Hong Kong-based interior architect and designer André Fu eschews stylistic conventions in favour of approach-driven design. Olha Romaniuk writes.
André Fu – founder and principal of André Fu Studio (AFSO) – lets his design approach rather than a particular aesthetic drive the vision for his projects. Fu, who established his studio in 2000 shortly after graduating from Cambridge University with a Master of Architecture degree, cites only the fact that all of his designs exhibit a certain kind of Asian sensitivity as a common thread. Indeed, it can be said that Fu’s sensible and attentive approach to his projects renders any demand for signature style superfluous; Fu’s projects stand out on their own, with a keen understanding of the space, client and audience driving the aesthetics and the overall design approach.
Having recently been named ‘Designer of the Year’ at MAISON&OBJET ASIA for his work on signature projects like The Fullerton Bay Hotel in Singapore and The Upper House hotel in Hong Kong, Fu continues to create spaces that transcend the boundaries of defined styles and focus on experiences instead. With collaborative, multidisciplinary ventures that now include his new lifestyle brand André Fu Living, Fu talks to Indesignlive.sg about his influences, his design philosophy and the importance of storytelling.
You started your design studio AFSO the same year that you graduated from the University of Cambridge. What prompted you to establish your own firm right out of school?
My studio was set up as I was offered to work on a private commission at the time. It took place in a rather organic manner; I have now embarked on this unintended journey for just over 10 years and I have never looked back.
You have described your work as approach-driven rather than style-driven. Has your design process changed or evolved over time?
My personal involvement and the approach given to each project remain unchanged. However, my design language and understanding of the industry have evolved over time. I have also been heavily influenced and enticed by all the ingenious collaborators that I have worked with over the years.
Does the design process remain the same, irregardless of the project type?
The process to design remains the same – yet with each project I will set a goal for my team, be it something to respond to, a sense of place, or a way we would re-define a certain type of experience. I should hope that every project is unique in its own way and every time we are telling a different story.
Your projects span a range of typologies, from curating bespoke rug collections to designing the interiors of exclusive residences, restaurants and presentation spaces for fashion brands. How do you decide what projects you want to take on next?
It always boils down to a few basic factors – the nature of the project, the location of the site and, most importantly, the collaborators involved.
AFSO’s impressive roster of hospitality projects includes the Fullerton Bay Hotel in Singapore and Shangri-La Hotel in Tokyo. What do you focus on when you are designing for such well recognised brands? Does user experience play an important role in your design considerations?
Typically, a lot of established brands would come to me and entrust me with a common goal to inject something new into their portfolio. I trust my response to each brand is different – to acknowledge the brand’s key value and ethics, whilst reinterpreting the brand with my own design language.
Indeed, my exposure to a growing audience has allowed me to understand the impact of design better, yet I still enjoy challenging myself with the pursuit of new possibilities within the realms of relaxed luxury.
You have been recognised for your work on many landmark projects and have recently been named MAISON&OBJET ASIA’s ‘Designer of the Year’. Which project do you feel has been one of the most defining of your career?
The Upper House hotel, in its vision to challenge the definition of a luxury hotel. It is conceived as an urban escape that allows guests to enter into a world of calm and sheer comfort. The honesty in the design makes it rather timeless.
You have stated that your designs embrace the context of modern Asia. What does modern Asia represent to you and how do those qualities come across in your design?
The dynamics, the speed and the modernity of life in Asia today are a key to my designs, yet perhaps my aesthetic is also rooted in the historic pursuit of balance and purity. It is the world between the two that informs my design philosophy.
You are launching a new lifestyle brand called André Fu Living. What is your vision for the brand?
I saw it as a means to challenge myself, and to see whether the type of experiences offered by my projects could be made tangible. The vision for the brand will be composed of a collective of collaborations, from established brands to small artisans. It is also an online retail platform that allows all products to be seen holistically together.
