Tan Zie Chon.
TAN ZIE CHON, wearing sports shoes, dark casual pants, a black blazer and black framed glasses, led me into a well-decorated reception room in their 1,800-square-meter office inside the building near Haibin Square in Futian District, which their company designed and built in 2004.
The 38-year-old business development director and general manager of Archurban Shenzhen, the first Singaporean company to offer design and management services in China, is a third-generation overseas Chinese who grew up and lived in Singapore for some 20 years and graduated from the School of Architecture, RMIT, Melbourne, Australia.
Fresh architectural blood in Shenzhen
In 2005, Tan came to Shenzhen for an internship and has remained here since. As the son of Tan Cheng Siong, the one-time key adviser to the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone Planning Commission and founder of the company, Tan carries on his father’s work and continues to introduce revolutionary urban and architectural concepts to China.
“I came at a time when Shenzhen had already been developing for a few years. It seemed that there were a lot more opportunities in China, compared with Singapore, an obviously smaller market. At that time, everybody wanted to come to China,” said Tan.
During his early days in the city, Tan learned and witnessed how the company, at the helm of the company’s founder and other experienced design architects, introduced new architectural concepts and ideas to the city, sometimes even affecting real changes on certain rules.
Taking the safety regulation problem they hit in the Shenzhen East Pacific Garden Project, the first 3A luxury housing in China, as an example, Tan talked about how they wanted to design a basement car park with open ventilation wells instead of the normally dark and unventilated ones, and by inviting the fire safety department officials to Singapore to study the cases and architectural design schemes there, successfully convinced the department to allow the design and change the rules.
As Tan accumulated experience in the field over the years, he started to lead projects. One of those he considers successful is the Peninsula project in Nanshan District, which is now selling at 100,000 yuan (US$14,492) per square meter. The site sits facing Binhai Avenue and the northwestern corner of the property is a bit oddly shaped, both of which presented difficulties for the team. “With a limited site area, we had to look to distributing the functions both horizontally and vertically,” said Tan.
Typically in Shenzhen, projects of this kind opt for a traditional ground-level and street-front shopping layout, but Chon and his team decided to design a three-story mini-mall type structure at the odd northwest corner to make good use of the leftover space, thus creating a convenient area for retail activities and ensuring the separation and privacy of the residential areas. Vertically, they designed three tower blocks located above a naturally lit and ventilated half-basement car park, which formed the podium. With vertical landscaping facing the main road, the podium also acts as a screen to dissipate noise pollution.
Brilliant and innovative as they may be, things don’t always work out for the team. As sometimes the clients just aren’t willing to accept new ideas.
One example was the proposal for a low-density villa area in Shekou Seaworld. “My team really liked the location. It was a very promising and precious waterfront district so we wanted to propose a distinct and unique design. We took cues from the spectacular phenomena of circular atoll formations found in some oceans, and proposed buildings with a stepped circular layout and large central courtyards.”
Tan Zie Chon sits in a well-decorated reception room in his company’s office.
Photo by Chen Xiaochun
According to their proposal, the ground level would be raised to ensure maximum openness and space. The circular layout would also maximize the view.
The client liked the bold innovative idea, but in the end, a more conservative approach was adopted.
“Still we look for more outlets for creativity and currently we have a few projects under way in Shekou, Songgang and Longhua areas. Though kept under wraps for now, these are going to be very exciting projects, and I am really looking forward to seeing them completed in one or two years.”
A bridge for the exchange of expertise
New and creative architectural ideas are not all the professional architect brings to the city. He also facilitates the exchange of knowledge and expertise between Shenzhen and Singapore.
For example, every building in Shenzhen has a property maintenance fund which consists of part of the maintenance fee paid by the residents. The government controls the fund and is learning how to manage it more effectively. “They approached me and asked me ‘how does Singapore do it? Can we meet some of the experts and have a discussion with them?’” Tan recalled.
Then the Chinese-Singaporean went ahead and contacted the Singapore town council who manages public facilities in Singapore and invited some experts to come over for an exchange. Apart from organizing the event and bringing the experts here, Tan and his team also helped to do a lot of translation.
Having lived and worked in Futian District for 10 years now, Tan likes this district and the city. As an active citizen, he is concerned with the development of the city and has developed some insightful views on pressing issues such as the growing population and housing shortage.
From the perspective of city planning, he thinks that improving and increasing the competitiveness of districts further away could distribute the population into other smaller city centers and help relieve pressure on the CBD.
Meanwhile, promoting and designing a different business model that is less office-centric and more home-based could help rebalance overall commercial and residential space usage. “With smaller, decentralized or shared workspaces gaining a foothold in the city, the need to commute and the pressure on transport infrastructure will also be reduced.”
When it comes to the development of the city, he thinks that “Shenzhen, known as a hotbed for good design companies and professionals, is quite energetic and full of promise,” but, he warns, “not without concerns.”
“You encourage creative startups. It’s easier to start doing business because a lot of expertise is here. But, if the cost keeps going up, it’s going to become difficult.”
He also added that Shenzhen has to be careful to avoid attracting big companies only and turning away small ones, for a lot of energy and innovation comes from the small and supporting industries which help the city become more structurally competitive.
As a professional architect and a concerned resident, Tan also lives a fulfilling life here.
Well-connected with the consulate general and embassy, he is enthusiastic about helping his own countrymen live in Shenzhen. He is also a member of the Rojak United football team in Shenzhen which comprises both expatriates and locals.