As an architect, we are taught to create great spaces for people: we allocate resources for different functions, direct the movement of people, create great ambience—and in doing so, unequivocally shape the behaviours of whom the spaces are designed for. The idea of such top-down planning and intervention has been vastly embedded in the architectural discipline and our minds; we learnt to direct interaction between people and spaces and allow a neighbourhood to emerge naturally. But it doesn’t end there: natural, physical, social and cultural forces will always shape and reshape a neighbourhood; with many an insight to be learnt from studying a neighbourhood, we believe it deserves equal importance as traditional top-down planning when approaching a project. If top-down planning looks from a macro point-of-view, learning about a neighbourhood should start with a more humanistic perspective: its people.
Why connecting with people is important to us
Learning about people is the common thread that runs through our projects—in fact, it’s our design approach: we strive to be as conscious and mindful as we can with people, projects and space. This means acting with conscious intention, awareness and empathy. In turn, we hope that people would feel much more connected to a space if they know that it’s designed for them, rather than merely executed and delivered to them. The idea underpinning our design approach has always been “space matters to people”, because design is ultimately meaningless if people cannot engage with it. So the question becomes: how will people know whether a space is created for them? The answer seems to lie across different planes.
On top of a space’s functionality, people can also engage with it emotionally, psychologically, culturally and spiritually – even if on a subconscious level. There has to be something unique to them, which they can instantly feel being part of and therefore, know that it’s designed specifically for them. A bench could look markedly different in Berlin than in Tasmania; a certain colour may have an auspicious undertone to one culture but negative connotations to another; materials used to build in tropical climates could be dangerous for extreme cold weather conditions. Therefore, it’s our job to explore the major constraints, the nuances, and ultimately the deeper connections between people and places in order to create a space respectfully for them. The key to doing that lies within understanding people’s background, cultures and behaviours, as well as the physical opportunities and parameters of a space. Drawing on both the tangible and intangible hints of a space, we hope to resonate with our audience.
Most of the time, we’re not the local audience for where our projects are based. We’re fortunate enough to travel a lot for work to learn about our audiences across multiple markets. We’ve learnt that understanding their local neighbourhood is a good starting point to explore the critical connections between people and space. Drawing on the physical realm, we look into materials, the physical environment, space, light and form; but other areas such as cultural background, social behaviour, subtext and norms also inform our approach. We may respond to these by creating a physical structure or an intangible sensation, which provides more depth to our audience when engaging with our design. Therefore, a neighbourhood provides numerous hints into the more profound meanings of what space means to people and the valuable connections between them. With this in mind, let’s now take a look at the role of neighbourhood within architectural discourse.
Material in Neighbourhood
Before the modern world, with limited transportation and logistics capability, the built environmental often uses resources that are available in the region. Such resources slowly represent the region, and it generates a culture via the materiality, the related production daily routine, special skills, craftsmanship, design features, festival, events etc. Many cities or places took pride in their products, their skills and life, and the unique culture developed. One would probably think of Italy when they were asked about pizza, and there isn’t much difference when they were asked about marble stone. The pride and history developed from the regional resources are deeply entrenched with their life.
Not only did the local material gives us hints about people’s life and culture, it often inspires us to think about how’s the material was used. Thus it leads to many other aspects like the local climate, rules and regulation, physical and cultural restriction, etc. There are good reasons for a place to use mainly masonry building than a timber building and vice versa. And there are also good reasons probably some areas use more colourful paint, while some avoid those colours. These are all the hints for us to create a linkage with the audience’s cultural and historical background.
The two projects in above are both inspired by the idea of material in neighbourhood. Both projects we incorporated local craftsmanship techniques that deeply embedded in their culture. For Harbour City Project, the pebble wash material is commonly used and seen in public leisure spaces in Hong Kong. It is mostly used as benches, but it is also applied on a planter, monolithic park facilities, and etc. It is durable and appealing, but more importantly, due to such background, it has embedded a sense of relaxation and calmness into the space. The material refreshes the audience memory, and brings them to the playground or park atmosphere.
For the IMP project, we apply a local mortar application technique – lumpy plaster, as the feature wall. This technique is developed and commonly used by the mid-60s-70s, when Hawaii was starting to grow and beginning to establish their own culture and architectural language. We found a master who had involved in those projects back in his young age, and such technique refreshes all the audience’s mind of those glory days as a Hawaiian.
Although in the modern days, transportation and logistics are much more convenient and you could almost get anything forms the world. It is perhaps an even more critical time to relate to our origins and the history of the region. Not only such mentality helps to create a meaningful project for our audience, but also help to re-establish the pride and traditional craftsmanship in the region.