As a sequel to Fargesia, our first eau de toilette created with Cult perfumer Fueguia 1833 Patagonia, we shall be previewing a collection of bathroom fixtures under the name of The Skyliner. The series is designed in collaboration with U.S. brand Cooper & Graham.
What interesting projects are you working on now and what is next for AFSO?
We shall soon be launching our first project in Aix en Provence, France and a new edition of our book by Assouline that will also be previewed during MAISON&OBJET ASIA.
Even before opening his architectural agency in 2001, Silvio d’Ascia has had a particular interest in transit hubs as unique building typologies. Having completed his Ph.D. about new urbanity for the city of the next millennium in the mid-90’s, d’Ascia has continued his research and experimentation in this specialized typology by taking on projects that explore transportation hubs as urban linkages between the public and the surrounding context of the cities. D’Ascia’s practice today continues to focus on projects—transit hubs and high-speed rail stations, cultural and housing developments—that connect to their surrounding context and the public. With a number of such projects in the works for Silvio d’Ascia Architecture and an upcoming book on rail stations of the future, d’Ascia discusses the importance of well-designed public spaces and his research in the area of transportation architecture.
Interior Design: What is the overarching philosophy of your firm? How does this philosophy influence your approach to your projects?
Silvio d'Ascia: Each project begins with an ambition to explore, what I call, a Neo-humanist dimension of architecture. The architect—a sort of “enlightened” individual in the Renaissance sense of the term—has the task of translating modern society’s needs, desires, dreams in a profound and meaningful way for our cities, regions and countries, all the while taking into consideration socioeconomic and cultural contexts. In so doing, one seeks a contemporary urban form: spaces that generate (once again) shared common spaces that encourage social wellbeing, sharing and communication.
Architecture, in general, must create a link between space and society, even more so today, as our everyday practices become increasingly immaterial and abstract (smartphones, nanotechnologies, artificial intelligence, etc.).
ID: What is unique to your work process that distinguishes your studio from others?
SA: What sets the agency apart is its commitment to design that fosters communal living—design that attempts to devise new ways of living together in original spaces, or in spaces that use cultural imprints (heritage projects, cultural institutions—both physical and psychological) in unexpected ways. The agency is becoming more and more aggressive in its analysis and research of an architecture embodying the ideals of shared spaces, even if we find ourselves today confronted with a paradoxically individualist mindset.
Perhaps the easiest building typology we work with that exemplifies such research would be the train station or transit hub. This is such a rich area of exploration for the agency, as it allows us to tackle a wide array of issues related to living and movement, interaction and solitude.
ID: Has your studio changed or evolved since it started?
SA: Fortunately, yes! It would be silly to say that we are not evolving or learning from our previous experiences. What is important, however, is that we continue to move in a direction that takes advantage of the opportunities and the lessons learned from all experiences, both the successes and the projects that did not quite make it off the ground.
I started working in 1993. More than twenty years later, it is obvious that a lot has changed, not only in my personal sphere of influence but also in the architectural profession as a whole. One should attempt to give Architecture (with a capital “A”) an identity that reflects these changes, outside of what one could term as passing (or passé) trends.
ID: Silvia d’Ascia architecture has a long track record in working on transit hubs. What initiated your interest in this particular typology?
SA: The transit hub typology, for us, represents a singular opportunity to investigate and question what a “new” urban form could and should be. It was with the arrival of the high-speed (TGV) train in France in the early 90’s that really deepened my understanding and fascination with this project type. For me, one could say that the invention of the TGV changed our society in a profound way: all of a sudden, we were confronted with a new set of values, different needs and new possibilities to dream. Our realm of opportunities became larger—people could more easily commute to and from work and this is to say nothing of the prospects of a newfound mobility for leisure travel. Mountains, seaside, rural villages, other metropolises—they all became more accessible.
While the invention of the high-speed train was something ingenious, the train and the train station remained elements very-much known to the public. How to, then, fit this new contraption within a societal context already understood? What’s more, with the arrival of high-speed trains came a resurgence in the rail station as a true urban hub—a nexus for international, national, regional, and local rail travel, and a hub for metro and light rail systems, bus lines, taxi stands, cars, motorcycles, bikes. The station had to confront and resolve all of these moving parts.
