What it means to be the design director of an international architecture studio?
During our interview we also discussed the life and expectations of the upcoming generation of architects.
Tean Chee Ko is a qualified architect with 18 years experience in architecture, Design Director of RMJM RED.
He has worked throughout Australia as well as in Shanghai and Hong Kong in a multitude of residential, commercial and educational projects of various scales.
His experience in all project phases from concept design through to the construction stage has given him a holistic understanding of the discipline.
Chee was an integral member of the design teams behind iconic projects such as Shenzhen Technology and Innovation Centre, Zhuhai Shizimen Convention & Exhibition Centre, Sands Casino Resort Development and Alibaba Headquarters.
During our interview we discussed what it means to be the design director of a renowned international architecture studio, the life and expectations of the upcoming generation of architects as well as the inspiring projects Chee is currently committed to.
Can you explain your role as Design Director at RMJM RED and describe the key competences required for your day to day work?
My role as design director is really one of guidance. I work with a talented team, encouraging and guiding them towards a cohesive outcome.
This is a challenge because the process of design can be nonlinear and with a multitude of factors to consider it has a tendency to be chaotic.
I feel it is important to have clarity of vision for design. Being able to multitask and keeping calm is key to a productive day.
Also, I feel communication is fundamental to what we do and listening, which is often given a lower priority, should be 50% of that skill.
Co-operating within a network of 27 studios appears to be a daunting task. In what ways does RMJM RED collaborate with the rest of the network and what would you say are the biggest advantages of this relationship?
It is a challenge indeed but a worthy one. We are constantly trying to find different ways to collaborate.
There are many advantages; a few of the key ones would be:
1- Different perspectives. Our core service is ‘Innovative Thinking’; to find the best solution for our clients. The global team has a wide range of experiences and backgrounds and this enables us to deliver solutions with a global vision
2- Breadth of experience across the various studios. If we have a project that requires specialist input such as healthcare or sports we are able to call upon our experts in our other studios
3- Resource sharing. The workload across the studios is not always evenly distributed. When one studio has too much to do it can seek out support from a studio that has available resources.
Which skills and values are you looking for, as a Design Director, when recruiting and what do you recommend young architects doing to better prepare themselves to the hardships of their future careers?
Design ability and technical know-how are important but we would only recruit a candidate who is a team player.
They must also demonstrate a genuine enthusiasm for design and more importantly the collaborative design process.
I would recommend young architects to take a long term view on their careers.
Resilience is acquired through hardship but having a mindset that setbacks are valuable will go a long way.
I would also recommend having a variety of interests.
Inspiration comes from the most surprising sources and it will keep you from becoming obsessive about Architecture which is never healthy, possibly even counter-productive.
Aim to work on projects that will get built. Experiencing the process in its entirety, even on the smallest of projects, is invaluable.
What would you say are the most surprising and challenging aspects of working in an architecture office of international scope for those who are not used to the industry?
I’d say the most surprising aspect is that you find yourself in places that you may never have heard of.
I’m also surprised by the strength of camaraderie developed between fellow architects working as a team.
The main challenge is that it can be an incredibly frustrating and unpredictable industry.
Looking back at how some projects managed to get built feels at times like a series of miracles.
There is so much that is out of our control.
The time and effort that goes into the work is immense and only sometimes does that effort see the light of day.
But when you see the work standing there, all of the frustration immediately goes away.
If you could go back and give three pieces of advice to your recently graduated self, what would you say?
Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. I realise now that I knew very little about the industry as I was moving into it. Seek out a mentor perhaps.
Travel and explore as much as possible before getting down to business. I find it hard to get out and explore as commitments tend to grow over time.
Consider consciously choosing a specialisation right away. It could be Hospitality, Sports, Medical, Transportation, you name it.
This may give your career clarity and make you valuable by becoming an expert in something.
I believe that there is limited risk of being over-specialised as Architecture is a generalist profession.
Architecture requires you to be involved in many aspects of building and whatever you learn from one project or sector will have parallel to another.
Can you introduce us to some projects that you are currently involved in and most excited about?
Shenzhen Bay Twin Towers
RMJM Red won the competition for the High Tech development in Shenzhen 4 years ago and it is currently under construction.
It compromises a pair of towers that are 320m and 280m tall joined together by two multi-storey bridge links.
These links are designed to foster interaction and innovation amongst the end users. There are three serviced apartment towers to the South of the complex.
The retail podium houses a bus terminus and connects to the existing MTR system via a vibrant lower concourse retail level.
Langfang Mixed Use
This is a large mixed-use project just outside of Beijing that is also currently under construction.
On the east of the site is the commercial portion of the project and it includes three commercial towers and a series of retail podiums.
The tallest tower is 200m in height and will be the tallest in the province when completed.
On the west of the site is the residential component which has 8 towers and a low scale retail podium and clubhouse facilities.
At the heart of the project is the City Living Room which is a public plaza that is designed to be an active and engaging site for the community.
Describe your dream commission and why do you think the people at RMJM RED would be the ones to do it best?
I imagine it would be a large mixed use project with many different complementary areas.
It would have a whole range of functions such as offices, hotels, museums, convention centres, community centres and residential.
Somewhat of a microcosm of a city condensed into a handful of sites. Of course, it would be on the waterfront.
The RMJM RED team are strong at Mixed Use projects, we know how to make things work well together.
The team could work at all levels from Masterplanning to individual buildings, big and small.
The client would have a strong interest in creating a varied and positive place for the community.
It would be a project where all the pieces come together and we are able balance commercial considerations with cultural, communal and environmental factors.
[Read also the interview with Tugce Zorlu, another young and talented urban designer at RMJM]