned into 23 years in the city. Kamiya worked at one of New York’s top urban design firms, master planning high-profile projects such as Hudson Yards and the World Trade Center site, before joining HKS in 2011.

He now leads a team of 11 urban designers who look beyond property lines to evaluate the value that projects bring to their surrounding communities. The team’s long-term, large-scale approach to master planning looks at a site’s land value, assets, and influences such as accessibility to highways, transit systems, green spaces, and surrounding developments.

“There are a bunch of great architects who can design beautiful buildings that are top-notch, but when you see how people develop cities, it’s just all over the place,” Kamiya said. “There is a beautiful building here and there, some beautiful space in between here and there. It’s not all comprehensive. There’s no real thought in how you see things comprehensively in a long-term way.”

He added that contextualizing a project in terms of the city where it’s located instead of the block it’s built on – and building to maximize the site’s potential – allows the client to get the most out of their investment while encouraging them to see how the site fits into the overall community.

Kamiya (left) poses with his best friend on a visit to Los Angeles. Kamiya was in high school in Japan at the time and his friend attending college in L.A.
Kamiya (left) poses with his best friend on a visit to Los Angeles. Kamiya was in high school in Japan at the time and his friend attending college in L.A.

Batting for Japan

Baseball was introduced to Japan in the late 1800s and is now one of the country’s most popular sports. Nippon Professional Baseball and Major League Baseball share a close relationship.

The Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, who hold three Japan Championship Series titles, approached the Texas Rangers in 2017 when Globe Life Field was still under construction to ask how they could build an American-style ballpark of their own.

HKS Senior Project Manager John Hutchings, who has master planned projects with Kamiya for 10 years, approached him for help landing the Hokkaido ballpark project. Kamiya had worked on Globe Life Field and U.S. Bank Stadium and could speak at length – and in Japanese – about the impact that new sports facilities can have on a city’s development.

“The infrastructure of sporting in Japan is 20 years old and it needs updating, so their teams are looking for Americans who know-how to do that,” Hutchings said. “The challenge with most American firms is that they don’t have fluent Japanese speakers who can relate to a Japanese clientele. Takeshi has proved time and time again that he’s able to build a great relationship with clients.”

HKS eventually earned a contract to design the Fighters’ new 60 billion JPY ($549 million USD) ballpark, which features a retractable roof and architecture that blends into the surrounding nature.

“It was very sweet when we ended up winning this project,” Hutchings said. “I could tell Takeshi had a source of pride being able to go back in his home country and deliver the first retractable roof ballpark in that market.”

Kamiya’s urban design exercise has evolved into a client liaison role where he corresponds regularly with the Fighters on HKS’ behalf. He’s worked hard to earn the team’s trust by being receptive to their ideas and trying to understand each stakeholder’s challenges in order to build for their needs.

And he’s learned how to navigate cultural differences between American and Japanese clients by figuring out who actually has a say in the decision-making process and spending quality time with the client so he can read their expressions to understand what is sometimes left unsaid during meetings.

“The people are most important,” Kamiya said. “They’re trying to do something they’ve never done before, and so are we.”

Kamiya, Hutchings, and HKS experts from different practices have traveled to Japan dozens of times for the Hokkaido project. Over long flights and client meetings, they’ve formed a partnership that strengthens the projects they do together. Kamiya isn’t really a baseball fan so if a client asks a question that is too inside baseball for him, he smoothly asks Hutchings to chime in.

“This is definitely about teamwork. Everyone who specializes in different areas can work with each other,” Kamiya said. “We each know our capabilities and we maximize our assets to form this amazing team.”

‘A Special Place’

Kamiya used to make about 15 trips to Japan every year, but the COVID-19 pandemic slowed international travel. He’s back in action now and plans to split his time between project sites in Japan and his home in New York City.

During his latest trip to Japan, Kamiya quarantined for two weeks to meet current and potential HKS clients on the firm’s behalf. He visited the Hokkaido Stadium to check its progress and unveiled the Kobe arena’s concept at a press event, which was especially important to him given the undergraduate years he spent in the city.

 The project, the second largest for HKS in Japan, will deliver a gleaming waterfront arena with scenic views, bringing fans and revenue to Kobe when it opens in 2024.

“Japan is my country; it’s a special place for me,” Kamiya said. “I always wanted to bring something back to the city, so this is my dream come true. It took 25 years to get to where we are today.”

He said he used to have a hard time explaining his career to his loved ones in Japan, including his parents who he was able to see during his visit. But now the hype around his projects in the country has finally helped them understand his job.

“It’s all fantastic,” Kamiya said, chuckling. “And I’ll tell you why it’s fantastic: it’s the first time my parents know what I do.”