Fitting In

British architect Paul Davis + Partners reconfirms its arrival in Hong Kong with The Westminster Terrace

The latest development to loom over Hong Kong touting itself as the height of lifestyle properties is Asia Standard and Grosvenor’s The Westminster Terrace. Located in Approach Bay, near Tsuen Wan, and sticking out from other apartment blocks for its bright orange facade, The Westminster Terrace was designed by London’s Paul Davis + Partners, which just opened its first office in Asia-Pacific, PD+P East. But PD+P has a significant presence in the region that predates the office: Grosvenor Place in Repulse Bay, other structures in Tokyo and Tianjin, a waterfront development in Macau among others, as well as a client list that includes Swire and Kerry Properties.

So why open an office now? “We’ve been coming out here for 12 years. The main reason is that we’re a bit cautious,” explains chair Paul Davis, noting that one of the partners made 12 or 13 trips to Asia last year alone. “Well that’s daft. One year I came out 7 times.” After a rocky 2008, Davis — who is quick to point out he’s seen a few recessions and knew exactly how to ride out the most recent one — decided the level and speed of activity in Asia and the firm’s expanding portfolio demanded more than working by remote. “You can do it from a distance but being here is important.”

More importantly Davis was keen to leave a vivid impression on the region by applying his architectural philosophy — something Asia could use more of. “I think we have a contribution to make relative to the city. I’m a contextualist,” he reasons, something that is evident in The Westminster Terrace. The tower’s 59 duplexes look unassumingly “Hong Kong” enough on the outside, but have subtle features that give it a truly modern aesthetic. Arguing that too many architects are good with “lines on paper,” Davis is happy to expound on what his responsibilities as an architect are. “I think we’re responsible for making places for people, whether they’re residential, shops or offices. The reason we don’t get involved in a lot of conventional office schemes is they’re battery farms; they all look the same. Look into office buildings and you could be in any city. That space, that slice, is the same the world over and they’re very boring. I don’t think I’d want to work there… [Buildings] have to work for the people inside them, they have to look good, and they have to work for the developer.”

To that end, The Westminster Terrace combines the sleek design of a hotel (the intensely Zen lobby was designed by Atelier Ikebuchi) with large windows, open spaces and intuitive layouts. Every unit has doubleheight ceilings and modern, elegant fixtures and finishings: there is no gold leaf here. There’s a muted, understated hush to the property, perched on the hill overlooking the water. Significantly, the angles used in construction do their best to tilt views away from the shipping terminal below towards Tsing Ma Bridge and the hills in the distance.

Davis also remarks on Grosvenor’s awareness that apartment living varies from city to city, and that the planned suites had to complement Hong Kong life. Upon stepping out of the lift you could be convinced there was only one suite per floor, but staggered construction is what creates the illusion. And for Davis, that meant extra attention to the common areas. “We really wanted to make the clubhouse special. If you’re living in a tower and your going up and down in the lift, you don’t meet anyone. It’s a really important thing. It’s like the pub on the corner in an English community. It’s a social place, a place of belonging. That’s what you need to do first of all. Create a place where people want to be you’ll create value.” The Westminster Terrace’s clubhouse is, like the rest of the facilities, understated and defined by its clean lines and open concept. Entertaining facilities lack doors and confining walls, and the clubhouse lobby’s floor-to-ceiling windows bring the city outside almost all the way in. Despite that, lounging by the pool is a relatively private affair due to its surrounding greenery and open maze layout.

PD+P are working on several developments at the moment, and each should bear Davis’s signature personality. “The exercise of putting a building in, for example, Tokyo is a very carefully considered insertion into that culture. Into that city,” he states. Citing Hong Kong’s building regulations as being simultaneously thrilling and challenging, he admits, “We’ve been learning the Hong Kong regulations for 12 years now. Once you deal with the mathematical regulations and understand the approach, then it’s playtime. Then you can be much more creative. The planning process in the UK is stultifying… [The conflicting demands] are very frustrating, and working here is a release from that.”

Davis concedes Hong Kong could be putting more thought into encouraging sustainability, and perhaps even using simply methods of maximising efficiency, like insulated walls (“Start with the envelope.”), but for now he’s happy to create structures that look like they belong and manage to combine function with form. Here’s hoping Davis and Co. wear off on some of Hong Kong’s other developers.