OLYMPIC CONNECTION: Young British firm Serie Architects, led by its Malaysian-born co-founder and principal Christopher Lee has won a string of international design competitions, so much so that even the BMW Group, chose the firm to design the BMW London 2012 Pavilion at the Olympic Park as a fitting tribute to the Games
The London 2012 Olympic Games that opens today has the cosmopolitan city all abuzz with excitement as the Olympic fever fills up airtime and the news reviews to a hilt in an allencompassing coverage.
Among its list of prominent invitees that include the who’s-who in the sporting world are boxing legend Muhammad Ali and former England football captain David Beckham who arrived four days earlier in London prior to its opening today, adding further glamour to the Games considered as the world’s leading sports competition that has worldwide participation from no less than 200 nations.
Anticipation has it that Ali, who had lit the Olympic flame at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta may together with Beckham also collaborate with other illustrious sporting heavyweights to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony.
Similarly, on the design front, the excitement of the Olympic Games showed no sign of letting up. Not to be left out, the BMW Group, official automotive partner to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in London employed its own special tribute to the rich legacy of the games by way of its design implementation of an inspiring and sustainable pavilion realised at the Olympic Park in London.
Winning hearts and mindshare by virtue of its striking and innovative design, the pavilion was the result of a competition involving six architecture firms.
Singling sustainability as a key criterion in its competition brief, the BMW Group selected the young British firm Serie Architects co-founded by its Malaysian-born principal Christopher Lee, 40, based on its cutting-edge design representing “a significant architectural addition to the Olympic Park, whist also reflecting the company’s deep commitment to sustainability.”
Sustainable by design: “As a major investor, manufacturer and employer in the UK, (the) BMW Group is deeply proud to be an official partner for Britain’s first Olympic and Paralympic Games since 1948. This commitment to the UK is also reflected in our choice of a home-grown architecture practice to design our pavilion and we’re delighted that Serie’s final design reflects our commitment to sustainable thinking in such an innovative and eye-catching manner. We believe it provides a truly worthy addition to the Olympic Park,” shares Tim Abbott, managing director of BMW Group UK, commenting on the aesthetic design structure of the pavilion.
Spread across a floor space of 8,611sq ft, The BMW London 2012 Pavilion, built on an elevated site above the Waterworks River that is located between the Olympic Stadium and the Aquatics Centre is a striking testimony of the firm’s adaptability and innovation in coming up with a sleek pavilion design that is innovative and sustainable.
Addressing the issue of sustainability to aesthetic effect, the use of the river water to provide a sustainable source of “cooling for the building before returning the filtered water to the river via an eyecatching ‘water curtain’ feature”, Serie Architects’ unique design has certainly set a new benchmark standard veering away from other conventional designs.
Reinventing the design wheel with BMW: “Every element of the BMW Pavilion that sits on a plinth with a cascading waterfall reflects on the company’s heritage in environmental innovation based on sustainable legacy. Even the two-storey superstructure is built of steel with a high recycled content,” explains Lee.
“The design takes the idea of the pavilion in the park – the Victorian bandstand – but instead of one pavilion we envisioned nine pavilions clustered together to form a family,” he adds.
The top floor structure of the BMW Pavilion with its “individual standalone pavilions” houses BMW’s latest vehicle innovations that is estimated to draw some 8,000 visitors daily during the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The lower floor showcases “interactive visitor exhibits” that articulate BMW’s vision for sustainable mobility.
“After the Games, the nine different pavilions can be removed and transported to different spaces – be it an open field or beach, but most probably, by the Victorian banks for all the people to use,” says Lee.
At the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA) thematic seminar on the “Emerging Models of Planning Practices” held last week in Singapore, Lee had shared this project to an international audience during the course of his presentation. The AKAA seminar was supported by the Urban Redevelopment Authority Singapore, Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) and the National University of Singapore.
The Lion City’s new green high-rise tropical courthouse: It seems like Lee, who is also the Design Critic in Architecture and Urban Design at Harvard GSD, has plenty to smile about lately. Just last month, his firm emerged the first prize winner for The New Singapore Subordinate Court Complex. His design features a sustainable tower with passive strategies creating an eco-friendly building through the use of high-rise gardens and naturally ventilated corridors that usher in daylight into the public building. This building for the Justice Department of Singapore is aimed at promoting innovative and environmentally-friendly architectural solutions.
