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One Night in Hong Kong

December 13, 2007, Time Magazine

Frank Sun, restaurateur and architect
Have a drink at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel’s Captain’s Bar, tel: (852) 2825 4006. It has a lot of history. Then take a walk from there to Sheung Wan — a very different side of old Hong Kong and one that is rapidly disappearing. You can visit shops that still make traditional sausages and sell dried seafood.

After that, take the tram all the way to North Point. On the third floor of the market at 99 Java Road you’ll find the Tung Po seafood restaurant, tel: (852) 2880 9399. Ask for the owner Robby, or his partner Larry. Tell him you would like to order dishes Frank likes to eat. When you’ve finished dinner, take a cab back to the SoHo (“South of Hollywood Road”) district, and go to the funkiest bar in Hong Kong, Feather Boa, tel: (852) 2857 2586. The place is always crowded and you will most likely have to elbow your way inside, but it is without doubt one of the most interesting places to be in Hong Kong.

Bowie Yau Sze-lai, sales associate
Hong Kong city life is pretty diverse, so your night should be too. I’d start out in Kowloon with a glass of wine at Felix, tel: (852) 2315 3188. It’s a beautiful bar that overlooks the harbor from the 28th floor of Hong Kong’s oldest hotel, the Peninsula. After drinks, head to Hong Kong island and the colorful shopping district of Causeway Bay. This place is very busy most evenings, mostly with a younger crowd looking for the latest fashions and accessories. Try the Island Beverly Centre or Lee Theatre Plaza for a good and affordable range.

For refueling, try one of the little hole-in-the-wall joints in Causeway Bay, like Red Pepper, tel: (852) 2577 3811. It’s where I go to for family-style service and amazing Sichuan food. After dinner, you can mix it up a little at my favorite local pub, The Barn, tel: (852) 2504 3987. Go for some loud music and even louder dice games. It’s a little rough and ready, but it’s the real Hong Kong.

Eddis Tang, salsa instructor
At the start of the evening, I would take the Star Ferry from Tsimshatsui to Central. Along the way you can enjoy fantastic views from lots of different angles. You could then ride the Peak Tram to Victoria Peak for dinner. Try Pearl on the Peak, tel: (852) 2849 5123. It’s a famous restaurant with 360-degree views and modern Australian cuisine. The seafood is very good. After that, California, tel: (852) 2521 1345, in Lan Kwai Fong is a good spot for drinks and people-watching, especially if you sit outside. The Lan Kwai Fong area is famous for its bar life.

There is a good salsa scene in Hong Kong, but it starts late. Club CiXi, tel: (852) 2286 0333, has just opened after big renovations. Club 97, tel: (852) 2810 9333, has a great vibe, though it’s small and easy to crash into people. Some nights there are live drums accompanying the music, and everyone squeezes onto the dance floor.

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Finding Europe in the East

November 2007, Smile Magazine, Philippines
The old world charm of China’s newest money pot

With ambitious developments swamping this once-Portuguese peninsula, Macau has rarely been such a hot topic. It hit international news stands in January when its gambling revenues overtook those of the Las Vegas strip, and its stars have continued to rise with every new casino, glitzy hotel and enthusiastic plane-load from Mainland China. But away from the high rolling and the cabaret there’s a quietly beautiful edge to Macau that balances out the economic frenzy.

Fifteen years ago when I hopped my first Hong Kong-Macau ferry, the old-town landscape of leafy side streets and cobbled courtyards had come as a welcome surprise. Compared to the shrinking heritage spots in my point of origin, here was a place bursting with all things old and charming. Yet my last visit, to a soundtrack of whirring cranes and earth being poured into the sea, indicated that Macau may be going the way of other Chinese cities. Fast paced industrial developments and pretty old buildings here rarely make good bedfellows.

