Finding Balance in Fruitful Partnerships

Head of CapitaLand’s Product Development & Design Centre, Mr Poon Hin Kong talks about why balance is important in realising design visions

Issue: Oct 2015

Mr Poon Hin Kong, Head of CapitaLand's Product Development & Design Centre believes that striking a balance is important when managing the design projects
Mr Poon Hin Kong, Head of CapitaLand’s Product Development & Design Centre believes that striking a balance is important when managing the design projects

Chatting with Mr Poon Hin Kong, Head of Product Development & Design Centre at CapitaLand, the word “balance” comes up a few times. He uses it to describe his work on the distinctive (he eschews the term “iconic” and is quick to explain that he finds it overused), newly opened Grade A office tower, CapitaGreen, and to talk about his other projects in his nearly 20-year career with CapitaLand.

The ability to strike a balance between seemingly competing objectives is important when managing design projects, Mr Poon says. “You need to convey your ideas and feedback to the project team while convincing your stakeholders to buy in on the key aspects. That requires striking a balance between the interests of both sides.”

He cites another example of finding common ground when working with people: “You have to appreciate people for their strengths. Sometimes their ideas may be good but the execution or communication with the team may be weak. It is important to stay focused. Keep the good ideas or the important aspects of the concept and work through the person’s shortcomings with him or her,” he shares.

Balance in Relationships

Mr Poon(left) with Mr Toyo Ito, concept architect of CapitaGreen at the building's official opening on 9 September 2015
Mr Poon(left) with Mr Toyo Ito, concept architect of CapitaGreen at the building’s official opening on 9 September 2015

That ability to communicate and find common ground was what he relied on when he headed the project and design management teams for the development of CapitaGreen. From an idea to redevelop the former Market Street Car Park, to the selection of the architect, through to the construction of the 40-storey sustainable office tower – Mr Poon was at the helm making sure the final product remains true to what was envisaged.

“CapitaGreen is not your typical office building. We wanted more than just another building to add to the skyline,” he says of the office building’s unique look defined by its green façade, a cool void running through the centre of the structure, a flaming red petal-like wind scoop at its crown, and its off-form concrete finish in the lobby wall.

“The challenge of going with an unconventional design is asking ourselves if we are prepared to accept the features and then getting the decision-makers’ buy-in. Fortunately, we had bosses who were prepared to test new ground and take the calculated risk of going ahead with these unconventional design features.”

Clear communication and finding balance also served him well in working with renowned Japanese architect and Pritzker Laureate, Toyo Ito.

“As the owner-developer of CapitaGreen, we set the framework and boundaries in terms of budget and timing, but I also made sure that I give the architect wings to fly and exercise his creative vision, otherwise we would not be making the best use of his talent and experience. I also had to share the design vision with colleagues who may be more focused on other aspects of the project – to get their support to realise the vision. My job is to manage the designers and design process, not design the building,” explains Mr Poon who is himself an architect with a degree from the National University of Singapore.

On working with the world-renowned architect, Mr Poon shares: “It was very pleasant working with Ito. He is a good listener and open to feedback from us. Despite his many accomplishments, he does not have the attitude that he has all the answers. He had strong ideas and a clear vision for CapitaGreen but was open to working with the team to refine the design concept.”

One feature that had them going back and forth was the greenery that enveloped the building. The team worked through various alternatives – thick bands of plants growing in sunk-in planters, vertical green walls – before striking a balance. Today, CapitaGreen is a perfect picture of form and function. The planters lining its perimeter wrap the building in green without obstructing the view for tenants. Its ledges are also wide enough to accommodate the maintenance crew who will tend to the plants.

Integrating art with architecture

The ”roots“ of above below beneath above (left), anchored by the earthy Kakiotoshi wall
The “roots” of above below beneath above (left), anchored by the earthy Kakiotoshi wall

In the search for artworks to complement the building, he worked with Ito to commission above below beneath above by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s. Carrying on the motif of CapitaGreen as a plant growing towards the sky, Eliasson’s art installation in the lobby's covered plaza is inspired by the aerial root systems of trees. The twisted 15-metre tall steel tubes with ethereal purple light balls nestled in between evoke a vision of a mangrove aerial root system supporting the plant that is CapitaGreen.

“To see Olafur's artwork seamlessly integrated with Ito's architecture to create a new public space in the city was one of the highlights of the project for me,” says Mr Poon.

The “roots” are further anchored by the earthy, hand-crafted Kakiotoshi wall in the lobby. Instead of using the usual concrete finishes like polished stone, a mix of local soil and Japanese soil plaster with local soil as the main component was applied using a traditional Japanese technique onto the lobby’s majestic walls to tie the concept of the roots and trees together.

“The craftsmen found that the soil from Seng Kang was suitable. So he blended the soil with plaster for the Kakiotoshi wall. What could root a Singapore building better than Singapore soil?” he chuckles.

A Balanced Perspective

Mr Poon has been with CapitaLand since 1996, joining its predecessor organisation, Pidemco Land. Over the years, he has managed the design of many projects. Reluctant to single out a favourite, he maintains a balanced view: “Every project is unique because every site and design brief is different.”

Clarke Quay marked the first project where the ETFE, a polymer membrane, was used in Singapore to provide shelter while retaining the outdoor feel
Clarke Quay marked the first project where the ETFE, a polymer membrane, was used in Singapore to provide shelter while retaining the outdoor feel

Pressed further, Mr Poon concedes: “Clarke Quay was memorable because the brief was to transform the place into a destination attraction that will rejuvenate the area. It was a daunting task but it also allowed us to look beyond the usual tried and tested design approaches. This led to collaboration with design consultants who were not our usual consultants for retail projects. They proposed many ideas which were new at the time, one of which led to the use of ETFE (a polymer membrane) to cover the streets so that it was sheltered and still retained an outdoor feel. That was the first time that material was used in Singapore and now, it almost defines the look of the place.”

Working on Grade A office buildings One George Street and Six Battery Road was memorable for different reasons.

Evolution of greenery from discrete pockets to entire surfaces: One George Street (top), Six Battery Road (bottom left) and CapitaGreen (bottom right)
Evolution of greenery from discrete pockets to entire surfaces: One George Street (top), Six Battery Road (bottom left) and CapitaGreen (bottom right)
Evolution of greenery from discrete pockets to entire surfaces: One George Street (top), Six Battery Road (bottom left) and CapitaGreen (bottom right)

“One George Street had pockets of greenery set into the building. Six Battery Road had an entire indoor vertical garden in its lobby. CapitaGreen has greenery over an extensive part of its external surface, sky terraces on three floors and a sky forest on its roof. It occurred to me recently that these three projects show the evolution of how greenery can be integrated into buildings – from discrete pockets to entire surfaces.

Blend of Architecture & Landscape

When asked what led to his training as an architect, Mr Poon shares: “When I was in secondary school, I saw a picture of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Fallingwater’ in an encyclopedia. The house has horizontal concrete slabs hovering over a natural waterfall. There was something about the juxtaposition of the man-made and natural that stirred my interest in architecture. Until today, some of the buildings or spaces that inspire me most are those that blend architecture and landscape.”

“Architecture has the potential to move people, to transform lives and the way we live. Architecture embodies a society’s history and values; it is a very tangible and concrete expression of a people’s aspirations.”

Past and present, natural and man-made, design and function – Mr Poon’s ability to find balance in these seeming dichotomies has seen his projects and partnerships bear fruit.

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