Making WavesUK-based Make Architects brings its brand of innovation to Hong Kong

Architecture directly affects the quality of life and a lot of people understand that. It’s not an ‘academic’ discipline at all, it’s very much about real life. It affects the whole city and it affects how you live as an individual.”

So says Make Architects partner John Puttick on one of his regular forays to Hong Kong from the relatively new Beijing office the UK firm maintains. Founded in 2004, Make Architects started life as a small studio dedicated to innovation that has quickly made a name for itself because of it. And now it’s putting its stamp on Asia.

Make’s portfolio is diverse, and includes the handball arena for the London Olympic Games later this year, a cluster of regeneration projects, new office buildings, masterplanning, retail, institutional and residential structures across the globe — from Singapore, to Newfoundland, from Abu Dhabi to Sydney and all points in between. So what is it that’s made Make such an international force in under a decade? “I think the design has been really fresh. We’re focused on very contemporary design coupled with a strong interest in sustainability and making them work together,” explains Puttick. “When the office opened in London it was something obviously new, and we got attention for projects that were obviously different.”

Different indeed. From twisting towers to cantilevered facades and its almost signature connective and interactive spaces, Make’s structures are some of the most contemporary on any given landscape. And that eye toward the modern naturally includes sustainability. Right or wrong, sustainability has become a buzzword — akin to spa, green and organic — that is teetering on becoming a pure marketing tool. In reality we may not have a choice, but sustainable development is only as strong as its maintenance. But Puttick argues that there’s more to smart design than expensive technological additions, and much of it stems from an understanding that buildings are working and living places where our interaction will have an impact. “This is the key in design. We consider the energy use of the building and the way it’s affected by the design from the very word go. It’s not separate from the building design; it’s fundamental to it,” he begins. “If you look at that from the very beginning you can achieve a great deal without any additional costs whatsoever. Orientation, how it addresses the sun, protecting it from the sun … all these kinds of decisions don’t cost anything. It’s just a matter of good design.” Make puts its money where its mouth is too: The firm is 100 percent employee-owned.

There are a lot of great design cities in the world, including Make’s hometown of London. Regionally, Tokyo is a stalwart and Seoul is a rapid up-and-comer. In explaining what brought Make to Beijing, Puttick puts it down to timing and environment. “I like Seoul. There are some remarkable areas in Seoul. But as an office we already had [connections] to Beijing and Hong Kong.

Opportunities for more and more projects came up and that was essentially the reason. We could also see things developing that complemented the work we do … China is really very dynamic right now. There are big shifts in the country over last few years that are still ongoing now. Things are growing up, and people want to try new ideas.”

Asked whether the idea that Hong Kong is a bit of a disaster area architecturally speaking was a factor and Puttick comes to the SAR’s defence. “I don’t agree with the general point that something is specifically wrong with Hong Kong. I kind of think it’s the reverse, and it has been for some time, a very exciting city. It’s very dynamic and changes a great deal. There’s a sense of change and innovation.” Mention the labyrinthine hallways shoppers must navigate to use a restroom in a shopping mall or the average blocky office tower he’ll concede to a degree, but sees a bright side to the cityscape. “Yes, to some extent and you can always look at buildings wonder how they could be improved, and that’s what we’re trying to do.” Puttick hesitates to point the finger at developers for the user-unfriendliness of buildings here, but he does see an upside to their way of thinking. “Everybody understands that developers are running a business. But I think things are going in the direction of developers competing in terms of their design. The quality of design is becoming more important, and that’s why this region is so exciting. I think design awareness is really quite strong. ‘Why do you want this apartment, why choose this one?’ And sustainability is becoming key.” Official announcements on Make’s Hong Kong projects are forthcoming, but regardless they’re likely to shake up the landscape.

More than anything Make is at the forefront of redesigning the way we connect in our spaces. Not too long ago we had to get up and walk across the floor to speak to colleagues and pick up a phone to call friends and tell them about a vacation. The sheer omnipresence of email, Twitter, Facebook and the like has made the world more insular. But not necessarily in a Make building. “That’s a very interesting point,” Puttick begins. “I think for office buildings in particular, it has the reverse effect. Now it puts a premium on face-to-face interaction, so the office becomes more about that interaction. It almost makes the social side of work central to the office environment.” Make’s designs for creative industries are intensely focused on interaction and the firm’s residential projects carry the same hallmarks.

Either way, “We’re focused on great environments for people to be in, for whatever that is. If it’s an office building people should be able to understand it, use it easily, it should be enjoyable for people to work in, it could add to the skyline of the city and so on,” Puttick sums up. “The most exciting moment in the process is when people take over the building and you see it become a living part of the city. That’s wonderful. That’s the reality of what we do.”