In the book we will discuss the project Daan in details, to illustrate how our inspiration started from a standard and low profile material – tile, and develop the story and connection with the audience, and eventually bring us to re-think about the relationship between the human-made and natural environment.
When we think about the character of a location, the micro-climate features will probably come up on the list, for example, a narrow and dark lane, the lightly breezed sunny bay, and the rainy and gloomy city, etc. These characters have a highly recognizable impact on the use of material, how people behave, and their culture. In some occasion, the environment is a little bit uncomfortable and even sensationally stressful. Can we design a space that understands their needs and cater to these environmental discomforts? Mindful details like providing a snow matte on the floor, or a rack for the raincoat in the UK will relieve their stress, and such details will be recognized as an understanding specifically for the audience.
This is probably why we find people were served with vodka in a Russian ice bar while people have a mojito in the sub-tropical Cuba. We imagine space is just doing the same, serving the right atmosphere and environment to the audience’s senses with a conscious mind.
The psychological connection with the more micro-environment is the same. By removing environmental and sensational stress, people feel better, like giving natural light in a tiny dark space will make people feel more refresh, shielding off noisy sound from the street will make people less grumpy, and providing a warmth-felt colour in an icy region may create a more comfortable space for a longer stay. The neighbourhood will give hints to people’s sensational desire.
We are going to illustrate such idea with Aesop Hannam Sounds project in this book. The project is located in a freezing country, and it is situated in a place where the site material is also extremely harsh. Both physically and sensationally, it feels cruel and brutal for the audience. We took such as an inspiration and design a space that gives warmth and connect the audience with their sensational satisfaction.
Standardization in Neighbourhood
A neighbourhood often defined and perceived by their physical similarity. A district usually consists buildings of similar scale, similar housing types, and probably similar kind of features and decoration as well. Back into the ancient time, a neighbourhood could be just a small village with the most related family. People follow one another to build their houses with similar buildings, techniques and style. This reinforced their overall sense of belongings and unity.
But in our modern days, most of the district and planning features are given by the authority or developer. The unifying guidelines and regulations evolve into some bizarre phenomenon. Imagine you are an owner or a designer of one of the buildings within such standardized neighbourhood, how would you stand apart and create something that belongs to yours, your taste, your liking, and something related uniquely to you? Sometimes it will result in something weird and out of context features, which contrast or even violate the sense of the neighbourhood that the planner had initially imagined. However, as a designer, you would like to provide something unique to your audience on one hand, but on the other hand, you do not want to create something overly alien to your neighbourhood.
There’s no straightforward answer of how to manage the balance in such a dilemma, but we probably can find more hints from the standardizing guidelines and rules, than from anything else. Within the standardizing guidelines, there are probably even more undefined territories that you can explore. The standardizing instructions have its limitation of specifying everything to your specific location or context, and it tells you what is not yet considered. For example, a guideline cannot cater to every locational specific parameter, like viewing angel, sunlight and shadow, etc. It feels like everyone is given a t-shirt, and many people wear it in a usual way, but you can also find ways to wear it with your own style, like tucking it into high-waisted jean or tying a knot to reveal the waist. There are always innovative ways to create a balance with the neighbour and to deliver a unique character. We often find the more subtle you twist with the given character, the more significant the impact it has. We are going to illustrate the idea with CSS-Xian project, that one can strive for a unique design even situated in a standardized urban development.
Mindset in Neighbourhood
The last example of the inspirational source focuses on our neighbour – the person we want to connect. Being a person who lives in a particular area, or who share a similar identity and culture, people do have their understanding of their neighbourhood. They have a certain set of expectation on what will happen, or what should appear in this area. It would be no surprise to see a well-suited businessman in a C.B.D, however, if you see him walking by a beach, or in a wet market, you will be surprised and pay more attention to this uncommon scene. When we see something out of expectation, instant response and connection are drawn. The questions would be what does the audience expect, and how we can create such out of expectation moment, so a mind is connected.Besides expectation, the other mindset that can draw deep connection would be a memory. If you see some familiar object or some of your valuable items, they will trigger your personal consciousness and emotion. Although everyone has a different memory, there are some shared moment and cultural experience that we could connect with our neighbour.