The fact that a vast majority of these stations are of a classical architectural style all the more emphasized the need to understand and propose contemporary solutions to mobility and user comfort. It is a situation unique to Europe, for sure, with all of the classical station structures located throughout the continent. They serve, in their various forms, as sort of monuments or temples to transport. For me, working within this typology means respecting this history in transcribing it in an updated architectural language.
The agency has had the opportunity to work on over twenty major rail station projects. The major references include the Porta Susa high-speed station in Turin, Italy, a high-speed station in Besançon, France, the Montesanto regional station in Naples, Italy and the new high-speed station for Kenitra, Morocco, currently under construction.
ID: What is your approach to this very specialised typology? What things do you consider when designing a transit hub?
SA: I consider a rail station to be a plug-in or a connecting element linking city and outlying regions. It is, at once, a transit hub and a place wherein one finds an array of services dedicated to urban life. The most successful examples of this building type go above and beyond the simple programming of these spaces. Instead, they generate exciting and unique public spaces. It is why a rail station is vastly different from an airport, which has its own set of criteria and service spaces and is an element disconnected from the cityspace. Sometimes rail stations are this way as well and that is a shame.
Our approach, then, is about generating a station as a public space: a porous, communicative, and evolving environment. The agency strives to reveal the “double nature” of a station as a place serving as a landmark for the city and as an element that facilitates travel. This ebb and flow, the coming and going, the idea of “staying” or “leaving” allows us to create stations that embody the intriguing threshold that exists within their walls.
ID: With your expertise in transportation hub projects, what do you think the rail station of the future should be like and what conditions does it need to respond to?
SA: In short, the train station of the future is revolutionary in its insistence on serving as a unifying element for the city and its suburbs. In so doing, the station begins to tackle the multitude of questions related to socioeconomic well-being, diversity, equality. The station as a public institution—but also as a living entity—is unique. As the building should also adapt and re-adapt the programs found within its core, the station of the tomorrow is a surprisingly organizational element, and could be the one project typology capable of giving a true vision of the contemporary society—its problems, yes, but also its potential.
ID: What is the difference, if any, between working with clients in Europe versus clients in Asia?
SA: The differences between Europe and Asia appear (at least on a superficial level) to not be to the advantage of European architects. Whereas in Asia, projects advance at a rapid pace, here in Europe and specifically in France, we are confronted with administrative procedures and decision-making processes often times confounding and sometimes disastrous.
A similarity, though, could be that we both remain ambitious. There are differences in scale but there is still the intention and desire to challenge, impress and build. It is not all for the best, of course, but when something exceptional occurs on the architectural scene, both arenas seem to take note. However, I will say that my personal experience has been that, here in Europe, ambition has been reduced to an individual level. It has become privatized, with this privatization sometimes using political structures to further its motives. Globalization, though, has made such conversation necessary.
ID: Your firm participates in a lot of international competitions. What is the appeal of the process of competitions to you?
SA: The sheer challenge makes open competitions quite exciting. Jokingly, maybe I am calling on a sort of subconscious thirst for arena combat, thanks to my Italian roots.
Confronting other architects, other ways of conceiving space is truly a source of inspiration. Sure, it is exhausting and one must separate expectations from reality but, at their best, architectural competitions give our agency a wonderful opportunity to evolve.
ID: What kind of projects do you seek out when you choose to enter competitions?
SA: Well, it comes as no surprise that we do our best to find transit hub competitions or projects related to rail infrastructure. We also go after projects in sectors related to innovation and heritage. With innovation, I am talking about data centers, incubators and the like. This, again, is an area the agency has had a fair amount of success in, with two built technology campuses in Shanghai. The heritage project typology relates to projects where there is a need to renovate, transform or restructure an existing building, potentially adding to it a new structure, as well. Our project for the Maeght Foundation in Southern France exhibits this typology with a renovation of the existing building and gardens designed by Sert, a disciple of Le Corbusier and an addition to the museum buildings.
