James Cheng creates living spaces that enhances interactivity

Hong Kong-born James Cheng has built his reputation on designing projects that make it easy for people to commune with one another

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2014, 3:50am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2014, 3:50am

Hong Kong-born architect James Cheng has a slightly contrarian point of view when he considers the sustainability factor of his birthplace.

"In a way, Hong Kong is one of the most sustainable cities in the world," Cheng said, citing something he read about architect Norman Foster's opinion of the city as well. "In terms of its density, of having people in a small carbon footprint, having them in close proximity, it's an incredibly sustainable place."

Cheng, now based in Vancouver, built his career on creating living spaces that are founded on the principles of self-sufficiency, sustainability and social harmony - developments that, even at their largest and most expansive, encourage people to commune with one another, and with nature. Those principles are at the heart of his current projects, which include two sprawling mixed-use developments in Honolulu: one that is 60 acres, and another 10 times that.

Ward Village, the smaller of the two developments, is on land close to Ala Moana beach owned by Howard Hughes Corp.

Within three years, Cheng and New York-based interior designer Tony Ingrao will have completed the first phase of the area into a coastal community that will feature two residential towers set in a walkable neighbourhood with full island and ocean views, stores, eateries, walkways and outdoor spaces in an atmosphere predicated on Hawaiian culture.

Over the course of the next decade, the area will encompass 4,000 homes and a million square feet of retail space. Sales have already started and one of the earliest buyers is Kan Yue-sai, the founder of the beauty brand Yue Sai, now owned by L'Oreal.

"We want to create something that Honolulu does not have yet," Cheng said. "People go there for the landscape and beaches. But if you drive along Ala Moana mall, there are parking garages right on the street.

"We want to create a pedestrian, livable, walkable community, with townhouses with doors right on the street, so people can take their surfboards and walk across to the beach."

This notion of easy, accessible, communal, indoor-outdoor living infuses much of his work; it is an architectural style colloquially known as "Vancouverism", and Cheng was one of the earliest pioneers of it. Cheng charts the origins of Vancouverism to his early days in the city. He was raised in Happy Valley, and arrived in the United States in 1964 to attend high school in Everett, Washington, later going on to study architecture at Seattle's University of Washington and complete a Master's degree at Harvard.

He moved to Vancouver in 1978, and won the commission to design the Chinese Cultural Centre there, gradually building up his practice.

An acquaintance, Terry Hui, was a young hotshot Vancouver developer who partnered with Victor Li Tzar-kuoi, the elder son of Li Ka-shing, and created a residential development that was unusual because it was the first to go into presale. It was marketed in Hong Kong - and the units sold out in less than three hours. After a few other successes like that, Cheng said, "Vancouver got the stamp of approval".

"We worked hard to make urban living the convenient thing to do," he said.

"Vancouver has been successful in leading the way in terms of its urban environment. It is one of the best cities in the world to live in because collectively, we have this attitude that we are taking back the streets, creating front doors on to the street, that wherever you walk you feel safe, mixing high and low towers on a pedestrian-friendly scale, with weather protection - that's what Vancouverism is."

It is an attitude he tries to infuse into all of his projects, from the luxury hotels - Four Seasons, Shangri-La, Fairmont - to the private homes around the world.

Spending his formative years in Hong Kong had a lot do with shaping his world view, Cheng said. "Being born and raised [in Hong Kong] made a big impression on me. I have an appreciation of urban density and the vibrancy of Asian cities, as well as the culture and history of Chinese garden-making. It made a tremendous impact on my understanding of how we can create space in an urban environment."

At the heart of his aesthetic, was finding a way to bring people together. "I try to bring in social happenstance, where people have an excuse to talk to each other," he said.

"The newer buildings in Hong Kong now have lobbies that open on to the street, or nicer plazas with outdoor seating. If you have a bench or two, or a tree, people will gather. They will sit, and an interchange is encouraged."