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Think Globally, Design Locally

As technology continues to draw the world closer together, architects, designers, and hospitality brands must balance the need to streamline development across multiple projects with environmental sensitivity and awareness of local culture.

In the abstract, this means drawing inspiration from around the globe. In practical terms, designing locally means sourcing building materials—from decorative elements to plumbing fixtures—from reliable suppliers with strong local service networks. Though tastes and customs vary widely around the world, TOTO products have one thing in common: an established, eco-friendly, global network covering everything from production and distribution to sales and service.

How do designers and clients work together to meet contemporary challenges like climate change, water scarcity, and human rights, to name a few? We asked five designers from top global design firms to talk about the ways they’ve met these modern challenges.

Assembling the Best Team

Collin Burry is the Design Director at Gensler, a global architecture, design, and planning company, headquartered in San Francisco. The firm has designed everything from Facebook's new Menlo Park HQ to the 632-meter-high (2,073-foot) Shanghai Tower in Shanghai, and SFO's Terminal Two. For Burry, the key to working successfully is assembling the best team possible from the company’s extensive network. “We offer global resources to every client and to every project, but we believe that the best design is informed by local insights that only people authentically connected to a market can inform,” says Burry, who points out that their teams are always led by local talent who apply lessons learned from the best work around the world. For the Shanghai Tower project, Gensler pulled together a dynamic team of experts from their 11 offices around the world, and tapped Shanghai native Jun Xia to take the lead. “Jun’s deep roots to Shanghai have helped us create a highly-innovative building that is a true representation of China’s ascension as a world power,” he says.

Maintaining Cultural Authenticity and Environmental Sensitivity

Maintaining a company’s high standards of design quality and project delivery is the biggest challenge for Sara Schuster, an Associate Principal at STUDIOS, a global practice with six offices around the world including one in Mumbai, which opened in 2012. “Every challenge from licensing and legal requirements, to construction capabilities, to developing local resources with everyone from engineers to associate firms, must be met with long-term investment and commitment to deliver the highest quality”, she says. “There are no quick fixes.” Moreover, as local consultancy skills develop, foreign designers face growing competition from local firms—though collaboration is also increasingly common.

Generally speaking, Schuster sees trends moving towards cultural authenticity and increased sustainability both in the United States and abroad. Take the Jaipur Residential Development in Jaipur, India, for example. The project sits on a prominent site adjacent to Statue Circle, a memorial to the city’s founding, so STUDIOS took inspiration from local landmarks, as well as the principles of Vaastu, the ancient Hindu doctrine that describes how the laws of nature affect human dwellings.

The site was studied as a grid, with specific building functions allocated throughout to achieve a natural balance. STUDIOS began developing a massing scheme with units encircling an internal courtyard that, while efficient, did not provide sufficient ventilation or outdoor space, so the design evolved to include a sloping cascade of individual, stepped terraces. The final massing slopes upward from northeast to southwest, in keeping with Vaastu doctrine, with tiered residences that face Statue Circle. Finally, the continuous vertical penetrations within the stepped East tower massing bring daylight and natural ventilation to the interior of each unit, and a water feature within the courtyard aids in passive cooling of the complex. The end result is housing that is both culturally appropriate and environmentally responsible.

Accommodating Difference

One of the biggest driving forces trends in the whole global-versus-local debate is the millennial generation, whose travel preferences are dramatically different from those of previous generations. The hotel industry, in particular, is focused on adapting to that travel style, according to Julia Monk, a Senior Vice President and Director of Hospitality Design based in HOK’s Shanghai office. This tech-savvy “Now Generation” prefers to travel in a different style from their parents, and can be identified as not having “wants” but “needs.” And while the hospitality industry customarily prides itself on service, the rising implementation of kiosk technology provides the type of ritual millenials prefer. In fact, 36 percent of millenials prefer automated kiosk check-ins with little or no staff interaction, compared to just 19 percent of older travelers. (Not convinced? Just ask yourself when was the last time you visited a bank teller when you needed money, versus getting it from an ATM.)

Hotels are adapting existing brands or developing new ones to respond to the millennials, who constantly seek immediate gratification. “Lobbies have become more like communal living rooms, guest rooms are equipped for an abundance of electronic devices, free Wi-Fi is expected, and social media makes hotel reviews instantaneous,” Monk says. Her company worked with Wyndham Hotels to develop the Tryp brand, a mid-priced, family-friendly brand, that is well-known in Europe and recently opened its first US property near New York City’s Times Square. It features guest rooms with options like private elliptical machines and bunk beds for families. The TRYP Hotel Times Square has also created a “social lobby” with a much younger and hipper vibe that draws guests to socialize in the lobby rather than remaining sequestered in their rooms, with the use of LobbyFriend, an app that helps hotel guests to meet and greet fellow travelers.