In Aesop Bondi Junction, we were trying to connect our audience with the warmth memory at their home. In the district of Bondi Junction, the majority of our neighbourhood are well-grown people. Many of them share an experience of building their own house. They had also seen some of the timber-house are being constructed in their neighbourhood. It is the most common way of building a house in Australia, and that scene connects many of the audience instantly. Inside the store, we work with the traditional style of interior decoration, like Formica countertop with elaborated stainless nosing, Marmoleum flooring, and glass cabinet knot which are commonly used in the 60s. We also use many ordinary items from Bunnings, aka the Home Depot in Australia, for our sink, taps and many other functional things. It is surprisingly successful as how these elements can trigger the connection with our audience. Many of them told us about their own story and how they feel like in-home when they enter the space. Memory and Expectation are only two out of many human’s mindsets. Many more direct interactions with your audience mind, like curiosity, imagination and distortion etc., could be explored.In the last chapter of the book, we are going to illustrate a project with multiple inspirational ideas from the neighbourhood. Aesop Garosugil project is situated in one of the busiest streets in Seoul. The visual noise and loudness overwhelmingly dominate the streetscape. Every store is trying to speak out and to draw their audience’s attention by their intense colours, exaggerated makeup, wild organic forms, and blinking signage. The street not only feels overwhelming but also has a sense of inauthenticity and lack of confidence. When we design the space, we sought to provide a sensational space that the audience would relieve from the visual bombardment. At the same time, we attempted to retrieve the core and timeless aesthetic people are looking for – by using order, proportion and raw material. Probably out of expectation of the audience, the design is subtle, control, and calm when compared to the neighbourhood. Still, we believe this also connects to the audience’s mind which seek authentic confidence in this neighbourhood.
Discussion about Neighbourhood
The topic Neighbourhood has long been discussed in architectural discourse. There are many ways to view this topic, one of which is seeing it as a physical place and finding ways to define its boundary, which is to say the type of facilities and different physical attributes that make and foster a community. Another way to approach this is through a social point of view: how people interact within a neighbourhood and what the social benefits of having a neighbourhood are. A third way emerges as an extension of the social view, which is looking deeply into the cultural and historical points of view, namely peoples’ backgrounds, their behaviours and cultural influences et al. Professor Rachel Kallus and Hubert Law-Yone have provided a quick but thorough glimpse of the topic in their article “What is a neighbourhood? The structure and function of an idea”. Here are their key ideas:
The first view is that the existence of a neighbourhood is as basic as natural humanity and it will evolve organically with time, people and space. When we can cater to a group of people, a neighbourhood will establish automatically. Thus, designing for mass, communal spaces and social groups are the focus here, as communities and human interactions will naturally foster.
The second view considers the social aspects of a neighbourhood, the focus here is on spatial design and the organisation of space. Unlike traditional top-down planning, a more organic approach spouts out from the idea that a neighbourhood can be used as a solution to social problems. As such, many sophisticated and scalable systems and templates are therefore designed to allow a neighbourhood to be expanded and multiplied.
The third view sees a neighbourhood as a cultural phenomenon beyond its physical proximity; it’s more inclusive and looks into those who inhabit a neighbourhood. Among other things, this view embraces cultures, memories, mindsets, sensations, symbolic meanings and history. It’s a more unpredictable and open-ended system as it taps into the intangible connections between people and space.
There are indeed many other ideas that have existed within the discussion of a neighbourhood and rightfully, the topic also continues to evolve. One thing for sure is that there seems to be no one-size-fits-all approach to this topic as above ways of thinking have reflected both strengths and limitations in organising a neighbourhood. Purely looking at it from a physical point of view may sever people’s connections to a place; replicating templates to solve social problems may be efficient but ignore site-specific caveats; hinting at cultural nuances without context can be taken the wrong way. That’s why we see the above as a theoretical and chronological step-by-step of creating a neighbourhood – it’s a good starting point and sees our role as an observer. To go beyond that, it’s our responsibility to evolve (just like a neighbourhood) and tweak our design approach as we go along. We do not have a set of methods that dictate how a design should respond to the findings of a particular neighbourhood; rather, we see neighbourhood as a critical tool and inspiration to expand our possibilities and design potential as architects.
These projects have made us rethink our ideas on the character, physical cityscape, urban formation, history, cultures and symbols of a community; we’ve also reconsidered the interaction between these features and the people inhabit within a neighbourhood. As such, it would be a waste to not consider the potential of using a neighbourhood as an inspirational design tool. It’s ever so humbling to try and test existing and new ways to connect with our audience. Whether the resulting connection is created via a building made with local materials, a sensory surrounding to give warmth, or a unique identity created against a standardised urban fabric, our aim remains the same but our methods will organically evolve. This book is just a start of our exploration and we will continue to expand our design methodology.