“We won this after nine months of work on the competition brief that started in September last year,” says Lee about the project spanning an area of 1,184,030 sq ft.
Serie Architects will work in collaboration with local Singaporean firm Multiply Architects for the design incorporating two new towers and the renovation of the existing Octagon Courts building. Both firms will work with CPG Consultants Pte Ltd, the corporatised entity of the former Singapore Public Works Department to implement the design together with AKT II, a Londonbased firm providing structural and civil engineering consultant services. Other parties involved include Northcroft Lim Consultants acting as quantity surveyors and Bescon Consulting Engineers, acting as MEP consultants.
“One of the new towers will house the criminal courtrooms, the other the judges‘ chambers and supporting functions.
The two towers will be linked by a series of foot bridges that enable the controlled circulation necessary for the courtroom process,” he shares of the design execution of the project that splits the tower blocks to two separate entities.
Elaborating further on the design approach, Lee shares that “the relationship between the city and its civic buildings” was of primary interest for this project with its new Court Complex being a building that is “symbolically open and accessible to the public.” “Its design language drawn from the city should be readily understood by all Singaporeans,” maintains Lee adding that the purpose of the design was to “return to Singapore, an architecture that belongs to the city as essentially, it is an architecture that belongs to the people.” The courtroom tower features an open frame supporting a series of shared terraces on which the courtrooms are placed without any external facade. In a metaphorical sense, this represents the openness and impartiality of the judicial process. The outdoor terraces meanwhile will feature high rise gardens designed “to allow views across the city, thereby reinforcing the civic role of the building.” The gardens will play a crucial role in filtering the tropical sun while the courtrooms will be “clad in ribbed terracotta which will reflect the colours of the tiled roofs in the adjacent historic Chinatown shop-houses.” The existing Octagon Court building that was built in the 1970s will be refurbished to house the civil, family and juvenile courts. Two new 492 feet high towers will also incorporate an area to accommodate 60 criminal courts while the new complex will be three times larger than the current courts. The courts complex with a budget of RM1.1 billion (US$350 million) is scheduled to begin construction next year and will be completed in 2019. Worthy of mention was the fact that the open design competition jury was headed by internationally acclaimed architect Moshe Safdie.
In a joint statement, the judges praised the “simple but dignified” design that “complements the conserved octagon.” The published comments by the Assessment Evaluation Panel decribes it as being “a brilliant dichotomy of the past and the present” while recognising the expression of the new tower with “two linked rectangular, elegant slab blocks” serving as a “contrast to the octagon”.
“The octagon is highly articulated to express the courtrooms with an inward looking design. The new tower is an open and outward looking building reflecting the values the courts stand for: transparency, rationality and a sense of decorum. Though a high-rise structure, the design clearly declaims itself as a civic institution and differentiates itself from the surrounding commercial towers. Its form is a clear expression of the organisation of critical areas including the courtrooms, judges’ quarters, registries and the public realm.
It is a simple but dignified design with an unusual and unexpected outcome.”
Looking ahead: Kept busy with a growing list of portfolio of projects, Lee remains undeterred by the long hours and the globetrotting demands of the practice.
Leaving a trail of unique designs that find expression in the context of relating architecture to the site and aspirations of the people, to Lee, how one uses “architecture to approach the city” remains crucial.
Excerpts from his talk presentation elaborating on the topic “Curating the City” in Singapore last week, exemplify his belief that “A city is a common space for the common good. A city comes into being because of the choice of the multitude coming together. The city rises out of pluralism and diversity is the most important aspect of the city that requires a common framework. Aristotle gives a good definition – the city comes into being because of nomos – a discursive idea that could be held by the common notion that constitutes the understanding of the city.” After all, to him, the city is “a work of art that belongs to all”.
Clearly, winning competitions agree with Lee.
