Chairman of Aedas Keith Griffiths tells Christie Lee about Aedas’ split from its UK arm, the appeal of mixed-use developments and starchitects.
Aedas split from its UK arm – now AHR – in June 2014. What was the rationale behind that move?
It was purely strategic as it allowed both businesses to streamline the production process. We are going to design large-scale projects for large cities on an international scale, whereas AHR is going to focus on local projects. AHR is like the general practitioners, whereas we’re like brain surgeons.
Where are your businesses concentrated?
65% of our businesses are in mainland China, 15% in Hong Kong, another 15% in Southeast Asia. We also have 5% in the Middle East and Europe.
You moved to Hong Kong in 1983. How much has the Asian architectural scene evolved over the last three decades?
It was obviously a different scene. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was all about single shopping centres or residential blocks. There was nary a mixed commercial building in sight. The Landmark, which comprised two towers and a shopping mall, is the only exception I can think of. It wasn’t until around 2005 that the Chinese adapted the whole idea of the mixed commercial building. That was largely in response to the sudden surge in urban population.
Is that a phenomenon unique to Hong Kong and mainland China?
Yes, mixed-use development was very much an Eastern invention. The thing about mixed commercial complexes is that it’d only work if you have large pieces of land. By the 2000s, a lot of the western metropolitan cities were already very developed, thus rendering it difficult to find large swathes of land.
Why are you setting up a London office?
There are quite a lot of building opportunities in London right now. East London has opened up with the 2012 Olympics. Nine Elms is one of the fastest developing neighbourhoods in the city right now. The London office is relatively small at the moment, but we’re planning to expand it at a steady pace. We also want the office itself to reflect what Aedas is – that is, to be local and international at the same time. As such, we hired three local graffiti artists to paint our walls.
You mentioned that part of the Aedas design philosophy is to be local and global at the same time. Can you elaborate?
Architecture needs to be rooted in the culture and climate it is in. It’s no longer good enough to design from a distance. The ‘one size fits all’ model doesn’t work anymore.
Is the era of ‘starchitects’ then over?
Undeniably, certain architects have developed their own design language and are mighty successful at it. Zaha Hadid is one, and Frank Ghery is another. I think it’s perfectly fine to subject cities to their unique design vision, but at the end of the day, these structures are seen more as sculptures. They aren’t embedded within the city. As an ideology, starchitecture is all very fine, but it’s not what architecture is about. Architecture is about creating an urban fabric that we can breathe and sleep in. The Chinese president agrees when he says that China doesn’t need any more ‘weird buildings’.
Should architects be involved in city planning and if so, to what extent?
Definitely. What I said earlier about building high-density mixed-use buildings to respond to the increase in population is a great example. Architecture will become more porous. High walls will be replaced by a system of very well-connected bridges, tunnels and courtyards, which will in turn form a connective issue to link up the various buildings in a neighbourhood. To give you a more concrete example, Central is already very well-connected by a system of bridges but imagine what would happen if we were to link up the rooftop of Armani Privee and The Landmark.
This increase in porosity will lead to a boost in the quality of life, as citizens will be more inclined to hang out around green spaces and walk more.
What are some of the exciting projects that you’re currently working on?
Two in Asia at the moment. The West Kowloon terminus would actually epitomise what I just said about building a more porous city fabric. We hope that it’d act as a connective tissue between the West Kowloon Cultural District, the ICC and Austin Road. The second one is the Chinese Estates Plaza. It’s a large commercial complex consisting of four towers, all with their own terraces and gardens.