What will our built environment look like, two or three generations from now? The architect and vice-chairman of Ronald Lu & Partners, the highly successful practice founded by his father, shares his thoughts and visions with Prestige.
If Bryant Lu wasn’t born to be an architect, then from the way he puts it, it’s hard to envisage him becoming anything else. “When I was three years old,” he says, “I remember my father [the architect Ronald Lu] would come home in the evening and draw. Naturally I was curious – what was he doing? And all the cool gadgets he was using – this was when architects worked without computers. So I became intrigued and I have memories of him sitting me on his lap and telling me, ‘This is a plan. This is a door, this is a window and this is how you draw them.’ I guess that’s how I was influenced by the profession.”
Lu also recalls an incident, shortly afterwards, when his kindergarten teacher had asked her pupils to draw a room and was flummoxed by the young Bryant’s effort. “Now most people would draw it as a three-dimensional space, but I took out a black crayon and started to draw lines. And the teacher thought I was nuts. So she called my mom and my mom showed up. The teacher said, “I asked him to draw a room and he gave us this. What the heck is he doing?’ My mom looked at it and cracked up laughing. She said, ‘This is a floor plan of his room. So when you asked him to draw a room he gave you a floor plan.’”
Although there was no great pressure from his father, whose practice was by that time winning major projects across Hong Kong, it was also no surprise that when the younger Lu finished high school in Sydney, Australia and got a place at Cornell in the US, he’d opted to study architecture and business. After graduating in 1997, he worked in New York for a couple of years before returning home, ready to begin the new millennium with a position at his father’s company.
I’m talking to him in the offices of Ronald Lu & Partners (RLP), where, for the past 22 years, he’s been instrumental in transforming business for the award-winning architectural practice by pushing for sustainable design, opening offices in key cities (especially in mainland China), and overseeing its corporate affairs. Now in his forties, tall, lean and looking a good deal younger than his age, he’s telling me about his passions for design (not just buildings, but equally their human and civic contexts), the environment and sustainability.
“I was always intrigued as to how buildings, spaces and cities worked together, and how you could create these environments,” Lu tells me. “I think ultimately it’s about how these spaces and places shape your life, and how architecture is just one of the ways to bring about a better life for people. Deep down, I’ve always wanted to make the world a better place, though it just happened that various factors pushed me down this path.”
Asked to cite influences – architects or buildings – that helped nudge him towards his vocation, he lists, among others, Michelangelo’s Piazza di Campidoglio in Rome, IM Pei’s Pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. It’s clear he’s as impressed about the way in which each building or facade impacts and transforms its surroundings and the community around it as he is with the structures themselves.
“I mean, the Guggenheim in Bilbao is stunning,’ says Lu, “not just as a piece of architecture, but in the way that project changed Bilbao and northern Spain. So I guess I’m looking not just at the building and its beauty, but also its impact – its ability to engage the community and change the economy as well. Aside from its architectural approach, [Richard Rogers’ and Renzo Piano’s] Pompidou Centre also changed museum design and the district tremendously. And there’s Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye – I still have the Lego model – which changed the narrative of a house …”
To my suggestion that the work of an architect has evolved from an emphasis on aesthetics to a broader consideration of a structure or a project’s impact, Lu says that for him, it’s the purpose of architecture that’s evolved. “Obviously, there are always the basic requirements of putting a roof over your head, and that the roof is safe. But I think that in the 1980s and ’90s, there was a period of very theoretical works that were trying to find an identity, and that approach never really appealed to me. For me, it’s ‘how can I make the world a better place?’ – so I’m constantly searching for the purpose, with architecture as a means of doing that.”
Implicit in this belief is the need for environmental sustainability, a requirement that struck Lu as long ago as his school days in Sydney. “When I was in high school,” he says, “there was this big hole in the ozone layer down in the southern hemisphere caused by refrigerant CFCs, but since we’ve stopped using them, the hole has got smaller. So even then I was beginning to understand that we’re one world and whatever we do has an impact. The environment isn’t just about birds, bees and animals, but our own health – there was a direct linkage.
“[RLP] ventured into green architecture quite early on in Hong Kong and now I believe we’re one of the leaders. We recently won a design competition aimed at advancing to net-zero carbon – the win told us we’re leading the dialogue on how we build green and better spaces.
“And then there’s our high-density environment and the need to make buildings that last for generations – buildings with impacts that touch people’s lives for more than one generation. The apartment I’m living in is where I grew up, and now I live there with my kids. That design has touched us for three generations, it’s had a lasting impact. Of course, it’s not just the building but the community you help build, the public spaces you provide, the ventilation you create – which all make the city a better, healthier place. For me, the intent is how can you solve certain problems and make a better life, rather than whether this is modernism, or this is classicism.”
Lu says his wish to provide the correct solutions to pressing issues is made more difficult by the fact that projects not only take considerable time from genesis to fruition, but that they must also address future issues that we may not even know about. “A project takes five or six years to complete,” he says, “and the longer ones can take up to 10 years. So whatever we design today needs to incorporate a view of where things will be. How can we design towards that future instead of reminiscing about the past or fixating on the present? More than a style, it’s about engaging, having the conversation and providing a solution that looks to the future.