Cultural projects, thereby, provide a natural environment within which the agency can explore heritage and memory. However, we also encounter these topics in many of our housing projects, as a vast majority of them involve what we call a surélévation, whereby you create a rooftop addition to an existing building. We have three of these projects currently under development in Paris, so this provides an exciting occasion to construct on the rooftops of Paris—a landscape unto itself.
ID: What projects are in the works for you now?
SA: This year will be critical for us in that we have a number of projects under construction. We have two housing projects nearing completion in Paris. There is also a technology center for the RATP (Parisian transit authority) just on the outskirts of the city. Plus, we have an office building complex under construction in Nancy, France. Finally, there is our high-speed station in Kenitra, Morocco, which is an ongoing project. Outside of these construction sites, we have a hotel project in Paris that is in its early design phase. There is also a handful of research projects that we are continuing—one of which is focusing on the rail station of the future. We hope to release it as a book later this year.
As one of the few female executives leading a top architectural firm in Asia, Angelene Chan has always set her sights high. Having joined DP Architects—a Singapore-based firm with over 1,200 employees and 15 offices worldwide—in 1990, Chan quickly rose to various leadership positions within the firm; she was appointed a director in 2000, a deputy CEO in 2013, and a CEO in early 2016. Spearheading international projects like the Dubai Mall andKazakhstan's Respublika Plaza Astana, Chan received numerous awards, including the President’s Design Award 2015—Singapore’s top design honor—for Sunray Woodcraft Construction Headquarters. Here, Chan talks to Interior Design about her future goals for DP Architects and the importance of continuing education.
Interior Design: How did your career get started at DP Architects—and what was your journey like to CEO?
Angelene Chan: I studied architecture at the University of Adelaide and worked in Canberra with Woods Bagot upon graduation. Then I moved back to Singapore after three years and joined DP in 1990. DP was my first choice because the firm was involved in many significant projects that were changing Singapore’s built landscape in a big way—Marina Square, Millenia development, Suntec City, SAFTI Military Institute. I was also keen to work in a large office and handle complex projects with steeper learning curves.
ID: What are some of the career-defining (or even personal favorite) projects that you have worked on at DP Architects?
AC: A personal favorite is the reinvention of Wisma Atria on Singapore’s Orchard Road. DP has a special relationship with Wisma Atria. The mall changed owners three times, and each time we were engaged to recreate a new facade. Our chairman, Francis Lee, was the architect of the original building in 1986 while I led the façade designs in 2004 and 2012. It is a rare opportunity for architects to redesign their own building, and I got to work on the project twice.
The 2004 facelift, with the blue grid and one of the first external escalators on Orchard Road, converted the introverted, atrium-centric mall into one that is integrated with the street, increasing connectivity between people, the activities of the pedestrian promenade and the internal retail shops. The 2012 jewel-inspired crystalline façade was built over the existing blue-grid frame. This second renovation gave Wisma Atria a new lease of life without extensive demolition or rebuilding, which is a more sustainable form of development.
ID: As CEO, what are your goals for the firm as a whole?
AC: My primary focus is to drive the ‘D’ in DP—Design First. DP has always been valued for high standards of design and service, but we would like to take that further and set design and service delivery benchmarks that are unprecedented. As a homegrown firm, we also fly the flag for the Singapore brand around the world; so it is important that we consistently strive for inspirational and world-class design.
Another goal is the ‘P’ in DP—People Empowerment. Successful firms involve and value their people. I believe that for DP to scale new heights, every employee must feel valued for their ideas, and be confident of their role in design and delivering good work. One way to achieve that is through the continuous development of everyone’s skills through technical, contracts and documentation courses that cover all aspects of the architecture process, and to ensure the well-rounded growth of every individual through workshops that enhance important values.