My exploration started with Senado Square, or San Ma Lo, a favourite of architecture buffs. As the hub of Macau’s old town, this is where you’ll find an exhibition of its new UNESCO heritage status, housed in a fittingly neo-classical canary-yellow building. Any first glimpse of the square is impressive, no matter the angle. Approaching it by cab from the Avenida Almeida Ribeiro you’ll find gaudy casinos replaced with typical Chinese residential blocks, which in turn give way to grand old city structures. A wide pasture of black and white cobbles appears, and opens out, framed by candy-coloured buildings and garnished with a fountain. The exhibition in the yellow ‘Turismo’ centre will tell you that Macau contains 22 listed buildings and eight historical plazas. It feels like most of them are squeezed in here.

I dodged my way among photo takers and Saturday afternoon shoppers with food in mind. Most small, traditional restaurants have been chased off by chains and brand  names, but treats are still to be found.  Freshly baked pastei de nata, Portuguese egg tarts, from tiny Café Ou Mun (tel: 2837-2207) make the perfect mid-morning snack. Despite the dominance of Sasa and other chain stores here the architecture has been well adapted; just raising your gaze slightly can take you back decades. McDonalds peers out from lemon-bright arches, Häagen-Dazs sports an ornate balcony.

Religion has a visible place in Macau. Sao Domingo rules the roost at the top of the square; sunny yellow and sedate among the shops. A tourist pamphlet puts the number of Macanese catholics at around 30,000 and on my last visit I managed to catch its once-weekly Portuguese evening service, lilting and mournful. A few hours spent wandering the side streets here will turn up Baroque gems and quiet corners, from the Chapel of St Joseph’s Seminary to the Dom Pedro V, the oldest European theatre in China, and still a popular spot for Chamber Music. You’ll find many of these old timers in paintings by 18th Century artist George Chinnery, whose tomb still draws people to the peninsula’s old Protestant cemetery.

For the peckish, a canteen-version of Portuguese tucker can be had in Restaurante Vela Latina (tel: 2835 6888) at the front of Senado Square. For dining of a more authentic nature try the proud and very pink Club Militar de Macau (975 Avenida Praia Grande, tel: 2871-4000). Though it is now a private members club, the refined ground-floor restaurant is open to the public, and does a mean Roasted Octopus, ‘Lagareiro’-style as well as Portuguese dim-sum. Its shady terraced gardens are perfect for a post-lunch stroll.

My own lunch that day was with Bernard Peres, an affable entrepreneur and father of three who whisked me over the flat brown bay to Taipa, and his restaurant of choice. Taipa is one of the two large islands that make up Macau. Over Caldo Verde – a thick cabbage and chorizo soup – and creamy wild mushrooms at a neat corner spot (Estalagem, 410 Albano de Oliveira, tel: 2883 1041) Peres told me a little about the expatriate lifestyle in Macau. Though French himself, he raised his family in Portugal before moving them to Asia eleven years ago.  “There’s definitely more of a European flavour here,  compared for example, to Hong Kong,” he said. “We chose here because it felt more like home.” Despite the 1999 handover and accommodating fewer than 1,000 Portuguese residents now, Macau still keeps three newspapers, a radio station and a television channel in its old colonial language. The legal system remains closer to that of Portugal than China.

Bernard left me to take in the sights of the old Taipa village, where I found more leafy squares and family-run tavernas, among Chinese souvenir stalls and small crouched houses. The island is set for huge amounts of development, but Bernard had been supportive. “Normally they do a good job,” he said. “It’s the only place in China I think that really does take care of its old landscapes.” He spoke of a huge project underway along an old section of the peninsula waterfront. Dubbed Ponte 16, it will see one of the area’s oldest colonial districts completely revitalised, extending the Senado Square-style experience for visitors. Judging by the tourists inundating Taipa village that afternoon, the plans will be popular.

With the day starting to cool I took a cab back across the bridge, admiring Penha Peninsular – my favourite stretch of Macau shoreline – from afar. To the right casino fortresses gleam. To the left  man-made lakes and woolly greenery bring Bavaria to mind, or perhaps some coastal holiday town in Russia:  clusters of once-grand homes and a solitary church steeple. Only the space-age Macau Tower projects rudely into the foreground. Explorations along here are worthwhile, whether for the faded glamour of Pousada de Sao Tiago, an old glamorous hotel, or the views from Penha Chapel.

