The pursuit of quality that drives LWK + PARTNERS

Kerem Cengiz, managing director, MENA at LWK + PARTNERS talks about the aspirations and philosophies of the globally reknowned business

‘They who live, see; But they who spend their lives travelling, see more’ – Ibn Battuta. The words of the famous Medieval traveller might well have been written for LWK + PARTNERS’ Kerem Cengiz. He spent a decade and a half of his career travelling in and out of the former Soviet Union, working on major projects in Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet satellite nations and republics at transformational moments in their history. Plus, he’s no stranger to China’s mega-cities, the home territory of LWK + PARTNERS, which – as a member of C Cheng Holdings Limited – was the first publicly listed architectural services provider in Hong Kong and mainland China.

So, does a practice of LWK’s international scope aim to reflect the diversity of local cultures and imprint a local flavour in the region’s structures? Is there a local motif, or theme, at work in each region?

“Well,” says Kerem, “It’s very specific to each project, and that local context doesn’t just work at a national or regional level. For example, if you take the UAE, each of the most active emirates in terms of development – Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah – has its own unique approach to urbanisation, so it’s not a question of finding something that we aim to impose across the emirates as a whole, but rather, working in a way that’s contextually relevant to what a society is doing. Sharjah, for instance, probably has the most established recognisable grain to its community, insofar as its centre is very permeable and easy to walk around. So, we would want to follow that model and work on-scale, aligned with what the local community expects. Everything we do seeks to be very contextually relevant.”

He adds, “In our work in Saudi Arabia, we’re more often being asked to incorporate, visually, the architectural heritage of a particular region, using a local cultural vernacular, with respect for traditional materials and finishes. There, we find a more deliberate approach to projecting traditions – and that can lead to some interesting challenges in terms of seeing historic materials and design approaches in a variety of very new and unexpected settings”.

Asked about smart city and future city blueprinting and whether LWK is being asked to play a major role in the digital transformation of our urban landscape and lifestyles, Cengiz explains,  “As a business, we are geared up to do so but haven’t yet had significant opportunities to engage with digital transformation, twinning and smart city work here in the Middle East, because in this region, the emphasis tends to be around how governments manage the business of governance, as opposed to conceiving integrated smart landscapes. A good example is Dubai with its smart apps etc, rather than blueprinting smart infrastructure as such.”

“In China, though, we see giga projects where these factors are multi-tiered and designed in from day one. That’s because, in China, the priorities are very different: they have the huge logistical challenge of somehow getting another 30% of the population to move into urban environments in the next 30-50 years. China has succeeded because it often has a clean sheet to start working on, in this way it took its people out of poverty, so it’s very important that China is always moving forward and adapting to precepts of future proofing and expandability. But the question is, how do you absorb the capacity of cities of 25m people to double in scale? You do so by dramatically enhancing the infrastructure, installing and manifesting smart solutions – across infrastructure, transport and communication.”

He continues, “China has its own giga projects, which aren’t generally don’t talked about often outside of the region. An example is the Greater West Bay Area development plan. With this, one of the key factors for us is that we partner with a state-led enterprise, which smooths the way and means we can really learn a lot very fast. But, it’s rare to have this level of wholesale involvement in other parts of the world.”

“To get involved in smart city solutions as an architect is often difficult, due to the limitations of scale – but engineers tend to get involved in this aspect much more. Engineering companies are coming into this in the most integrated way they can – and one hopes a broader engagement with their initiatives in terms of the wider development community can make our lives better.”

He notes, “Meanwhile, looking back to the local picture, the 2040 plans for Dubai may see a smarter, more connected and sustainable city emerge and begin to overcome these challenges.”

Pandemic Driven Changes

Discussing whether the outbreak of COVID-19 has impacted design requirements in the region, Kerem states, “It’s really too early to tell. We won’t ever go back to where we were, because the pandemic is now endemic. It will obviously impact the way we live our lives and the way we use spaces more than by just responding to social distancing regulations. When we use spaces in different ways, that space itself becomes something very different – and we are starting to see new models emerge, certainly.”

“Yet this raises a number of interesting questions. Will we see environments that impose control over how space is used? Well, maybe those changes will be much more manifested in institutional buildings than in privately-owned ones. We can already see how online technology is transforming the use of public buildings and this means that, for many functions, we don’t need to leave our homes; this has been a big focus of many governments over the last twelve months globally. The pandemic has opened our eyes to the way that these things are achievable. It’s not as hard perhaps as we once assumed: the community is now more willing to embrace change despite potential issues around privacy and data protection.

He elaborates, “How fundamental these changes will be, I really don’t know. But many employers realise that their employees can be trusted to work from home and there’s no reason to bring them back to the workplace on a regular basis.”

“Let’s ask another question, too. We create places to do things, but the question is, do we need to stay the way we always were? For example, in any given city, do we need a delineated downtown financial district? Already that idea of creating big office buildings in a central business district seems very defunct. This seems like the world of 20 years ago.”

