City&Country: Benoy gunning for transport integrated projects

Simon Blore, the managing director of architectural firm Benoy, is no stranger to Malaysia. The Englishman had briefly worked on the proposed Kuala Lumpur Linear City project in the late 1990s before it was shelved. He was also involved in the early design work of the stations for the KL Monorail.

Benoy is an award-winning international firm of architects, masterplanners, interior architects and graphic designers working from design studios in the UK, the Middle East, India, China and Asia.

Blore, according to his colleague Richard Lee, who is associate director of Benoy Malaysia, speaks better Malay than Cantonese, although he spends most of his time at Benoy’s Hong Kong office.

When City & Country catches up with the duo at their recently established office in KL Sentral, they are busy attending a flurry of meetings to pitch Benoy’s vast international experience in mixed-use developments to established Malaysian developers.

The firm is quickly putting in proposals, offering its expertise as the country goes ahead with its urban rail projects in the Klang Valley worth tens of billions of ringgit, such as the extension of the light rail transit (LRT) system and the construction of the mass rapid transit (MRT) system.

So far, Benoy has inked deals on two mixed-use integrated projects that will be linked to future LRT and MRT stations as well as a seafront development in Sabah.

Global drive
Benoy was established by Gordon Benoy in 1947 in the UK, but it only embarked on an aggressive global expansion 10 years ago. It took a leap of faith when it decided to handle its
first-ever project outside the UK — the Elements in Kowloon, Hong Kong.

Since then, Benoy has carved a niche in designing mixed-use integrated developments on almost every continent. It now employs 500 people of 30 nationalities, half of whom are based in China where the company has a strong presence.

Although its venture into Asia has proved fruitful — it worked on Elements and APM in Hong Kong, ION Orchard in Singapore, Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, DLF Saket in India, Shanghai IFC and ICC - Benoy has continued with projects in the UK, such as Bluewater, Westfield London and MediaCityUK.
It also occasionally dabbled in the refurbishment of old malls, such as Plaza Singapura in Singapore and Plaza 889 in Shanghai.

Project wins
Clad in a simple suit, Blore is not one to mince his words. His answers are typically British — direct and wry — and spiced with local anecdotes and examples. Given the number of business meetings he has lined up, he has to be succinct.

So, who has he met on his trip here? After some probing, Blore reveals that he has met up with Marcus Karakashian, project director of Mass Rapid Transit Corp Sdn Bhd (MRT Corp) as well as local property players UEM Land Holdings Bhd, Bandar Raya Developments Bhd (BRDB), Sime Darby Property Bhd, IJM Land Bhd, Gamuda Land Sdn Bhd and Sunway Integrated Properties Sdn Bhd. But he is not quite done yet, saying he has a meeting with Dijaya Corp Bhd later in the evening.

Elaborating on the firm’s upcoming three projects in Malaysia over the next few years, Lee says the largest would involve the KL Metropolis, which will be located on 75.5 acres of prime land in Jalan Duta, Kuala Lumpur.  The project will be linked to the MRT as well as the LRT extension. The ambitious mixed-use development is spearheaded by Naza TTDI Sdn Bhd and Benoy is involved in enhancing its master plan.

The development will comprise world-class exhibition space, office buildings, luxury apartments, boutique hotels, a museum, art complexes and a specialist healthcare precinct along with a variety of shopping, dining and entertainment outlets. It will also house the new Matrade Convention and Exhibition Centre, whose main building works are scheduled to commence later this year.

Benoy and Lee are coy about revealing the details of the other two projects as the final blueprints are still in the works. “At this point in time, we can only reveal that one of the upcoming projects will be a mixed-use integrated development in the mature suburb of Subang Jaya, which will be linked to the current KTM station and the LRT extension. The other project is a seafront development in Sabah,” says Lee.

In a press release, Benoy had stated that one of the largest developers in the country had instructed it to deliver a master plan for the first transit-orientated development in the heart of Subang Jaya, known as the EAST Precinct.

The aim is to integrate a mix of retail, hotel, serviced apartments and office suites within the transport infrastructure to create a unique landmark that will form an integral part of Subang Jaya City Centre.

Culture and design
On the firm’s design concepts, Blore says Benoy does not have a particular house style. The team draws on its collective experience and studies the culture of a country before picking and incorporating subtle nuances of the location, environment and culture into the design, he adds.

According to Lee, the shopping zones in the Elements, Hong Kong, were inspired by Chinese feng shui principles. Hence, the group decided to adopt themed zones defined by the character of the five elements of fire, earth, wood, water and metal. So, how does Benoy plan to translate the Malaysian culture into its designs, especially in the construction of the two transit-orientated integrated projects?

Blore says that while Malaysians generally retreat indoors during the day, they like to be outdoors in the evenings and nights, pointing to the ever-popular “mamak” culture. Hence, he says, the designs will definitely have al-fresco dining elements.

He adds that with the tropical weather here, it would be a shame to not incorporate as much greenery in the integrated developments as possible. The plan is also to give the roofs more attention as “the people living in high-rises need to see something else besides concrete”.

Blore says one of the biggest flaws of the local public transport system is that it does not go directly to places where the people live or work. Building stations “in the middle of empty fields”, in places far away from crowds, defeats the purpose of easing traffic, he adds.

“It is quite time-consuming and a hassle. You need to drive to the station, hunt down a car park before being able to finally board the train,” Blore says, explaining that integrated developments linked to public transport stations will be a culture where people can live, work and play in the same area without having to travel needlessly.

“Let’s use KL Sentral as an example,” he says, gesturing towards the window. “It is a commendable effort as it is not easy to plan an integrated hub with so many elements. Already, there are people living and working here. However, not much thought has been given to pedestrians and secondly, there isn’t enough landscaping.”

Pedestrian crossings on the road can be dangerous and uncomfortable for the public who are exposed to the heat and dust. Furthermore, such crossings disrupt traffic flow, which eventually lead to congestion during rush hours.

“Thankfully, this is being addressed by some of the developers who are building air-conditioned walkways that link offices to the public transport stations,” Blore says.

Game changers
The market is becoming increasingly competitive as more integrated projects are being built, pressuring architects to come up with better concepts and designs. Blore admits that the biggest challenge now is working with a client to settle on a design brief, given that “the market changes by the minute now”.

He adds that building designs have been getting bolder over the years and will be more so in the future. “I foresee technological advancements paving the way for interactive buildings. We are talking about huge slates of media walls made out of LED lights, which can change colour and form at cue.

“The marriage of social media and mobile apps is another game changer and will play a role, for instance, in helping retailers communicate their products and promotions directly to consumers the minute they walk into a mall or a particular store.”


This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 926, Sep 3-9, 2012