I’d returned to the mainland to see St Paul’s Cathedral, Macau’s biggest architectural star. The cathedral had once been part of a Jesuit college which burned to the ground in the mid-1800s, and only the reinforced façade remains, part ghostly, part grand. Crowds mill around on its staircase and guides shout histories in a din of languages. Heading into the adjacent Mount Fortress – one of Macau’s green lungs – I skipped its battlement views for a poke around the Museum of Macau, just below. Cool and dim with a subterranean feel, the museum covers the city from many angles. A mock-ups of an old Macanese kitchen lays out bi-cultural cooking implements; four hundred year-old trade routes stretch across maps, from when everything from tea to porcelain passed through this small port.

My evening and the next morning had been reserved for Macau’s second and farthest island, Coloane;  possibly my favourite part of the region. As yet it is still the least developed, its old village sleepy to the point of comatose. There is an old war monument, a church and a temple, a waterfront boulevard – and that’s about it. The equally drowsy Pousada de Coloane (tel: 2888 2143) was to provide my bed for the night: a grand old family-run affair along a beach, with a faint whiff of neglect that only adds to its character.  While the rest of Macau speeds into the next century, this Pousada remains obstinately and reassuringly the same.

Dinner swung around, as did a warm, steamy thunderstorm, observed from a balcony with a jug of strong Sangria. The balcony belonged to the celebrated Restaurante Espaco Lisboa (tel: 2888 2226); a modest little spot run mostly by one Antonio Neves Coelho. An effusive man at the helm of an excellent kitchen, Coelho too thought that Macau was heading down the right track. “The Chinese in Macau are different,” he said. “They like to preserve the past and their ties with Portugal”. Even now it very easy to get a working visa if you are Portuguese. Coelho put this down to the old colonial relationship – one warmer than the Sino-British bond in Hong Kong – but later acknowledged too that the old trading post is still a useful gateway for Portuguese-speaking countries into China, and vice versa. Just that afternoon he’d had the finance minister of Mozambique in for lunch.

My farewell to Macau the next day was well fortified by another excellent meal at Fernando’s;  a Portuguese restaurant almost deified by Hong Kong expats. The staff teeter on rude and it can take an hour to win a table, but its popularity is safeguarded by the old sprawling farmhouse-feel and a home cooked menu that hasn’t changed for years. This restaurant too is unassuming, and fades quietly into the strip of sea-side stalls and eateries. And right there is perhaps the key to Macau’s make-up. With casinos that flash and blare and shoot flames into the sky, the old corners of the city do get sidelined. But they don’t seem to be going anywhere. In fact rather than dwindling, if anything, their charms are set to become even more accessible to visitors, under the ever- nurturing gaze of the motherland. If only every Chinese town were so lucky.

Where to dine:

Portuguese: Club Militar de Macau,
975 Avenida da Praia Grande, Macau,
tel +853 2871 4000 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              +853 2871 4000      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

Estalagem, 410 Albano de Oliveira,
Taipa, tel +853 2883 1041 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              +853 2883 1041      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.
O Santos, Rua De Cunha No. 20, Taipa,
tel +853 2882 5594 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              +853 2882 5594      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

Restaurante Espaco Lisboa, Rue das
Gaivotas No. 8, Coloane, tel +853
2888 2226.

Restaurante Fernando, Praia de Hac Sa
No 9, Coloane, tel +853 2888 2264 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              +853 2888 2264      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

Café Ou Mun, Senado Square. Macau,
tel +853 2837 2207 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              +853 2837 2207      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

Restaurante Vela Latina, Senando
Square, tel +853 2835 6888 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              +853 2835 6888      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

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Happy Families

October 4, 2007, Time Magazine

Sequestered on a hill about a 40-minute drive from Chiang Mai, Proud Phu Fah doesn’t attract young urbanites so much as families and others looking for a quiet puff of Thai mountain air. Yet that’s not to say that the hotel lacks contemporary style. The first clue to its existence comes on a bare, green stretch of road in the Mae Rim Valley, where a small sign beckons: HIP HOTEL AND RESTAURANT. The next is a gate in an isolated grassy lay-by, where soft jazz pipes from the trees. “We wanted to try a new concept,” says co-owner Siriphen Siwanarak, who left a design job in Bangkok to build the place with her husband. “When guests arrive they see this gate first, then follow the stream, and suddenly they’re open to the panorama and the mountain view, like a surprise.”

