High design society

HDR International Group design principal Alex Wu talks about connecting people through design.


HDR International Group design principal Alex Wu talks about connecting people through design.

How did your career begin?

I started in New York and spent my time at KPF. I spent the last 8 years at KMD in San Francisco. They were a very highline design firm, and I was recruited to HDR to start an international practice which is only focused on high design international work.

In places like Abu Dhabi and Dubai, design really matters, and design becomes part of the brand of the community or the region, so our focus is to explore how to reinvent buildings.

What's in the pipeline now?

At HDR International Group, we're looking for design that actually makes a difference in the world. The Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi (CCAD) is the most important project in the world, because after 9/11, it's very difficult to enter the US and go to a top teaching hospital.

So to offer that in the Middle East will not only save lives, it will hopefully become a good steward for the world in terms of breaching borders and offering state-of-the-art healthcare not just for the Middle East, but perhaps Asia as well.

What informs your designs?

Being a minority myself in America, I try to erase the lines of difference. Architecture can actually bring people together, which is why I used the village concept [in CCAD], to erase some of the lines between gender, ethnicity and culture.

So many people in the world have fears of the Middle East because they don't know how wonderful the people are there. We need great places to bring people together.

The other aspect of design, which many designers don't talk about, is the architecture of emotion. We're also looking for projects that evoke a sense of community and create a wide variety of experiences.

One of the things I'm trying to do differently is to not look towards historic design, [rather] to bring a modernism. What we want to show is the local culture with a modern flair. We're also looking to expand and create real destinations.

Do you think that's what people are looking for in the region?

One of the great fears I have for the Middle East is the type of copycat architecture that can be seen almost anywhere in the world. [But] parts of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are so unique. For Westerners it's the unique architecture, iconic architecture that really captivates us.

I think the Middle East has really led a movement of change and has opened our eyes to unbelievable heights of what can be done. Although very expensive, through lessons learned, [the Middle East] is starting to progress to a whole new level of design without repetition.

Are there differences between Dubai and Abu Dhabi architecture?

Westerners may consider a lot of Dubai to be an enlarged Las Vegas, but there really is some unique architectural style, forms and shapes and they're really leading the way in design projects.

Abu Dhabi is taking a different approach; they're trying to brand as the cultural hub of the world. Projects like Saadiyat Island, on completion, will create an effect we've never seen before in terms of revitalisation.

They're taking more of the urbanistic movement, looking at lessons learned in smart urban planning, creating community and transportation. It is really showing stewardship in caring for its people.

In your opinion, is Dubai less effective as a steward then?

Absolutely not. I'm in complete an utter awe of the success of Dubai in such a short amount of time. There are very few places that have grown so quickly and branded themselves so quickly.

Dubai amazes me in what they've done, and Abu Dhabi has taken a different approach. They've stepped back and looked at some of the lessons of Dubai and looked at projects that can work together as a region, such as the cultural projects.

Abu Dhabi has looked at creating Masdar, MIT and CCAD because they're great generators for a skilled labour. Since the average age of students has risen to about 28, [students are] great consumers, they make great wages and spend money revitalising cities.

Masdar is an important part of Abu Dhabi's sustainability drive. What effect does sustainability have on design?

It creates great awareness. San Francisco has been leading USGBC LEED certification for years now. Hopefully the Middle East and Masdar will be stewards for the world to bring in awareness of carbon free environments and energy efficiency.

Here in the West, we're reading about this now and this sends a great message to the world that they lead in innovation in the Middle East. That's why sustainability is such a great effect for architecture.

Do you think that sustainability is connecting cultures?

Absolutely. It brings a lot of innovations from places like Silicon Valley to the Middle East. So that culture is cross-fertilised to the Middle East, so when Abu Dhabi is looking for global brands in different programmes, those expectations are met and it starts to transform a culture.

How much of a role does research play in your design?

One of the great benefits of HDR having over 6000 full-time employees is that we have an in-house consulting group where we employ doctors, nurses and former hospital CEOs, who help designers understand the human emotion, and how we reduce risk of infectious disease in hospitals.

I believe we're the only company that does such a thing. Research is perhaps the most important aspect of how HDR approaches each building type.

What's the appeal of working on international projects?

It's really a journey of discovery. We're looking at areas that are really on the cutting-edge of architecture and technology, like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Singapore or China.

Our group is really focused on looking for jobs that are significant, complex and really will make a difference to help more than just the facility, but the entire region, community or city.

Places like the Middle East and China are really paving the way for signature architecture. They have a real awareness of how design matters.

What's your opinion on architects who focus entirely on creating stylistic icons?

I call it ‘black cape' architecture. I always read stories about these stylistic architects and I can almost imagine a black cape flowing behind them. High design and great architecture is less about style and more about creating a project that is for the people.

We are very much interested in style but, more importantly, in community and great architecture. I can't stress enough the importance of creating community.

In order to create great buildings, you have to have a great understanding of our place in the world and open up your heart to all the regions and what they're trying to do.

It's about trying to understand the language of the client. Every city has its own unique language, and to create great architecture you need to understand that.

For my group, art is the one true constant, but it has to be about efficiency, community, and a true love for the history for the built environment.

Most popular


CW Oman Awards 2020: Meet the winners
A round of the thirteen winning names at the Construction Week Oman Awards 2020 that


Leaders UAE 2020: Building a sustainable, 'resilient' infra
AESG’s Phillipa Grant, Burohappold’s Farah Naz, and Samana's Imran Farooq on a sustainable built environment
CW In Focus | Inside the Leaders in KSA Awards 2019 in Riyadh
Meet the winners in all 10 categories and learn more about Vision 2030 in this

Latest Issue

Construction Week - Issue 767
Sep 01, 2020