Shaping cityscapes: Benoy’s MD of global design Simon Bee reveals his urban ambitions
Some people agonise forever over degree choices and possible career paths, but for Simon Bee there was never really a doubt.
“As a kid, I was always making models and playing with Lego,” says the managing director of global design for architectural firm Benoy. “Also, my father was a quantity surveyor in the construction industry, so I was used to site works and seeing drawings lying around and, in the school holidays, would go along quite willingly to watch buildings gradually coming out of the ground.”
Growing up in the UK, family days out for Bee often included visits to stately homes or cathedrals and, when his father started planning a new house for the family, there was scope for hands-on involvement.
“I got into it in a big way and realised this is what I would like to do full time. Having seen pictures of Japanese architecture and gardens, which I found very inspirational, I wanted the house to have indoor/outdoor spaces. By then too, landscaping and the heritage of British building was in my blood.”
Logically enough, this deep-seated interest led to a five-year degree in architecture at Nottingham University, followed by the requisite two years in practice to complete his professional qualifications in 1985. Next came a stint with a firm in Derby, working on industrial buildings, before a position as design and project manager for a huge aircraft maintenance building at Stansted airport which was later recognised with a national award.
Each role provided distinct challenges and, in general, Bee was content with the prospect of building a career by jumping between places and projects. He was, though, increasingly drawn to the scale and ambition of urban regeneration projects and the chance they provide to combine creativity, technical expertise, environmental features and social impact.
“It involves a completely different way of thinking about city spaces, convenience and making something really special that will be used by thousands of people a day,” he says. “I also realised that some industrial buildings are very well put together, but only ever experienced by a few individuals. That could be changed.”
Joining Benoy in 1989 made it possible to pursue this perspective and design for commercial viability, but with a slightly sharper “edge”. Confirming the success of that approach, the firm has now evolved from a single office near Newark to having 11 global studios around the world, handling groundbreaking projects and prestigious tenders, and opening up all sorts of career options. Bee did master planning for the regeneration of London’s White City district, but the real breakthrough was Bluewater, a signature 1.5 million sq ft retail development south-east of near London, which includes a loop design and other fairly “radical” plans. It caught the eye of the MTR Corp, then considering ideas for what was to become the Elements mall in West Kowloon, and things just went from there.
“The MTR saw we could do something special, even for a site with a railway station and residential towers,” Bee says, who adds that being in Hong Kong has given him exposure to the whole of Asia and beyond. “The city is a hub and a stepping stone to so many other places that, frankly, it’s breathtaking.”
Currently, he oversees roughly 250 employees in design studios in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore. He is working on projects in South Korea, Australia’s Gold Coast, and on the airport extension in Singapore. There is ongoing involvement in major initiatives such as the Heathrow Terminal of the Future submission in Britain. And he sits on the firm’s global board. He is, though, determined not to get submerged by admin and management tasks and to let his love of landscape manifest itself wherever possible.
“The firm is very good at letting people do what they are good at,” Bee says. “For me, it is now fundamental to get more public realm and green spaces into Hong Kong buildings. There is fantastic encouragement in Singapore for doing this. There is no reason these features have to be at street level or grouped together on one floor. Rather, it is up to architects, developers and the authorities to be creative.”
This was a key theme of Benoy’s recent Sky Spaces competition and exhibition, run in collaboration with Swire Properties. It sought innovative designs for a mixed-use skyscraper in Kowloon Bay, which effectively combined functionality with environmental thinking to conceive better streetscapes and enhanced public domain amenities. Some of the entries suggested high-rise walkways between buildings, garden spaces at different levels, and systems to recycle rain water. “Hong Kong has challenges with the urban density, but there are positive ways of relieving the pressures.”
When designing, he still finds it easier to start with a pencil and models, but at a certain point now turns to technology, as when developing the concept for Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi.
“I had a shape in my head that was ‘undrawable’ without someone who could create the purest curves with mathematical precision working in 3D on the computer,” Bee says. “The improvements in hardware and software now allow us to design incredible shapes and deliver them quickly to clients or studios around the world.”
Since relocating to Hong Kong in 2014, he has become a keen hiker, an activity which lets him see the city from new perspectives. “Not to criticise, but Hong Kong does need a well connected waterfront,” he says. “You can do this without more reclamation, perhaps with offshore pontoons. There are tactics we can use to make it a little more human.”
EYE ON THE SKYLINE
Simon Bee’s advice for aspiring architects.
Get out there “You have to travel, open your eyes and get enthused and excited about the physical environment around you. Wherever you are, soak up the place and the characteristics that make its distinctive. Take every opportunity to look, learn, listen and enjoy.”
Be assertive “If you see a project you want to work on, make sure to put your hand up. Don’t just sit there and assume other people will guess what you’d like to do.”
Follow the lead “As far as possible, stay close to the chairman and other senior figures, who will have so much wisdom about the business and how everything works.”
Go ‘glocal’ “Everyone talks about globalisation, but you need to have the local knowledge too; Having a good basis for comparison is vital if you want to become a well-rounded designer.”
Readily relocate “If your firm offers overseas transfers with the chance to learn new skills, make a play for it; you’ll have no cause for regret.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Shaping cityscapes.