Nine whimsical chalets are set into the lush vegetation, all individually decorated with four-poster beds and terraces looking onto a stream. The live-in owners encourage back-to-basics relaxation: cycling, cooking classes with local ingredients and impromptu arts-and-crafts sessions on the lawn. “A lot of families come here for the relaxed style and open space,” says Siwanarak. Handily enough, the valley below is known for its gamut of child-friendly activities, from a monkey school to an orchid farm, go-karting track and, a little further north, the famous Elephant Nature Park sanctuary. For more details see

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New Architects of China

ArchWeek Image

Architecture Week, USA, September 19, 2007,

But while firms from around the world are delightedly helping China push its design boundaries, the country’s own young architects may be the most interesting to watch. On the Edge: Ten Architects from China, edited by Ian Luna with Thomas Tsang, is the first English-language anthology to place them firmly in the spotlight.

The learning curve for these young, hip studios has been a steep one. Though the nation can boast a rich aesthetic heritage, Mao’s Cultural Revolution put pay to any form of modern exploration in the field. It also left most of the older architectural masterpieces in tatters. Design students in the 1980s and ’90s had no creative role models and little contemporary Chinese design to draw from, leaving them with something akin to a blank canvas.

A number of searing questions came with it. Should architects continue to draw from the West, from Russia, and from the past, or could a new language of their own be created? What exactly is “Chineseness”? What does modernity mean, and what role should preservation play in the way forward?

These issues of identity and ideology are shaping the nation’s urban fabric, and some remarkably fresh projects are rising out of the debate. With this anthology, Luna aimed to offer a brief slice of political context, an understanding of the sector’s greater challenges, and a good look at how the industry’s more formidable minds are choosing to respond.

Yung Ho Chang is one of China’s most influential modern architects, and the studio he cofounded with Lu Lijia — Atelier Feichang Jianzhu — was the country’s first ever private practice. He returned from the United States in the 1990s to pursue work that, as the editors describe, “opposes mega with mini, re-emphasizing a humane and harmonious scale.” China was booming at an alarming rate, and Chang aimed to counteract the tendency of developers toward the big, the brash, and the brutal.

One project in Beijing’s central business district, the Pingod Sales Center, called for the transformation of a heating plant into a modern art space and sales office. Choosing to keeping the old brick shell, Chang and his team inserted a flared steel grille structure into one side of the facade and a series of brightly colored translucent doorways into the other. Inside, skylights light a huge, warehouse-sized room. The changes were playful, yet hip enough for an urban art space. They also carried the studio’s signature sensitivity for the past.

Chang, who now heads the architecture department at MIT, also wrote the introduction to On The Edge. “Architecture is one of the few disciplines,” he notes, “in which returnees (including this author) are plying influential roles along with the home-growns. Translation still needs to be done, since the locally schooled architects are not confined by the definitions in the original languages and are free to interpret and invent.”

One of these homegrown talents, Xu Tiantian of DnA Beijing, is among the few Chinese female architects to helm a studio. The book showcases her firm’s Songzhuang Art Center, built just last year. It serves around 700 artists, experimenting with the idea of a contemporary “painters village” — formerly small, self-run sets of cooperatives outside the jurisdiction of the government. The center was commissioned when the authorities started to recognize the value held internationally by the local art scene.

The building offers 27,000 square feet (2,500 square meters) of flexible gallery space within a bold, brick-clad structure that floats on a glass base. For Xu it was important to design something that would remain useful throughout the area’s likely growth. “The program has current and future users with different needs and views,” she explains. “While the urban context grows and its function program alters… the building develops as well.” Xu and her team aspire to architecture that can reflect China’s uniqueness, by neither rebuilding traditional symbols nor, as she puts it, “relocating a modern architecture from Berlin to Beijing.”

