City & Country: Building cities the right way

I loved architecture school; it is a well-rounded education. 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.” - Engelhart

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 old 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 catchphrase, 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."


Impact of tall buildings in Kuala Lumpur

"Due to their scale, super-tall towers and their accompanying large supporting developments have great potential and, indeed, have a responsibility to contribute positively to the urban realm. With their sheer size, they can uplift and remake an entire neighbourhood, like KLCC, which became the new city centre and a powerful landmark for Kuala Lumpur and put Malaysia on the map.

"A tall building of over 80 storeys could easily accommodate over 1.5 million sq ft of space with about 10,000 to 12,000 people working in a single tower. With the proliferation of tall buildings within a certain precinct, all in close proximity to each other, like in KLCC, demands on the road infrastructure will be intense. Public transport must be in place with adequate capacity to support such dense developments.

"Kuala Lumpur will soon see the next generation of super-tall buildings of over 80 storeys. Because of the powerful impact of tall buildings on the quality of life in the city, we hope to see the developers and the Kuala Lumpur City Hall engage in more public consultation as well as greater transparency right from the early design stage.

"In addition, such mega-developments must be taken into consideration in the overall vision and master planning of the city of Kuala Lumpur. If located in appropriate areas, tall buildings can bring growth and regeneration to older and deteriorating neighbourhoods." - By Lillian Tay, principal, Veritas Design Group. She also presented a paper at the Veritas Lecture Series on Tall Buildings


This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 12, 2013.

Looking for properties to buy or rent? With >150,000 exclusive listings, including undervalued properties, from vetted Pro Agents, you can now easily find the right property on Malaysia's leading property portal EdgeProp! You can also get free past transacted data and use our proprietary Edge Reference Price tool, to make an informed purchase.