Modern architecture has reached a point where nothing is beyond realisation. The oddest curves, the sharpest edges and the most extreme degrees can be taken from drafting paper to physical building these days. And woven glass. Architect Florent Nedelec is fond of woven glass.
Raised in France, educated in the United States and now based in Hong Kong Nedelec is the kind of identity-based architect that seems to be in such high demand now. No developer — be it commercial or residential — wants their building to be the non-descript block that no one pays attention to. Nedelec’s approach leans to simple, but sophisticated, design that fits into its environment but also stands out for having a personality. “In Hong Kong, everything is so dense that the only way to be creative is to work on the facade,” he notes. A look at any of Nedelec’s work supports that ideal.
After working with Ateliers Jean Nouvel in Paris (Mercer Residences, Manhattan, Barcelona’s Torre Agbar), Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (formerly known as IM Pei & Partners) and Frank Williams & Partners (50 Connaught Road, Hong Kong, Dubai’s Burj Residences) where he was a principal, he founded Florent Nedelec Architecture, and has been jetting around the globe ever since. One of the reasons for setting up shop here is a familiar one: work initially brought him to town. “I had a client in New York who was doing some boutique hotels and we started to talk about doing one [in Hong Kong] and I got hired to do four,” he recalls. In addition to offices and some residential projects, Nedelec is just completed The Jervois and a Hainan resort, and is finishing up work on the new Whitfield serviced apartment and hotel in North Point (opening this spring), Yong Ye Huan residences in Taipei (currently under construction) and The Queen’s in Central, scheduled for completion in 2014. “I like to work on hospitality projects. I find that more interesting. When you do a hotel it has to be ‘magical’ but you also need to feel at home.”
Working in Hong Kong has its own set of standards and practices that can sometimes be frustrating, and sometimes be an exciting challenge. “Well in every country you have to maximise your square footage. It’s a rule you find everywhere,” he begins with a laugh. And he’ll admit that the idea of preservation and sustainability — oddly symbiotic concepts — is still in its infancy in Asia. “[Government and developers] are starting to look at history and respect for space, and they’re starting to realise it’s worth keeping. Look at 1881 and the Hollywood Road Police Station,” he points out, adding, “The first rule of sustainability in architecture is to make the building last.”
Breaking the cycle of demolition and construction that defines development in Asia is the first step in truly sustainable construction according to Nedelec. “From a carbon footprint point of view building every 20 years is bad. You can put all the solar cells and wind turbines on top of a building you like. It’s cosmetic. The first step to sustainability is to have them last.” Nedelec’s structures are not trendy; they’re not designed to get boring in five years and get torn down. And for Nedelec, any move toward sustainability is a good move, be it passive (Nedelec is a huge fan of creative insulation) or active buildings — structures that minimise energy waste and ones that create their own energy on site respectively. “Doing the best you can with a passive building … that’s a good way to go.”
Ask Nedelec about the bizarre penchant for commercial buildings to be non-intuitive and poorly designed for real use (anyone who’s searched for a shopping mall restroom can attest to this) and he can cite a handful of reasons it’s so common. Why can’t buildings in Hong Kong be smarter? “I understand your point. It has to do with the designer as well as building code. But that kind of thing happens in every profession,” he argues. “Look at computers… Some designers are able to do things that are more ‘clever.’ Look at subway systems. Some are nuts but Hong Kong has one of the best in the world. It doesn’t take more effort to build. It takes more effort to think about.” There’s no way London ever envisioned having to add so many lines and stations to its Underground. Is Hong Kong benefitting from past architectural “mistakes” in the way it could build an efficiently expandable metro from minute one?
“That’s how the world works. We build from experience and as we move forward in time we build things that are more sophisticated.”So what would Nedelec like to take a crack at here in Hong Kong? “I’d like to do a villa. Or a resort. Or a villa resort. I’ve always worked in the city so I’d like to work with nature, to fit in with it,” he comments. Then he pauses, considering the likelihood of finding enough space like that in the SAR. “If you find a site, let me know.”