Ai Weiwei hoisted his international profile with Beijing National Stadium, well known as the “Bird’s Nest,” a collaboration with Herzog & de Meuron that is nearing completion. At home and in Asia, however, Ai has long been known as one of the continent’s more rebellious geniuses. The book dubs him “a prince among China’s reigning enfants terribles.”

Styling himself as a conceptual artist, Ai’s designs tend to rail against the country’s sociopolitical mechanisms, often with a satirical, or at least emotionally provocative, edge. He named his studio FAKE Design. Among his projects in the anthology is Nine Boxes, Beijing, a barbed response to the capital’s growing set of high-end gated communities. The pages show a clutch of living “boxes” clad in galvanized steel sheeting. Ai is also known for Yiwu Riverbank Park, an almost surreal, geometrically stark landscape of indigenous granite. The park was dedicated to his poet father, who was humiliated at the hands of China’s reeducators.

Alongside Shenzhen’s Urbanus, Shanghai’s MADA s.p.a.m., and a clutch of other studios, both emerging and established, Luna chose to include a few Hong Kong firms in his collection. As an architecturally conservative city, Hong Kong unwittingly exports much of its design talent across the border. There designers find greater professional freedom, while going home at night or on weekends to a cosmopolitan financial hub. This does give rise to a few questions, however — namely, whether the territory’s architects and their work can be characterized as Chinese.

“I think the starting point of our designs are very much Chinese, or to do with Chinese sensibilities,” says Rocco Yim, founding principal of Hong Kong’s Rocco Design Architects. “But I think our techniques, the use of materials, the spatial manipulation is influenced from difference sources.”

Yim points to a residential project featured in the book alongside a couple of his firm’s more extravagant civic designs. The Jiu Jian Tang Villa in Shanghai combines traditional and modern international elements, fitting the lifestyle of an extended Chinese family but still allowing the family to feel fashionably current. The villa is positioned around two courtyards in an almost conventional composition, balancing privacy with integration. The architecture is unabashedly modernist, however, replete with glass and aluminum, lashings of natural light, and angular water features.

On the whole, Luna’s anthology takes a clear-cut snapshot of China’s contemporary design scene in its ambitious fledgling stage, showcasing projects that would get far too little international attention otherwise. The book should be enjoyed while such a compact view is still possible. As China’s architects sprint to keep up with the evolving demands of their countrymen, keeping up with the architects themselves may prove to be just as hard. One imagines that a similar book project in ten years will be less straightforward.

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Higher Education

July 16, 2007, Time Magazine

It’s a common problem. You book a trip, fail to pick up a phrase book and before you know it you’re shaking hands, toasting — or wildly gesticulating — in your destination, wishing you had mastered just a couple of phrases of the local language. Since 2005, travelers on selected flights of Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa and half a dozen other carriers have been avoiding this problem with Berlitz World Traveler courses, available on personal video screens. Now other airlines are following suit — this year, Continental, KLM and Air France began offering the onboard language-tuition program, which teaches the basics of up to 23 languages in 21 languages. So should you be from Brazil and need to brush up on your Tamil, or from Vietnam and require a few phrases of Arabic, a course option will have it covered. The lessons are structured by theme — numbers, dates, words and dialogue — and there are tests and games to keep you entertained. Passengers who complete a course may even get a certificate. Now that’s surely a better use of your time than watching a Friends episode you’ve seen three times already.

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Social Assistance

July 9, 2007, Time Magazine

Making new friends and swapping stories about life on the road can be a vacation high point—so why not do so before you set off? Thanks to the Internet, globetrotters can now find travel mates, get trip tips from fellow travelers and even enjoy free accommodation from friendly locals, with just a few clicks of the mouse. Organizing the perfect holiday has never been so easy, or so darn sociable.

HOSPITALITY CLUB: Set up by a German student in 2000, this not-for-profit site offers what it calls “volunteer-based hospitality exchange.” Sign up as a member, then search for compatible individuals living at your destination before checking their profiles to see how far their generosity stretches. Some offer a home-cooked dinner or their company on local excursions, others a couch to sleep on or a spare room—all for free. Naturally, you are expected to offer similar kinds of welcome when members show up at your door. As a safety measure, initial contact between members is moderated and passport details are recorded.

