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Bringing Out the Kid in All of Us: An Interview with Norihisa Hatakeyama

Here at Vents, we’re fans of forward-thinking design, in all its forms. Whether it’s a new album whose tracks flow seamlessly from start to finish or cinematography that lets an image say more than words ever could. And we know that, sometimes, good design is so spot-on, so fitting for its environment that it tends to go unnoticed. We’re happy to bring your attention to some design work that’s all about keeping you, and your mind, in a place of fantasy.

This brings us to Mr. Norihisa Hatakeyama, a top-tier landscape design artist. He works out of LA but his projects span the globe. His favorite assignments involve providing landscape planning for amusement parks, and his credits already include prestigious parks across Asia, not the least of which is Tokyo Disneyland. (More on that later.)

We had the privilege of sitting down with Mr. Hatakeyama to discuss the significance of theme parks in his own life, his personal design philosophy, and the small yet fascinating industry of theme park design.

Where do you find inspiration for your design work in regard to theme parks? Are there any parks that your find especially interesting from a design perspective?

Hatakeyama: In themed Landscape Architecture, we tell three-dimensional stories through spatial planning and environmental design. We strive for ‘photorealism’ in our story environments, so thorough research on the type of environment you’re trying to immerse your guests in, whether it’s a medieval European village or a tropical jungle, is a must. Every design decision you make should support and enhance the storyline, and I understand that Disneyland was the first Park to take this approach in a large scale in outdoor entertainment.

Do you have certain approaches for making aesthetical choices, and does the location of a given project play a large part in your designs?

Again, story drives every design decision you make in theme park design; it would not be appropriate, for example, to use contemporary metal planter rail in an area representing the American frontier in the 1880s. As I understand it, your imagination is the limit to what you can do in this business, and that’s why I enjoy working in this industry.

How did you gain the opportunity to design for Tokyo Disneyland? Was this experience particularly enjoyable given the upbeat nature of Disney?

I was in Operations there and have not designed for Tokyo Disneyland (yet). Designers and Operators are two very different group of people with often different sets of priorities, but this experience of working on the front line at Tokyo Disneyland is of tremendous help to me as a themed landscape designer. In order to design successful theme parks you need to understand how Operators look at things—after all, they are the ones that run and maintain our show on a daily basis.

What would you personally consider to be your most ambitious design work to date?

I’m proud that I, as a member of the design team at LA design Associates, worked on a particular theme park project in Korea which I am unfortunately not at liberty to discuss yet. The Client represented a major brand in family entertainment in Korea.

Can you tell us a little bit about the behind the scenes work you did for the Korean theme park and some of the challenges that go into getting schematic design packages ready, among other necessary tasks?

In almost all themed entertainment projects change is the only constant, and this project was no exception. Scope and vision for the project kept evolving and our design had to adopt accordingly. It’s not as bad as it sounds, because it usually means that old ideas and concepts are replaced with better, more cost-efficient, and exciting ones.

You stated before the interview that you previously worked on an enormous 56 acre Chinese theme park. When it comes to design and rendering for a theme park, does the size play a role in your approach?

To answer this is to speak to scale rather than size and it would need further definition of the type and quality of the experience intended. Size matters certainly in regards to programming and other aspects of the general goals and objectives of the park.

What traits or talents do you feel set you apart from other landscape designers?

The rare combination of my theoretical understanding of theme parks, my work experience at one of the most successful theme parks in the world, and my technical/design skills makes me a very good match for this industry. Before switching to landscape architecture, I was an American studies major with strong emphasis on American themed entertainment. In fact my senior thesis, titled “Disney’s EPCOT and American Urban Development,” won a prestigious university award; this convinced me that I was ready to switch careers to put this knowledge to work in actual design practice.

How do you ensure that your designs will be culturally relevant or appropriate?

Extensive research on local culture and customs is an integral part of theme park design. This is especially true when working internationally.

Do you have any exciting design projects you would like to tell us about coming up later in 2018 or in 2019?

There are many exciting new international theme park projects coming up at LA Design Associates; unfortunately, we cannot speak much of them because they are confidential under non-disclosure agreements with our clients.

by Giorgio Chang

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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