Q&A: Keith Griffiths, Aedas

Ranked as the world's fifth-largest architecture firm, Aedas recently cut ties with its British partner to focus on designing high-density urban developments for China's major cities

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 November, 2014, 4:36am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 November, 2014, 5:45am

Aedas, the world's fifth-largest architecture firm ranked by British-based Building Design magazine, recently cut the bond with its British partner in a move that allows the company to focus on its high-density urban designs for China and the world's major cities.

Aedas, which was formed in 2002, announced that decision in July. After the divorce, Aedas employs 1,400 staff at 12 offices in eight countries. Aedas has completed more than 100 projects totalling more than 100 million sq ft of space around the world.

Keith Griffiths, the chairman of Aedas, believes massive high-density mixed-used developments, or the densification design concept, is an appropriate solution for rapid growth in cities, especially those in China, which are experiencing rapid urbanisation.

 

Why was the decision made for Aedas to demerge?

The demerger is quite straight forward. We created a merger in 2002 in order to expand the business into Europe as well as Asia. With the European market being very slow, the two businesses actually polarised into two different areas of the market. Our UK business has become very internally focused into the UK market, very much about provincial towns of the UK. Because of the rise of China in the last 10 years, what we have been doing are high-rise and mixed use developments, very different from that of the UK office. If you are designing a high rise building, you do not need to talk to somebody who is designing a two-storey building. Design companies are always focusing on design communications between designers. But there is no communications anymore.

 

Was it a happy split?

Yes, very much so. We are going very well. It is just like kids are playing but they've got no similar toys to play with.

 

What is the future plan after the demerger?

We recognise what Aedas is as a provider of architecture to the cities of the world. We have offices in London - it is very much a design studio for high-rise, high density projects when they come up.

Most of the construction activity in the world right now is in China [so] we have to follow where they are. We are now in Beijing, Shanghai, Macau and Hong Kong. We are still looking to establish two more offices in China, probably in Dalian and Guangzhou.

 

What is important to architects?

If we look at the mainland cities along the east-west line from Shanghai, Chongqing and Chengdu, they are in the same latitude, and have similar climates. But you could not imagine there are so many different ways to living [among these cities]. If you look at Shanghai, the windows are so small and the architecture is strong and solid. But when you come to Chengdu, the architecture is all about floor place, big balconies ... so it is not to do with climate, it is to do with culture. If you do not understand the culture, how can you design an apartment for Chengdu persons, or Shanghai persons?

 

What kind of buildings are Aedas designing in China? Are they mixed-use developments?

We specialise in retail - hotels, offices, and residential. We have expertise in taking all the towers and putting in the glue - which is retail - to hold them together.

Buildings are so dense now. In Hong Kong, the glue to link buildings together is a podium. But in China, the model [we are doing] is much more interactive and porous.

 

How do you advocate the concept?

We started a series of lectures. We had talks in Singapore and London and we will start it in Guiyang and then Nanjing later.

 

Can the vision of densification or high-rise urban design apply to Hong Kong?

[Hong Kong] has 470,000 units to build in the next 10 years. [There are] a lot of issues to solve. The thesis of densification and city hub formation is equally valid to Hong Kong. When we start our additional new towns, I hope we will find the way to dissolve the podiums in the future. Get rid of the podiums.

 

Do the new generation of Hong Kong architects have to keep an eye on China?

Yes, of course. We built Hong Kong once, we are not going to rebuild Hong Kong. Take as an example, 15 per cent of our work is in Hong Kong, 65 per cent in China, 15 per cent in Singapore and Southeast Asia, and the remaining is the rest of the world.

 

Mainland Chinese developers are investing offshore. Will Aedas capture these business opportunities?

We work with most of the big mainland developers such as Greenland and China Vanke. Those are the people who are going [offshore]. We are talking to them, we hope we will work with them.

 

How did you end up deciding to stay in Hong Kong?

I came to Hong Kong in 1982 to work on the HSBC headquarters. Then, I set up my company. The reason I did that was that in those days Hong Kong was coming out of a very bad collapse in 1982; property prices came down to one third of what they were. But in 1985, the market suddenly came back. Hong Kong at that time was like Shanghai 10 years ago. It was a town about to explode. I had a huge sense of satisfaction as you saw people having a better quality of life.