THE THORN TREE: Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum has been a lively, opinionated online meeting place for travelers since 1997. This is the place to visit for peer-to-peer advice on everything from traveling around New Zealand with a young baby to what camera to take on the road or where to stay during São Paolo’s gay parade. You can also advertise for travel companions, propose house swaps and more. A popular offshoot, the Bluelist, lets users post their top travel recommendations.

GUSTO: Many travel sites offer consumer critiques of, say, restaurants and museums, but without knowing anything about the authors, how do you know if their judgments apply to you? You might have a completely different view of the same experience. Clearing up this anomaly is the job of Gusto, a year-old site that asks users to complete detailed profiles before posting reviews. “A review is only so valuable to me if I see that the reviewer has the same likes and dislikes, or travel circumstances,” explains founder Jeff Wasson. After signing on, users can establish Facebook-style networks of simpatico friends to continue swapping travel tips with, and the job is made easier by Gusto Grabber software that allows users to grab, store and share hotel, airline and other web pages.

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An American in Bangkok

Hospitality Design, USA, August, 2006,

Bill Bensley looks and sounds American, his architecture credentials are from Harvard and when he met the King of Malaysia they high-fived. But talk design, and he’ll tell you that the US has done little for his personal aesthetic. Based out of Bangkok, his multidisciplinary atelier, Bensley Design Studios, has brought its fresh, hip reworking of Asian themes to over a hundred and fifty hotels and residential buildings from Mumbai to Mauritius. “I really think of myself as being more Asian than Western,” he explains. “Everyone I work with is Thai or Balinese, and most of us have been together for over fifteen years.”

Back in the 80s, fresh out of graduate school and newly arrived in Singapore, the picture couldn’t have been more different.  “My classmate in grad school had asked me to come and teach in the International University in Singapore, so I came out and interviewed,” he remembers. “They told me i didnt have enough experience,  which was absolutely correct. I  was 24! I also remember asking my friend, ‘Singpore’s under China, isn’t it?’”

This makes his metamorphosis all the more impressive:  from landcape architect with a dubious grasp on geography, to the go-to guy for high-end Asian chic, fluent in both Thai and Bahasa Indonesia. His studio’s dramatic, luxury landscapes now grace five-star properties across the region, and a few years ago the firm moved into interiors and architecture, starting with The Four Seasons’ tented camp in Chiang Rai. “Now, I look for the ability to do all three disciplines,” he says. “And for the potential of having a top name hotel company to look after the project when we’re finished.”

Since he crosses the continent the way most of us navigate our hometowns, it seems natural that travel should top his list of inspirational past-times. “Every year I make it a point to visit at least five different places I’ve never been [to] before, and when I do, I’m voracious,” he says. “I buy every book, and photograph everything … from vernacular architecture to a pile of rotten coke cans.” This scope of experience shows; just look at the Khmer temple-inspired spaces and art deco details of Siem Reap’s Hotel de la Paix (pictured), or at the echo of old Malay stilt houses in the Marina Bay at Pangkor Laut Resort. In Indigo Pearl, Phuket, an independent project that opened late last year, the Bensley team created much of the contemporary sculpture out of materials salvaged from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.  Rather than running with the Thai-silk-and-teak approach of other top properties in town, he drew ideas from the area’s tin mining past. Exposed beams, blackened steel, and brass fittings give the project roots; a rather rare sense of belonging.

“A bad part of globalistaion is that everbody gets access to everything. It’s harder and harder to find ideas and a design vocabulary that hasn’t been used, and over-used,” he says. “The Asian aesthetic that you find in the West – alot of it is not that good because it’s not understood very well. It’s more pastiche, more make-up. To hang a few Chinese hats on the wall and call it Chinese Contemporary is not successful in my book”.

“For example, it’s very easy to look to the Balinese artistic language as being the language of Indonesia.  This is not the case.  There are 3,300 islands, and almost every one has a particular thing that we as designers can draw from, to make it more localised. With printed materials like sarongs, you’ll find the patterning in central Java is very different than in eastern Java, Bali or Lombok.”

