A Conversation with Chris Fannin, HOK’s Asia Pacific Director of Planning
Whether it’s waking up to a surprise spring snowstorm in Beijing or being served fried baby eel at lunch, what HOK’s Chris Fannin most enjoys about living in Asia is “responding to the unexpected on an almost hourly basis.”
Fannin, who moved from St. Louis to Hong Kong in 2010, wears three hats for HOK. He is part of the management team leading the firm’s Asia Pacific practice, he leads the region’s planning practice and, with Suzette Goldstein, he is co-director of HOK’s global planning practice. As Fannin moves between these three overlapping roles, he says each enriches the other. “We have so much going on in Asia Pacific. It’s incredibly exciting.”
What is a typical day like for you?
CF: On a typical Monday, I get up early, go for a walk-run up the Peak and then put my twin seven-year-old boys on the bus at 8 a.m. I participate in our AP management meeting at 9 a.m. and then, with my planning partner in China, participate in a 10:15 a.m. call with our Shanghai and Beijing planning studios. We have a Hong Kong planning team meeting at 12:30 p.m. At 4 p.m., I often head to the airport to fly somewhere in Asia. Later in the evening, I have a firm-wide planning leadership, planning congress or HOK board call that wraps up between midnight and 1 a.m. In the gaps between these meetings, I do design and proposal reviews.
That is a typical marathon Monday, which is the day I look forward to the most. It’s the day that I get to plug into the fine-grained scale of our projects all the way up to the local, regional and global aspects of our firm.
What is unique about working in Asia?
Building relationships through persistent face-to-face interaction with clients is incredibly important. The overlap of business and socialization is very thick. It is in this context that clients get to know and trust us as equally vested partners.
We do a lot of work helping our Asian clients position themselves with the government so they can purchase or change designations of land. We use design to help our clients prove the value of the land and to demonstrate the contributions their development will make to society.
There is an intellectual enrichment that comes from working all over Asia. We are able to extract ideas from one market or country and apply them to others. By working across such a spectrum of biomes, geographies and project types, we have inherent opportunities for the cross fertilization that leads to great innovation. Our team in Asia has people from 14 nationalities and we have a distinct knack for collaboration.
How important is sustainability in Asia?
Sustainable planning and design has an incredibly large, positive impact here because of the vast scale of the projects. We take this responsibility very seriously. Our clients presume that the projects are sustainable – this is one reason they come to us. Nobody has to say to say the word.
Water-related issues are critical in Asia. Most of our projects are associated with a river or ocean. The Yangtze River, for example, has historically defined the growth of China. Many cities that turned their backs on the river over time now are re-engaging it.
We are leading the re-design of the northern part of the city of Taizhou along the Yongning River. As with many of our projects, our design uses the public realm along the river’s edge as a structural piece of infrastructure. It helps clean the stormwater runoff from adjacent districts, improving the river’s water quality street by street within a 20-square-kilometer area.
We have been working on Fully Integrated Thinking processes and bioinspired design strategies that are culturally attuned to Asian culture. A team in our Hong Kong studio that includes Laura Mazzeo, Sonia Williams and Raymond Wei has been working on the Infinity Principles, which are based on the five traditional Chinese elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. The Infinity Principles are an example of how HOK takes our broad knowledge of international best practices and makes it relevant in the local culture. The combination of global thought leadership and deep local knowledge brings great value to our clients while driving our design investigations deeper.
What are your favorite public spaces in Hong Kong?
Tamar Government Complex in Hong Kong, China
HOK did the master planning, interior design and landscape architecture for the Tamar Government Complex on a prominent site on Hong Kong’s central harbor. This is a wonderful new space anchoring a new open space system that reconnects the city with the historic Victoria Harbourfront. It stitches together the city fabric and the water’s edge. It’s great to see people taking graduation photos, having birthday parties and walking their dogs. The space is attracting an eclectic mix of people. Designers Jeff Davis in St. Louis and Barry Day in Hong Kong never could have imagined how popular a destination it would become!
I love Big Wave Bay, a small beach on the east end of Hong Kong that is a 20-minute cab ride away. We go boogie boarding there on Saturday mornings. It’s small and intimate. It reminds me of an old beach in Mexico or Greece – yet with Chinese food.
There are hundreds of miles of trails on the island of Hong Kong. We have one of the largest park systems of any metropolitan area. Preservation of this precious land is an example for all cities.
What have you learned about city planning while living in Hong Kong?
I appreciate the compactness of Hong Kong, which has 7 million people. It’s amazing how much is layered into a relatively small area. My dentist and doctor each have an office in the same building where my favorite book store is located. My family does not own a car. Everything is close and accessible through multiple modes of transportation. This is a huge lesson for city planners. I never really had a spatial understanding of the adage ‘the collapse of space and time’ until living here.
Tell me about HOK’s projects in Xiamen.
Xiamen Cross Strait Financial Center Concept Master Plan in Xiamen City, China
We have long-term relationships for a series of planning and architecture projects in Xiamen, which is a city not far from Hong Kong at the mouth of the Nine Dragon River. This is one of the closest major Chinese cities to Taiwan.
We have been working on large projects on Xiamen’s east coast. We are helping to establish a development strategy that allows them to take advantage of the beautiful seascape while building on the economic synergies with Taiwan.
We have been working there for so many years that we have developed a deep understanding of Xiamen’s people, politics, ecology and history. Each time we start a new project, we are building on knowledge amassed over many years of work. This makes HOK’s projects in Xiamen rich, layered and powerful. We work at many scales, from the overall master planning to the urban design and architecture for individual buildings.
Talk about your landscape architecture project for the Alibaba Group.
Alibaba Campus Landscape Design in Hangzhou, China
We designed the campus landscape in Hangzhou for the Alibaba Group, a leading Chinese Internet company. The landscape is under construction and will be finished early next year.
This has been a fascinating, rewarding project. There is a tremendous power of place in Hangzhou, which is a mystical city in China. Poets and painters have converged here for thousands of years. Our landscape plan aligns the contemporary vision and culture of Alibaba with the area’s historically significant qualities. The campus landscape functions as a place of respite and gathering.
Alibaba shares many attributes with North American Internet companies we have worked with, such as Apple, Cisco and Nortel. Our client decision-makers are young and we have had a very open process. Barry Day, Julian Wei in Shanghai and I have had the ability to communicate deeply with our client and understand Alibaba’s sensibilities. This enabled us to produce one of our best recent projects. The collaborative process shone through in the work.
Why do you enjoy collaborating with HOK’s architects on projects?
View from the ferry of the Penang Sentral Mixed-Use Transportation Hub site in Penang, Malaysia
One example is the Penang Sentral, a mixed-use transportation hub in Penang, Malaysia. It is a very dense, complicated and compact project in which the interface of infrastructure, development and public realm all happen on top of, throughout and beside the buildings. It has a ferry, commuter rail, freight train, cars, taxis and buses – all of these functional areas are linked and stacked on top each other.
The fascinating challenge has been how to interweave all this infrastructure while making intuitive flows and creating places for people and the environment. This requires contributions from a collaborative, interdisciplinary team. The design process has been driven by Jeff Kaeonil, Hong Kong’s design director, after an initial concept planning phase that my partners Riccardo Mascia and Paul Collins convinced the client to undertake in parallel to the initial station planning. Looking at a broader territory helped the design team and client understand the connective implications of the project and its capacity for transforming adjacent sites.
These complex projects are the reason planners, urban designers and landscape architects come to our firm. We want to be interacting with designers from other disciplines in real time. That is the beauty and the value of HOK. All these different disciplines can be part of the entire design process. Those synergies are powerful.