Asked about which cities have moved away from the old style of thinking, he responds, “Singapore has consistently made an impressive job of evolving away from this model – it’s completely vibrant and active most of the time, and we don’t see ‘dead’ night-time quarters or districts. That’s a model, including the self-sufficiency agenda, that we’re likely to see spread around the globe quite dramatically in the next few years.”

The Value of Technology

The construction industry has slowly been adopting modern tools, with BIM being perhaps the most visible in recent times. Discussing the impact BIM has had in the region thus far and where true value can be found, Cengiz notes that certain organisations may benefit more than others.

“What’s really valuable is that if you have a number of assets scattered around the emirate of Dubai, let’s say, BIM can empower and transform your cost-effectiveness. If you’ve established a Digital Twin of your assets and business infrastructure – with every element mapped within a common data environment – you can look at your supply chain in a very dynamic way. You can understand the performance of all elements in your digital ecosystem, you can accurately plan financially, and can be more strategic in terms of how you manage your business, the workforce, and streamline your costs.”

He adds, “That process has value at scale but if you’re an individual developer, doing just one tower, why would you bother? BIM will make the design and procurement process more efficient, but is still viewed by some as not yielding the same benefits for the smaller player as yet, due to the perceived increase in capital costs – but make no mistake: as more time goes on, no-one will talk about BIM – it will just be the way we work.”

“Even though our sister company ‘isBIM’ has BIM in its name, their biggest business isn’t BIM, it’s managing big data and creating new technology. Used effectively, big data means leveraging immense increments in terms of efficiency and delivery. For example, we digitised all the outlets of a 9,000-outlet convenience store in Japan (a well-known American franchise), and all this can be managed with just 200 people!”

He notes, “There is another key advantage of BIM-related data, too. Every developer wants something unique, but ultimately, the value comes in understanding how you can model things more quickly – how one change can apply across all similar component parts. This highly ‘modular’ approach to development is something we see a lot of in China because of the scale on which they have to deliver – it’s very much a kit of parts, but that’s not to say it isn’t contextually appropriate to the neighbourhood or enriching for its people.”

“Let me share with you: our HQ Studio assisted in designing and erecting a field hospital of 250 rooms in Hong Kong in the early stages of the pandemic, with all the parts developed for other projects and re-purposed as a field hospital. This took only two months from inception to commissioning and handover – that’s remarkable!”

This type of modularity can come to a whole unit, or only to components inside it, he says.

“The data is modelled once and once only, and it can be adapted and re-purposed as many times as you want. I wouldn’t want to propose that modularity is a be-all and end-all: communities have to be sustainable and self-generating. That means that you can’t just roll out one format – letting things be residentially-led, for example – because a community demands input across the board, to generate opportunities and employment, with the mechanisms and usage to trigger activity in a broader sense, creating sustainable communities and places for the future.”

“So, then you have to consider the bigger picture: it’s less about the styles of construction and more about factors like ‘how you deal with the ground?’ After all, that’s where we interact – and where the planning needs to be the most sensitive and the best-considered, the most connected.”

Quality is King

In 2020 alone, LWK + PARTNERS received 75 awards at events such as The Global RLI Awards 2020, 14th International Design Awards 2020 and the MIPIM Asia Awards 2020. Asked if the practice is aesthetically led, with commitments to particular design philosophies and schools, Cengiz responds, “No, we are not a brand architect in that sense.”

He elaborates, “We sit in the category of commercial architecture. We’re described by some as a commercial practice, and while labels are largely irrelevant today, creating good architecture with a commercial overlay can often be more challenging than creating a style of architecture that doesn’t have this as a core driver. Yet at the same time, so-called niche practices are leading the charge in commercial architecture and the boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred. Our focus is about quality. Everything we do, we try to do it with quality – whether it’s the design, the materials or the service, and that’s true wherever in the world we are delivering a piece of architecture.”

“I would also say that although we work on a portfolio of major and highly significant projects, even the largest practices are offered much less ‘nation-branding’ work than people might imagine. There is very little of that in the world, actually. Having said that, the work we do in China is largely about nation-branding, but really, few people anywhere in the world are given ‘carte blanche’. I did, however, come close to this, working on several transformative projects across the former Soviet Union back in 2005 – 2010. This involved a series of very remarkable meetings and presentations. That was a profound example of architecture playing a major role in hallmarking a period of change – a very exciting time. I believe, though, that we see a very similar moment currently in KSA and we are involved in such projects there today – which is a privilege.”

Asked about what the future may hold for architecture and design, following the outbreak of COVID-19 and what the firm reckons it will be able to contribute to tomorrow’s world, Cengiz notes that his firm is motivated by several key focuses.

“As I’ve mentioned, we’re not champions of a single approach or style. We’re advocates of knowledge, innovation, thought, sharing and discourse to perpetuate relevant and quality outcomes, so I hope that a future trend will be how society and partners move towards this shared goal with us, first and foremost.”

He concludes, “The trend will be towards creating sustainable places and buildings that are designed for people, that are livable and create opportunity. We try to look for longevity. This is the approach we will continue to adopt – and the reality is, our being responsive to place, people, cultures and needs has led us to some very successful outcomes.”


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