Of course, Bensley’s flare for the dramatic has also helped cement his popularity here, where, if you’ve got it, you tend to flaunt it. He has dubbed his work ‘maximalist’ in the past. “Hotels and resorts are places where we go to escape the daily mundane routine of our lives at home, so if we were to take too much of a pared down approach, the hotels are not going to be financially succesful,” he says. Time spent in a Bensley hotel or spa is to experience flaming bronze torches, successions of water features and statuary galore.

Though he claims to not follow trends, Bensley does plan to explore design sustainability in the coming years – still a fledgling concept here. A number of upcoming projects, such as a thirty-room hotel on one of Cambodia’s ‘Sweetheart Islands’, will toy with fairly radical notions of recyling (“all the energy will come from coconut plantations in neigboring islands”) and with making minimal imprints on local ecology. He is also quite certain that his future – personal and professional – lies in Asia. “I like Asian people and I like how we build here, with our hands. Arts and crafts still aren’t dead. Anything hand-made in The States now is prohibitively expensive. [In that sense] Asia’s very much a playground for a designer.”

And judging by two of its recent commissions, the playground for Bensley Design Studios just keeps growing. Two palaces, one for the Malaysian monarchy, another for the richest family in India, are currently on the boards. If there had ever been doubt about this American’s kudos in Asia, surely little could dispel it as swiftly as the royal nod.

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Terminal Creativity

Architecture Week, USA, September 17 2008

ArchWeek Image

The Chinese have long been good at big gestures, and one of Beijing’s latest — courtesy of London’s Foster + Partners — is lifting spirits in the capital at a rate of thousands per day. As the world’s largest airport terminal, Beijing Capital International Airport’s Terminal 3 is a striking combination of British finesse with China’s brute power and bureaucratic will.

The Chinese have long been good at big gestures, and one of Beijing’s latest — courtesy of London’s Foster + Partners — is lifting spirits in the capital at a rate of thousands per day.

As the world’s largest airport terminal, Beijing Capital International Airport’s Terminal 3 is a striking combination of British finesse with China’s brute power and bureaucratic will. The terminal exceeds one million square meters (11 million square feet) according to Foster + Partners, and is expected to serve an estimated 50 million passengers per year by 2020, with up to 7,000 international passengers per hour.

The mammoth project is being credited with successfully re-tuning airport space — a feat occasionally attempted and rarely achieved.

Beijing’s Terminal 3 joined the two existing overworked airport wings in February 2008, and will be cutting its teeth on the million or so sports fans set to descend for the Summer Olympics. The building is a reassuring symbol in a country that has seen explosive economic growth put real strain on its infrastructure.

The central government chose one giant for another, and Norman Foster’s British architecture powerhouse won the competition with a building as vast as it is fluid. Foster + Partners collaborated with the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design (BIAD) — a large, state-owned operation with a project list that includes The Great Hall of the People and the airport’s Terminal 2. The architects teamed up with Arup for structural and mechanical engineering, and Dutch airport consultants NACO rounded out the joint venture.

Spearheaded by Foster himself and Mouzhan Majidi, the terminal design has elicited creative comparisons with everything from the Forbidden City to a double-headed snake. Reviews have largely been positive. Terminal 3 has fared better than Beijing’s last curvaceous high-tech newcomer, Paul Andreu’s National Theatre, rather derisively dubbed “The Egg.” The airport’s sleek, high-tech curves appear graceful, aerodynamic, and rather welcoming.  

Bright Behemoth

Made up of three slim, connected volumes — T3A, the processing terminal; T3B, international gates; and T3C, domestic gates — the terminal stretches essentially north-south in a long, mostly linear form. The building forks out at either end from cathedralesque halls, extending the perimeter to accommodate a total of 120 gates, 85 of which are contact aircraft stands.

Passengers heading towards their gates find the space paring down intimately along their journey. The slenderness of the design has also kept the footprint small and manageable, and orientation straightforward.

Visual cohesion was a clear priority in the design, and practically the project works well — there’s little that’s easier to navigate than a straight line. From tip to tip the airport is 3.25 kilometers (two miles) long, but all-around glazing and an open upper mezzanine level have kept sight lines clear. High-speed automated people-movers hit up to 80 kilometers per hour (50 miles per hour), making the cross-terminal journey in about two minutes, end to end.