ID: You are also spearheading projects in Astana, Seoul, Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur. How do you balance these intercontinental projects?
AC: Teamwork is essential on projects of great complexity and size, so I am blessed to be working with talented and hardworking people within my various teams. Each project is also at a different stage, so the demands differ. It is about managing priorities, being ‘present’ and giving each task my full focus, and keeping tabs on important deadlines. I am also a list-maker, and I schedule my time tightly—no wasted moments.
ID: As DP Architects expands its reach beyond Asia, does the firm's design approach change or adapt to different contexts?
AC: Do the core principles remain the same? Yes, we always take cues from the users, the context and the climate. We try to understand and design to the culture and local materials, and are guided by our clients’ design briefs and requirements. It is part of my three rules of design: listen closely, research extensively and innovate. We listen closely to understand and fulfill the clients’ needs. No matter how tight the deadline, we always make time for comprehensive research. We never settle with the first idea, as it is through critical questioning and exploration of ideas that the best solutions emerge. Truly innovative design comes from understanding and addressing the fundamental requirements of the brief but also forecasting potential issues beyond the brief. At the end of the day, it is about creating spaces that are delightful and comfortable, and that enrich the human experience and spirit.
ID: You have recently clinched DP Architects’ first project in London, as part of an international design competition. What is the importance, in your eyes, in expanding from Asia into Europe?
AC: It’s always exciting to venture out. Our project in London is the first outside Asia and marks a milestone for us. Architecture is such a global industry—ideas don’t have borders; as long as you have a good idea, and the confidence to explore, you can work anywhere in the world.
ID: Why is it important to you as an architect to be involved in events such as the World Architecture Festival and the President’s Design Award Forum?
AC: Architecture is a lifelong journey of learning. I have always felt that you stop being a designer when you cease to be curious about the world and how people think, live, work and play. The architecture industry is one of constant innovation. These events are platforms where I can share ideas, and to gain new perspectives from respected peers and leading figures in the architecture fraternity. These events also offer opportunities to test ideas and design solutions on a wider audience, and see if they are aligned and accepted by the architecture industry.
ID: With plans to launch DP Academy, a skill-based class program for architects within the company, what are the benefits of continuing education?
AC: To produce relevant design solutions, we have to have a good understanding of changing user needs, be well-read and informed of design and consumer trends. Fresh graduates who work with us are up to speed at an academic level, but are not taught the more practical aspects of the business—improving design processes, how to conduct meetings, savviness, people management, how to deal with contractual conundrums that arise with real-life problems, how to deal with clients, developing good presentation skills, understanding new construction methods, material research etc. We go beyond what schools cover to include all aspects of contracts, construction and business, to ensure DP-ians are well-equipped and confident to deal with real-life issues and challenges at work.
ID: You are also involved with the Shirin Fozdar Program, which helps women in Singapore balance work and family. What are the current challenges for women architects and how do you hope this will change in the future?
AC: Fortunately, I have never felt that being a woman has disadvantaged me. In my experience, women are given equal opportunities to excel. That said, architecture is a profession that takes up a lot of energy and time; a project takes years to complete and requires dogged pursuit and total involvement. And the creative exercise of design is a 24/7, all-consuming thought process. Even with equal opportunities, women are still outnumbered by men at the senior level. This could be because many women architects chose to place family and the duties of being a parent and spouse above their career. So, I would say a big challenge for women architects is finding the balance between career and motherhood; but it is not impossible. I am a wife, daughter, and mother of two, and I am constantly juggling my career and family life. But the unfailing support of my spouse and children, in fact, spurs me to give my best at work. I hope this helps other women architects feel they can do it too.
ID: What do you hope your lasting contribution will be to DP Architects and the architectural profession as a whole?
AC: In serving my chosen firm and profession, I hope to preserve and build on the wonderful legacy of the DP pioneers, and create meaningful spaces that improve lives and the environment. I also hope to encourage the younger generation to see the importance of a well-designed built environment and to take up architecture to improve the urban landscape.