A Conversation With Jeff Kaeonil, HOK’s Asia Pacific Director of Design
Jeff Kaeonil, LEED AP BD+C, studied architecture at Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley, but his career path took him on brief stints in construction and urban design before he returned to his field of choice. “My passion was always architecture,” he says.
How did you end up in Hong Kong?
JK: Some friends were living in Hong Kong at the time, and I was in San Francisco. One called me and said, “You should come to Hong Kong. There are a lot of exciting things happening here.” It was something I had been thinking might be an interesting thing to do, so I started looking into it. It was kind of odd for me because my family is from Asia and moved to the US. I grew up in the US and came back to Asia.
What is a typical day like?
My projects are spread out all over Asia, so I could be in Bangkok for meetings for one half of the week and then over in Jakarta for the rest of the week. When I’m here in Hong Kong, we have pin-ups to review four or five projects a day. We talk about the projects and mark up drawings.
What do you enjoy most about being an architect?
I’ve always enjoyed designing something larger than myself. It’s about connecting with a community. The projects are on a pretty large scale here, so we often end up dealing with the public realm in one way or another. Whether it’s an airport, a tall building or a development with a retail component, we’re always trying to figure out how to make a better experience for the city, the community and the local environment.
How do you know when a design is successful?
We like to gauge the success of a new building by the impact it makes on the community and the urban context.
Many projects in Asia stay on the drawing board for a long time before getting built. When this happens, we measure success by how the design resonates with the client. If our clients embrace the design and think our ideas are compelling, we know we’re going in the right direction.
Can you tell me about a few recent projects?
One is Kempegowda International Airport in Bangalore, India. We had won a design competition for an air traffic control tower in Mumbai. Because the client liked our design, they asked HOK’s team to design this airport in Bangalore.
This project is an expansion of an existing airport terminal that was only two years old but was already running out of space. Our design doubles the size of the building while improving its aesthetics. One challenge was to work with an existing terminal that couldn’t be torn down – it had to keep running during the whole process.
We are working on a new expansion to the Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand. It’s a surprising kind of building. Our design is modern, but is culturally connected to Thailand and has elements of Thai culture embedded in the design.
The design competition for the Guomei Shopping Center gave us an opportunity to design something unique in China. Like with Times Square in New York City, the site is surrounded by high-rises. Because a cultural site was being built to the south of our site, the city didn’t want the structures of the retail center to be above grade.
It was a tricky design challenge: How do you create an underground building with a 100,000-square-meter program while still making it interact with the public space that connects the cultural center and an adjacent pedestrian plaza? It was a very difficult site to design, but those are often the ones that provide us with the most interesting design solutions.
We ended up designing a building that brought natural light into five stories of the below-grade mall. On the top, there’s an arc with terraces that step up from the plaza’s lower level to the cultural center at the top of the site. With all the tall buildings around it, we had to find the best spot for the skylights to bring natural light down into the shopping area.
In China, we often build retail buildings with high-rise towers on top. This was almost an inverted project, where everything was underground. It was more of a landscape project than a traditional architecture project, which created an interesting design language.
Sun Moon Lake Hotel is a design for a low-rise hotel in Taiwan. Sun Moon Lake is a natural tourist attraction, like the Grand Canyon in the US. Most of the local hotels are small, so the tourism bureau wanted to build a larger hotel to accommodate the influx of tourists.
It’s a very dramatic landscape, with the lake and the mountains together. The unique geography provided lots of great design opportunities. We spent a lot of time on site and working with the topographic model to understand the possibilities.
We came up with a diagram that configured the hotel rooms so we could create an outdoor plaza and a resort pool area. The rooms all face south, so guests can get a glimpse of the lake beyond.
What do you like about living in Hong Kong?
There’s a lot of hustle and bustle. The density of the city means there’s always something happening, any time of day.
The public transit systems are excellent. There are multiple modes of transportation – trains, subways, all kinds of buses.
People who have lived in Hong Kong for all their lives may get tired of having so many people around. But when you’re coming from a less dense area, like I did, it makes for an incredibly vibrant environment.
What is your favorite place in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong is an incredibly dense city, but there are lots of places where you can take hikes and enjoy nature. Just behind the city, there’s a peak on Hong Kong Island and then the Tai Tam Reservoir, where there are nice places to take hikes.