There is a color zoning system in the roof canopy, starting with bright red at the T3A entrance, and moving through 16 different flame-colored tones through T3C to the end of T3B. The same colors add texture and enhance the curves above the arrivals and departures hall.

International arrivals enter on the upper level to a sweeping view of the airport — a far cry from the corridors and basements so common in airports worldwide.

In the roof, a steel space frame supports triangular roof lights and colored metal decking. Extra-large mullions are widely spaced to allow large, light-friendly spans of suspended glazing.

The palette was culturally inspired, according to Foster. “This is a building born of its context,” he says. “It communicates a uniquely Chinese sense of place… in its dragon-like form and the drama of the soaring roof that is a blaze of ‘traditional’ Chinese colours — imperial reds merge into golden yellow.”

Also fitting neatly with images of the regal and religious in China, an army of bold red pillars marches along the central axis and continues outside.

Sustainable Design?

The architects have stated that sustainability also drove the design, bringing much-needed environmental goodie points to a city too often cloaked in smog. In fact, Foster has called T3 “one of the world’s most advanced buildings in environmental terms.”

Foster + Partners has provided few details to bolster this claim, however. One example the firm gives of passive design is the southeastern orientation of skylights to maximize morning heat gain in the terminal.

But other sustainable features are described in vague terms: an environmental control system that “minimises energy consumption”; dimensions that allowed “optimum performance of materials,” many of which were supposed to have been procured locally. Unfortunately, the firm’s representatives were unable to offer information in any more detail for this ArchitectureWeek article.

Life in the Fast Lane

Operationally, the building has fared quite well in the months since its opening. Large-scale operations can make for large-scale headaches, however, particularly in a country so new to modernity.

Critics, such as writer Han Song, who penned an article entitled, “The capital airport’s new terminal is like country train station,” have reported a disappointing lack of seating; the incongruous use of low-tech communications devices, such as megaphones and whiteboards; and people milling about aimlessly “like on market day.” Flattened cardboard boxes have been used for seating in bare smoking areas.

The project’s speed was unprecedented. It was built in less time, famously, than it took to hold the public inquiry for Heathrow’s Terminal 5 in London. Within only five months of Foster + Partners winning the T3 project, the firm had set up its China office and produced the design. At the peak of construction, 50,000 workers were recorded on site.

“Consider that this is a building of 1.3 million square metres [14 million square feet],” notes Foster, referring to the terminal and the attached ground transportation center, “yet remarkably it was commissioned and completed in a little over four years.”

That speed may be impressive, but could also be cause for concern — especially when noting China’s reputation for parting people from their homes with little or no compensation, as well as the often passive nature of its trade unions.

But on the whole, the UK-China collaboration has very much taken off: a triumphant balance of “wow” factor with efficiency, super scale with comfort. Olympic contenders will find it a memorable welcome to a city of the new millennium.   >>>

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Jo Baker is a freelance design and travel writer based in Hong Kong and San Francisco. Publications she writes for include Time, The South China Morning Post, and Hinge Magazine.



ArchWeek Image

Inside one of Terminal 3’s grand halls, the glazed facade and overhead skylights provide ample daylighting.
Photo: Nigel Young/ Foster + Partners Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

A complex structural latticework is visible just beyond the minimal ceiling over each of the terminal’s two large halls.
Photo: Nigel Young/ Foster + Partners Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Terminal 3 site plan drawing.
Image: Foster + Partners Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Terminal 3 departure hall section drawing looking south.
Image: Foster + Partners Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Beyond the main halls, the long narrow connecting buildings are covered by a curving glazed roof.
Photo: Nigel Young/ Foster + Partners Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Triangular skylights punctuate the opaque roof above Terminal 3’s two large halls.
Photo: Nigel Young/ Foster + Partners Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

At its apex, a teardrop-shaped multilane road passes along the curved southern facade of Terminal 3.
Photo: Nigel Young/ Foster + Partners Extra Large Image



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