KEITH GRIFFITHS IS something of an architect's architect. When he discusses his work, his speech is peppered with expressions like “rectilinear” and “diagonal desire lines”, and if he wants to explain something in more detail he reaches for a pencil and paper to sketch out his thoughts. Sometimes he even uses the surrounding buildings to illustrate his ideas, pointing out everything from the design features of the neighbouring skyscrapers to the patterns of local foot traffic from his 31st-floor office in Taikoo Place.
Extraordinarily famous in his field but hardly a household name, it's easy to overlook Griffiths in a world dominated by headline-grabbing “starchitects”, such as Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry. Yet the fact that he flies comparatively under the radar may in fact be working in Griffiths' favour – his architecture and design firm, Aedas, which employs more than 900 architects, was recently ranked as the fifth largest in the world by Building Design magazine, while neither Hadid's nor Gehry's studio made it into the top 100.
Sheer number of employees aside, Aedas is best known for being behind some of the most ambitious architectural projects in Asia. Among many others, the firm is currently working on Greenland East Village complex in Chengdu, Hongqiao World Centre in Shanghai and Pentominium in Dubai, which has been designed by Andrew Bromberg and will be the tallest residential tower in the world once it's completed. The firm is also involved in the revitalisation of Prince's Building, Alexandra House, Landmark and Chater House in Hong Kong's Central district and has worked on hotels throughout China for brands including The Langham, Mandarin Oriental and St Regis. An Aedas team led by architect Max Connop also designed Hotel Indigo in Hong Kong, which went viral on social media after its overhanging rooftop swimming pool was unveiled in 2013.
Griffiths founded his own architectural firm when he first moved to Hong Kong in the mid 1980s, though it went through several incarnations before it became Aedas in 2002. “In the '80s and '90s, Hong Kong was a growing city and therefore delivered a lot of work,” Griffiths explains. “Hong Kong was coming out of a recession, so it seemed like there was an opportunity to start a private practice here. And also the UK is already built. Europe's already built. Whereas here, most of what you see in Hong Kong was not built in 1985, but it was very obvious that it was going to be, so the opportunity to design things that were actually going to be built was much greater here in Asia than anywhere else in the world.”
The Hong Kong office is still Aedas' largest, though the firm now also has bases in the UK, Germany, the USA and across the Middle East and Asia, with three offices in mainland China and one in India. Griffiths' insistence on having staff permanently based in these countries is unusual, especially when compared with other leading architectural firms, which often design remotely from Europe or America. “We believe very strongly that the projects that we're doing should be embedded in the local culture and community,” Griffiths says. “In the same way that a general practitioner doctor needs to be embedded in the community to understand what diseases are going around at that point in time, so architects need to be embedded in the community as well.
“I would argue that very, very few building types can be designed offshore by people who do not know intimately the cities and countries that they're designing for. If you're an international architect designing out of London or New York, and your designers – the staff you're using – have never lived in Chengdu or Beijing, then I think it's extraordinarily challenging, in fact I would say it is arrogant, to prepare designs and put buildings into those cities that have been designed in such an off-handed fashion.”
Griffiths also ensures that Aedas takes on a wide variety of jobs, designing everything from hotels to subway stations to private houses, because, he states, “if we're always doing the latest steel-and-glass office building, that's not going to get us a very deep understanding of that local community.” This desire to connect with the local culture is evident in one of Aedas' recent projects, the revitalisation of a group of historic shop houses around Mallory Street in Hong Kong's Wanchai district that date from the 1910s.
Rather than tearing down the original structures, Aedas was enlisted to restore and adapt this historic neighbourhood. This meant strengthening the traditional pitched roofs, tiled floors and cantilevered balconies, constructing a new annex and finding myriad ways to ensure that these old houses were safe for commercial use. The restored buildings are now home to speciality shops, arty cafes and restaurants. Revitalisation is always a challenge but, Griffiths explains, “the task is about understanding how have people changed, how have the demands changed and how we can take – or can we take – an old building and make it relevant”.
This focus on “relevance” and what people need from their cities may be what you'd expect from an architect, but Griffiths' interest in the urban fabric is so extensive that he now writes essays on the subject of city planning. Looking into the future, he says, “We need to reduce pollution, increase sustainability, reduce the amount of materials used and use our feet more to travel. Simple little things like that. Where's that going to take us? It's going to take people towards living and working closer together.”
This has led Griffiths to come up with a new model of development for what he describes as “urban hubs”, which are commuter centres where roads and often railways intersect. King's Cross in London is one example, another is the area between Times Square and Grand Central Station in New York.
Aedas' solution for equivalent spaces in Chinese cities is to build high-density and mixed-use complexes, which often house offices, retail space and apartments or hotels all in one development. “The cities of the West haven't developed a new model of hub for a very long time,” Griffiths laments. “How can we improve connectivity? Because this is what it's all about, it's about how to improve connectivity.
“What we're doing is starting to evaporate that idea of towers in the sky. They're going to start going away as we're going to get wider and fatter and more diffuse buildings. That's what's on our drawing boards in China. So we've started to see a new pattern of urbanity, of urban form, in China – and that will spread out across the world.”