QUICK TAKES WITH CHRIS LEE OF SERIE ARCHITECTS: Serie Architects, founded by Lee and Kapil Gupta in 2008, now has offices in London, Mumbai and Beijing. The fact that it has won a string of seven first prize wins in a matter of four-and-ahalf years are obvious tell-tale signs of its rising stature. All unique in their respective architectural design concepts, they include the BMW London 2012 Pavilion, the New Singapore Subordinate Court Complex, China’s Wuxi Xishan Civic and Culture Centre and XTD, Plot L and M Residential Development in Hangzhou as well as Bratislava, Slovakia’s Ruzinov Middle Income Housing and the Bohacky-Zahorska Bystrica Residential Masterplan, not forgetting the Shrimad Rajchandra Ashram Masterplan, Spiritual Complex and Housing in India.
“Almost all our projects are won through competitions,” shares Lee who is also the co-founder and Director of the Architectural Association Projective Cities MPhil Programme from 2010 to 2012.
“Serie started in two locations, London and Mumbai and a year later in Beijing.
Unlike conventional practices that expand to other locations when they have amassed a large portfolio of work, Serie started off small in these locations and developed its intelligence by being immersed in the very context it operates in.
“It does not export an ‘international generic’ style indiscriminately but works from the cultural and intellectual context of these cities,” he shares, giving a glimpse of the philosophy driving the architectural design approach of the firm.
Coming in a close second, the firm’s second prize competition wins include China projects such as the Weihai Culture District Masterplan and Urban Design, Genbei Urban Design and Landscape in Hangzhou and the An’ren Culture Centre and Museum in Dayi. Additionally, there was the Astana National Park situated in Kazakhstan. Serie Architects was winner of the BD Young Architect of the Year Award for 2010.
What does Serie Architects represent?: Serie expresses the way we work. We design by harnessing the cumulative serial intelligence of things and project them into new solutions. We always begin by detecting what is the most common element in a city, site or context and (we) turn this typical element into a common artifact. We do this not by re-creating the image of precedents but by detecting its embodied idea and deep structure and transform them into something new that nevertheless is recognisable precisely because it contains the genus of the precedent.
Being Malaysian-born, why did you choose to practice architecture abroad? I first went to Singapore as an ASEAN scholar when I was 16, (and) from there (went) to the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA) in London on Singapore’s BCA/RSP Scholarship. I returned briefly to Singapore for four years to serve my scholarship bond and (then) returned to London to teach in the AA. I have been teaching at the AA now for nine years and just left this year to teach at Harvard GSD. Serie was set up whilst I was teaching in the AA.
What is the correlation between architecture and the city and how do you bridge the language between these two entities through your design? Serie’s work is underpinned by our interest in the city.
We believe that architecture has a role to play for the city. For architecture to do this it must recognise that the city is first and foremost an idea. It is an idea of coexistence; that individuals choose to live among others in plurality. As such, a city is a common framework that enables difference(s) to coexist, (in) a framework that binds. Therefore, an architecture that belongs to the city, especially civic buildings and housing, should reify this idea of the city, as a common framework that enables differences to coexist and as a bonding element.
Where do you get the inspiration for your projects? The city, art and philosophy.
Has the recent global economic crisis affected the way your firm approaches its project designs? No. It (has) validated our approach to emphasise the need for architecture to consider the issue of the city and what is the idea of the common (considerations) beyond the dictates of the market.
What is a typical day/week/month for you? I’m travelling too much recently.
When I am in London, I normally start the day with design discussions in the office, then to catch up with Kapil from Mumbai and Sun Qin from Beijing. And, (we) continue to discuss and develop the designs we are working on at the moment till around 8pm. From 10pm till 2am, I will research and write. This time was used for the past three years to complete my PhD and I have just started another new research on China, as part of a three year research programme I am running in Harvard GSD.
What do you think is a common problem/ lacking feature in the cities of the world and how can architecture address these problems through way of design? Most cities in Asia today are clearly developmental.
That is, a city used purely as a developmental tool, with economic growth as its primary concern, often creating extreme inequalities. A city as we know (it) is more than that, it is a common space for the common good as Aristotle once wrote. “For this reason alone, our cities fall short of what it could be.”
Pics courtesy of Serie Architects. Pavilion pics by Scott Heavey/Getty images for BMW.