“Architects create spaces. For me, design should revolve around our lifestyles, the way we live, our behaviours – and that’s what’s changing. How we live is being impacted by technology and other things, so the spaces we create need to adapt to that. But in the larger context of a community, how can we create public domains where people can interact? Because, despite the fact there’s more social media, people are actually feeling more isolated. So I believe that the physical environment should contain places with better touchpoints that encourage better engagement.”
From RLP’s lengthy portfolio of projects, past and present, Lu mentions a recently completed textile factory in China, which resembles more a museum than a manufacturing hub. He also talks about the Zero Carbon Park in Kowloon Bay, a project spearheaded by the Construction Industry Council that was completed 10 years ago, and was the first structure in Hong Kong to produce zero carbon emissions.
“It’s a testing ground for new technology,” he says, “but also a green urban community space that’s active Mondays to Fridays with office workers nearby. Then at weekends it becomes an activity centre with markets and yoga sessions. The park itself serves as a funnel for ventilation that allows prevailing winds to blow through the whole district. It serves multiple benefits – community, climate and environmental – and it increases the value of the buildings around it. I find these triple or quadruple bottom-line projects very meaningful; these higher goals are what we try to realise with most of our projects.
“Twenty years ago, when I came back to Hong Kong, nobody understood what sustainability was – it was about planting more trees, and that was as far as it went. That conversation has moved on very quickly, largely due to the younger leaders in the world of developers. So it’s no longer an argument, it’s more a matter of how much we do, where and how far we can push the envelope. So now everybody’s on board. And Hong Kong is a pioneer in this sort of high-density urban environment and how to do it sustainably. I don’t think there’s another city in the world that has so much experience.”
We return to the Advancing Net Zero Ideas Competition organised by the Hong Kong Green Building Council and Swire Properties, which Lu mentioned earlier, and the design concept for a net-zero, “pandemic-ready” workplace in Quarry Bay. Called “Treehouse”, RLP’s winning design incorporates biophilic principles that help re-connect humans with nature through something called “vertical microclimate-responsive passive architecture” (which, in layman’s terms, means opening up a building to nature and creating “vertical gardens”).
“We designed a future workplace for a post-Covid environment that provides a lot of public and community engagement and with a lower carbon footprint,” he says. “It’s something we’re super proud of.”
As for the buildings of the cities of tomorrow, he insists that net-zero carbon is a must. “We have to aim for that, because climate change is no longer climate change – it’s a climate emergency. In December, we almost had a typhoon here totally outside of the ‘typhoon season’ we’re so accustomed to. It’s evidence. We have to acknowledge it and we have to help each other to lower our carbon footprint. Then we have the fact that through technology, our lifestyles and our behaviours are changing. And Covid has accelerated changes in the workplace too, though I do still believe the human touch is important and I don’t think the technology is there to replace it – yet. So, human-centric, behaviour-centric, low-carbon and general wellness are all important. And when we talk about wellness, it can’t just be physical wellness – there’s a big dimension of mental wellness, too. How does the space bring calmness, lower anxiety and bring about a more sort of purposeful, yet warmer sort of feeling?
“That’s one direction where the physical world is going, and now there’s the inkling of a metaverse, an entirely new space and a world we’re only starting to touch upon. I don’t know how far that will go. But I believe that the younger generations are very fluid in these two worlds, and they’ll be able to find a way to criss-cross between them. I’ve seen kids going online and playing Roblox and Minecraft – metaverses where they’re building things, transacting and socialising. They’re very happy about it. So how does that impact us? I think at some point a convergence will take place, and in the future, in the so-called real world, we have to improve our physical environment, because otherwise the metaverse may be our escape. And if it becomes an escape, then the physical world may get worse.”
If that sounds like a bleak note to end on, Lu references one of RLP’s projects that’s close to his heart: the upgrade of the China Resources complex in Wanchai North, which involved the re-cladding and refurbishment of the office tower, the construction of what’s now the St Regis Hong Kong hotel and the re-landscaping of the public garden facing Harbour Road. “The client considered tearing [the tower] down and building a new one, and we said, ‘No, you should re-clad it, we’ll upgrade everything and you should go for LEED Gold certification for the refurbishment.’” The result was a new curtain wall with double low-E glazing and energy-efficient external LED lighting.
“And then,” says Lu, “we upgraded the park, which used to be an old-style Chinese walled garden, but which we opened up into a piazza. Four years ago I did an interview there with TVB, and there was an old couple in their seventies and a young mother with a kid. And they’re hanging out. I said, ‘You guys must all be family,’ and they said, ‘No, we met at the park. We’ve come here every morning for last four months, and now we’re friends.’ For me, that’s when I get real joy as an architect – when you transform a place and bring people together. They wouldn’t have met if not for that space.
“That’s the reward I look for in our projects. Not just beautiful buildings, not just beautiful spaces – though those are essential. But can you connect people? Can you make a difference in their lives? How do you create sustainable community building spaces that allow the whole community to thrive? And I think that’s the true power of architecture.”
CREATIVE DIRECTION AND STYLING ALVIN GOH
PHOTOGRAPHY MORGAN HUNG
DIGITAL RETOUCHING YANG SANJI
MAKE-UP ALVIN GOH
NAILS PINKY HOHO
MAKE-UP AND HAIR ASSISTANT JASMINE CHAN
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS ANGUS LIU AND HEINAM LIU
STYLING ASSISTANTS GENNADY ORESHKIN AND HEIDI LAM