Strength In Numbers

Design Wunderkind attributes success to teamwork

Issue: Aug 2010

David Buffonge,
At work or at home, Buffonge has a strong belief in good team work and a strong appreciation for context and meaning
Photo courtesy of Benoy

David Buffonge is the 39-year old head of design team at Benoy Architects’ Hong Kong office. With around 300 staff, Benoy is one of the well-known international firms with architects, master planners, retail auditors, visualisers, interior and graphic designers from design studios in the United Kingdom, Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore. The practice specializes in retail and leisure design.

Buffonge graduated with a 1st Class Honors Bachelors Degree in Architecture at the Caribbean School of Architecture. He then earned an Honours Degree from Oxford Brookes University in 1996 before completing his Postgraduate studies and Masters, at Oxford Brookes University, UK in 1997. He played a key role in the setting up of Benoy’s design studio in Hong Kong in 2006, having joined the practice after graduation.

Born and raised on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, he became a British Citizen, and is now a Hong Kong Permanent Resident. In short, David Buffonge is a true global citizen.

“Asia is a dynamic place and a wonderful platform to express oneself through design in Architecture,” he said.

His project portfolio includes; ‘Elements’ the award winning retail centre at Kowloon Station, Hong Kong; ‘i-SQUARE’, a new vertical mall under construction in Hong Kong as well as several landmark schemes in China. Most recently, Buffonge led the day-to-day work on ION Orchard and The Orchard Residences’, a 56-storey mixed-use development in Singapore.

ION Orchard
ION Orchard is a premier shopping and lifestyle mall at the heart of Singapore’s shopping district, Orchard Road
Photo courtesy of Benoy

INSIDE: You joined Benoy in 1997 and within 6 years, you became instrumental in helping the company set up its design studio in Hong Kong. To what do you attribute this meteoric rise up the ranks?

BUFFONGE: I joined the Benoy London Office new projects team and in 2001 we won a competition to do a large retail project, Elements Mall, in Hong Kong. During that time the developers convinced us to set up a base in Hong Kong so a few of us agreed to move out and I was positioned to head the retail design studio. There were only five of us at the time but we soon managed to win more commissions in the region, and this enabled us to expand to over 200 staff in Hong Kong today. We have also been actively setting up offices around the region and this includes Singapore, one of my favorite places in Asia.

INSIDE: You have won a few awards. Which one would you say you are most proud of and why?

BUFFONGE: I am most proud of the awards Benoy received for our role as Concept Architects for ION Orchard. There are also the MIPIM Asia 2009 “Best Shopping Centre in Asia” and a Grand Prize Winner at the Quality Building Design Awards 2010 in Hong Kong. These were very prestigious awards that were achieved because of the great teamwork. This was an exciting project with big visual impact and it has made a huge contribution to Singapore’s architectural landscape.

INSIDE: Is there any award that you hope to win in the future?

BUFFONGE: Our mission is not about winning awards. However, we do enjoy it when our buildings get recognition for their contribution to the urban realm, especially when it is a retail project. Retail buildings rarely get the architectural recognition that other building typologies achieve such as galleries, museums and libraries etc. One of my personal goals is to contribute to that change in perception and get more retail mixed-use buildings on the architectural map.

ION Orchard
Wide shop fronts and high ceilings at ION Orchard allow retailers to display their products to their best advantage
Picture courtesy of Benoy

INSIDE: Benoy believes in "respecting subtle nuances of the local place, environment and culture" and offering "individual, adaptable and enduring' designs. What would you say is your design philosophy?

BUFFONGE: We usually start with a team to brainstorm and try to develop a series of principle or rationale points to move the design forward. During these brainstorm sessions I always think of the three key principles in architecture and ION followed these principles.

The first principle is about creating architecture with MEANING. This is the conceptual big idea and ION has a strong story behind the buildings design.

The second principle is about FUNCTION. Good planning is perhaps one of the most important aspects of any retail building. ION Orchard had to be planned with good visibility and connectivity and initially we started designing from the inside out.

The third principle is about FORM AND STRUCTURE. Retail is about selling and retail buildings should have a strong visual expression. For ION Orchard, we created what can be referred to as Media Architecture. We introduced technology and a new structural expression to the façade.

Inspiration
Buffonge believes that some of the most beautiful objects of inspiration can be found in nature
Picture courtesy of Freehdwallpapers.com

INSIDE: How did you come up with the idea of using nature as a motif for ION and how did you come up with some of ION's more innovative features such as using LED display technology for the façade of the building?

BUFFONGE: For ION Orchard, we were all inspired by the leafy streets of Orchard Road and the site’s history as an Orchard. So we came up with a series of words related to nature and these would become the design generator. Seed, skin, peeling, canopy, water drop, stem and leaf were some of the words used to describe the various components of the design.

For the exterior, we introduced an intelligent building façade skin made up of thousands of LEDs (light-emitting-diode) that can display media at different display resolutions. The skin also allows visibility to the outside and natural light can penetrate through to the interior spaces. We also integrated this media technology into a monocoque façade and canopy roof structure, made of glass and perforated metal, creating a practical, but visually dynamic covering to the public event space.

This façade structural system is actually a proprietary product customized to fit 1.5m panels of flat glass, triangulated to create the effect of a three dimensional surface.

INSIDE: You have practiced in different parts of the world (UK, Middle East and Asia). How has each city impacted the way you designed?

BUFFONGE: I really enjoyed practicing in our London office. Most UK projects are understated but very carefully thought through. Being part of the new projects team, we also worked on schemes for the Middle East as well as Asia. For the Middle East there was usually more of a desire for the design to have strong visual impact. Here in Asia our designs also require visual impact but at the same time they also need to be commercially and functionally thought through.

Raffles City, Shenzhen
Early conceptual sketch study for Raffles City Shenzhen
Image courtesy of Benoy

We are now engaged in the design for Raffle City Shenzhen, a project that will certainly push the boundaries and will create an inspiring environment in the city. We have started the planning process following the three principles described before.

David Buffonge and his family
Buffonge seen here with his wife, Sangeeta, and one of his children, Arman, who is now five years old and wants to be an architect

INSIDE: Benoy specializes primarily in retail and leisure design. Is there anything that you might like to design in the future that is beyond this scope?

BUFFONGE: Although Benoy specializes in retail, most of our projects are actually mixed use. Offices & residential also make up our portfolio. We also have a growing hospitality sector with a number of high rise hotels on the drawing board.

But I hope to have the opportunity to design a resort some day. Actually my Urban Design Masters thesis was about the design and development of resort towns as a sustainable solution to tourism.

David Buffonge's children
Buffonge’s three children having fun at the Hong Kong Art Fair
Photo courtesy of David Buffonge

INSIDE: What is your home like?

BUFFONGE: Currently, my home is all about family. It is very modest and practical but we enjoy a fantastic view of the Harbour. This allows me to constantly engage with the city from home.

INSIDE: How would you describe your personal space?

BUFFONGE: It is very difficult to have any personal space while raising a young family.

We have three lovely young children including a pair of three-year old twins. Our five-year old son has already decided he wants to be an architect. He has always been asking if he can accompany me to work. So recently, I took him along and gave him a couple of hours work experience. He managed to complete a sketch drawing of a building and was very proud of himself.

But design is also an experience you can always share with the family. My wife is a great listener and I always enjoy sharing with her my design thought process. That’s one of the great things about being an architect.

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