Building cities the right way

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BORN in Ohio in the US, Ame Engelhart's childhood provided her with some ideas about her future profession. "I always loved to make things — I drew, I painted, I built little things — I was a maker," says the director of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) in Hong Kong.

"I then went to New York for the first time when I was 9 or 10, and I fell in love with it. I wanted the big city life, so I turned my desire of a maker into a career as an architect."

Engelhart sat down with City & Country to talk about her involvement in architecture and her views on urbanisation. She was the keynote speaker of the sixth instalment of the Veritas Lecture Series, which concluded in June, with the topic on tall buildings.

During her stint at architecture school, Engelhart found the experience to be exceptionally fulfilling.

"I loved architecture school; it is a well-rounded education," she says. "You study the sciences, maths, structural engineering, mechanical engineering; you study art and culture because you need a good cultural understanding. It is really wonderful, because it embraces all elements of our psyche — the technical and mechanical side, and the artistic side, along with your human and cultural side."

After graduating from architecture school, Engelhart says she "started working at 17 years of age in Connecticut, for a company called Moore, Grover, Harper — now called Centerbrook Architects and Planners. It involved academic work and I learnt a lot from that first experience".

In 1994, she moved to Asia.

"I moved to Hong Kong because I was working for another architect in New York, and was supposed to stay six to eight weeks," she recalls.

"New York was going through a recession, and they laid off a lot of people. They sent me to Hong Kong for a project there and I stayed, doing one project after another. And now, it has defined my career."

Engelhart was involved in many projects in Southeast Asia — including the Tanjong Pagar Centre in Singapore, the Tianjin Chow Tai Fook Binhai Centre in China, and the Diagonal Tower at Yongsan International Business District in Seoul, South Korea.

She eventually joined SOM in 1999.

Her first two projects were a residential building in the Philippines, and the master plan for the Hong Kong International Airport.

Later, Engelhart had the opportunity to work on other master plans in Shanghai and Taiwan. "I have been incredibly lucky, worked hard and persevered."

Over the years, she has gained knowledge working as an architect, urban planner and project manager in the region. She is experienced in many types of projects, including hospitality, convention centres and airports, as well as residential and retail developments.

Urbanisation in Asia

Living in Hong Kong for so many years and having travelled extensively around the region, Engelhart has seen cities change.

"In China and Southeast Asia, the profound rate of urbanisation is shaping these cities. No other place has urbanised at their scale and speed, in the past 20 years.

"That has presented opportunities and challenges to the architecture profession. The challenges are things being built too quickly and with poor quality. The opportunities are very high-density districts and developing tall buildings."

While changes have rapidly transformed cities, Engelhart points out how some things have been retained.

"When I first came to Kuala Lumpur, before the Petronas towers were built, it was more like Ho Chi Minh City today, with many motorbikes everywhere. And I quite enjoy that in Ho Chi Minh City, because it hasn't been overly-modernised yet.

"If you went to Shanghai 17 years ago, everyone used bicycles. Luckily for Shanghai, they kept some bicycles and they have not completely disappeared, despite there being so many cars now.

"I got to watch those transformations in a number of cities — Singapore, KL, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai and Beijing. I've lived in incredible times."

Having seen so much development in different Asian cities, Engelhart is able to ascertain what is required for a city to be sustainable. For KL, it is public transport.

"It is extremely important for KL to integrate land building with public transport," she says. "This has to be improved. There are over six million people in KL now, with very little public transport.

"Yes it is coming, but it is a chicken-and-egg situation — do we keep providing all these car parks because we don't have public transport, or do we stop providing so many car parks and force the use of public transport?

"In the long run, KL will benefit hugely from expanding its public transport infrastructure and stopping the urban sprawl. Getting people to live in dense, compact and mixed-use developments within walking distance is absolutely essential to stop the urban sprawl."

Urban sprawl or suburban sprawl is a term used to describe the phenomenon of cities spreading outward. This event leads to low-density areas and motor vehicular dependency, as things are now further apart.

While sustainability is an oft-used catch phrase, it is easier said than done. "It's expensive," Engelhart says matter-of-factly.

"Investment in that amount of infrastructure takes capital, and governments and politicians need to find the mechanisms and the will to do it." She adds that master planning is essential to ensure a balance between green open spaces and the built environment.

Engelhart believes Malaysia has a bright future, especially with what is happening in Johor's Iskandar region, where a symbiotic relationship can be fostered with Singapore. "It is similar to the relationship between Hong Kong and Shenzhen," she says.

Moreover, she sees KL and Singapore mutually benefiting economically, from the high-speed rail project.

As Iskandar is a "clean slate" to build on, Engelhart believes it is important to put in the right infrastructure at the very beginning — mixed-use developments and all types of housing, to ensure a more vibrant community.

"There is a lot of growth happening in Iskandar right now. Hopefully, it will be a well-planned growth, and not an urban sprawl.

"Looking at Iskandar, I am excited because I see possibilities for a really successful role model for urban development."

This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of Aug12-18, 2013.