The challenge for designers in the hospitality sector, however, is addressing the needs of millennials, their parents, and their children under one roof. According to top travel companies, multi-generational family trips account for more than 10 percent of their entire business. Dan Austin, director of Austin-Lehman Adventures, says they’ve seen a tenfold increase in custom trips in recent years. “Groups range in size from as few as four to as many as 24 family members,” he says.

Staying on Brand

As someone working on a global basis, Monk’s biggest task is maintaining international brand standards, while at the same time, accommodating local culture and lifestyle. “For each of our projects, we start by defining a vision with the client to fully understand the hotel brand, the project architecture, and the location,” she explains. “The process requires a great deal of research to ensure that our reflection of the locality is not superficial.” For example, for a recent project in Changle, a bustling city located in Shandong province of China, the HOK team thoroughly researched the local arts community, starting with an independent exploration and ending with a research trip to the city to visit local artisans in their studios and view artistic traditions in the museums. They then incorporated ideas from the local arts of stone carving, lacquer painting, cork sculpting, and ceramics into the public areas.

Creating a Social Center

A veteran of the hospitality industry who designed her first hotel while still in college, Monk sees that on the global level, in many countries, hotels are not being designed exclusively for out-of-town travelers, but as social centers for the local community. “The Hyatt, for instance, places a major focus on developing a food and beverage program to suit the local community’s needs for entertaining friends, family, and business acquaintances”, says Monk. Indeed, their food-service motto—“Thoughfully Sourced. Carefully Served.”—translates to sourcing and providing healthy food and beverage options for Hyatt guests and associates, that are also good for local communities and the planet. The chain’s Park Hyatt in Toronto, for instance, offers gluten-free and vegetarian options on all menus in addition to supporting healthy communities by sourcing from local suppliers. The hotel also shares knowledge at schools and actively supports farmers’ markets, sponsoring local culinary schools to participate in competitions.

Appreciate Local Rituals and Traditions

For Shawn Sullivan, a Partner and Studio Leader at Rockwell Group, the key to working with a global brand like Nobu, the acclaimed Japanese restaurant chain, is understanding and appreciating the unique rituals and traditions of each project’s location. The firm has collaborated with Nobuyuki Matsuhisa to design 16 Nobu restaurants–10 in the U.S. and six overseas. “As designers, we need to anticipate how guests will use the spaces”, he says. “Owners and operators take a different approach. So, we also focus on how our clients will interact with their guests, which rituals should be created, and how to approach the kitchens.” There’s always a trend to flatten or simplify local differences to create a uniform aesthetic globally. However, the design team at Rockwell gravitates towards celebrating local characteristics and culture in their work. “People are more interested in visiting hotels and restaurants that capture the authenticity of each location than in having a design experience that they’ve already seen”, Sullivan says.

Getting into the fine-grained detail of what makes each location unique excites Sullivan the most, in addition to taking advantage of the construction techniques and specialties that are strongly rooted in local tradition and craftsmanship. “For example, Greece has a long history of stone carving, and in Asia there’s amazing joinery, millwork, and artisanal and lacquered finishes,” he says. It’s a design sensibility that carries over to different venues all over the world. The Nobu restaurant at the InterContinental hotel in Hong Kong, for example, feels like it’s floating on the adjacent Victoria Harbor, and comes complete with a ceiling that is deeply rooted in Cantonese jewelry-making. It is composed of 450,000 sea-urchin spines arranged in a fluid, wave-like pattern that poetically reflects the water below.

The Rockwell Group also recently completed the first-ever Nobu Hotel, located at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, and for the hotel’s restaurant, they wanted to create a dramatic, see-and-be-seen atmosphere as a nod to Vegas glamour. They “de-materialized” the walls so that guests can see other diners, created an oversized curved bar, and used theatrical 20-foot woven wraparound screens to separate the restaurant from the casino.

The trend of drawing upon local customs and traditions isn’t going away anytime soon, and is only going to continue: “Clients across the board are wanting to create a true sense of place that is authentic to where they are, says Collin Burry. “So, a store in San Francisco needs to capture the essence of the Bay Area, while a store for that same client in Mexico City should feel like Mexico City.”

Contemporary Challenges, Timeless Solutions