Mainland China offers Hong Kong architects a stage on which to shine

The mainland market has afforded Hong Kong architects a bigger stage, but Bryant Lu of Ronald Lu & Partners, says talent could be better showcased if the city promoted its brand

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 July, 2014, 2:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 1:52am

Bryant Lu worked for an architectural firm in New York for two years after he graduated from Cornell University. In 2000, he decided to join Ronald Lu & Partners, founded by his father, Ronald Lu, a well-known Hong Kong architect.

A year later, Bryant led the company in expanding to the mainland. Although most major architectural firms in Hong Kong had already expanded to that market a decade earlier, the firm was busy enough in the city that it did not suffer from its delay in following suit.

Ronald Lu & Partners now has offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. About 35 per cent of its business comes from mainland, while the rest is from Hong Kong.

Bryant Lu said designs by Hong Kong architects today are on par with those of international architects.

The mainland, with its strong economic growth and urbanisation, is offering more valuable opportunities to architects, he said.

To capture such opportunities, he said, Hong Kong should promote its own brand, which would help local talent to compete in the world.

Q: What are your aims for the company?

A: Hong Kong’s architectural design lagged behind the international standard during the 1960s and 1980s. But now the design and building materials of Hong Kong buildings are on par with those in world cities.

Previously, Hong Kong architects did not have many chances to present their talent to the world. But we have the backup of the mainland market now. We should seize the opportunity.

I hope our firm and local architects will have designs that can win global recognition in the coming 10 to 15 years.

Q: What edge do Hong Kong architects have?

A: I can’t find any cities in the world that have more experience in designing transit-oriented development (TOD) [residential and commercial projects designed to maximise access to public transport] than Hong Kong.

Hong Kong architects are familiar with this lifestyle and a pioneer in this respect.

Reurbanisation is getting popular around the world. The United States used to encourage suburban life, but people found that it was too far to travel to work. They began to go back to the urban area to live.

Hong Kong has many experts in designing TOD projects who are able to contribute to such developments in the coming 15 years.

Q: What was it like when you began to expand to the mainland after the turn of the century?

A: It was difficult at the beginning, because the competition was strong. We had worked with many Hong Kong developers before, but since we didn’t have experience on the mainland, they were reluctant to offer us projects there.

In contrast, mainland developers have been willing to work with us and trust our ability. They also invited us to join design competitions with world-famous architects.

Q: Hong Kong and mainland developers have increasingly hired internationally known architects to design their projects in recent years. Do you find there are fewer opportunities for Hong Kong architects?

A: There is no chance for local architects to design [first-tier] office buildings in Hong Kong. Most projects would hire overseas architects.

So we are happy that our refurbishment project for China Resources Property’s China Resources Building in Wan Chai has shown that local architects have the ability to do good projects.

In residential development, we found that Hong Kong buyers are more concerned about the price, location and floor plan of the project rather than the design. Although some new projects are designed by overseas architects, I don’t see a big difference in the design quality.

Mainland buyers are concerned about the design of the building.

The demand for TOD projects on the mainland is very strong owing to urbanisation and the building of railways. It offers a good opportunity to Hong Kong architects who are familiar with this kind of development.

I hope there will be more opportunities for Hong Kong architects to demonstrate their ability to the world. It would help if we promoted the brand of Hong Kong. Our city has a good foundation but lacks marketing.

The mainland is offering a good platform for us. We have to capture the opportunities.

Q: Why do the new residential and office buildings in Hong Kong look almost the same?

A: The building rules in Hong Kong are rigid. It is because Hong Kong is a high-density city. We have to put ventilation and lighting as first priorities.

Also, the land price is too high. If you want to build a unique building, you have to invest more time and spend more to overcome the restrictions in the rules. You have to spend more time in lobbying.

On the mainland, the rules are more flexible. It takes five to six years to develop a project in Hong Kong, compared with two to three years on the mainland, although the scale of the projects on the mainland is bigger.

But you have to pay more tax, and the market of Hong Kong is more stable.