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A Tale of Two Cities: Mixed-use Development in China

New building types and approaches to development leverage the best of international and local talents and practices.

By Tim Magill and David Moreno
September 13, 2007

With the emergence of China as a major force in the global market, only the most cloistered observer could retain an image of the country as a single geography or culture. However, the proliferation of photography and press of innumerable, singular intent, high-rise towers crowding the skylines of newly dense, Chinese mega-cities often suggests an undifferentiated approach to architecture and urban planning that is already creating enormous challenges – from pollution to traffic – for these burgeoning centers. At the same time, the rapid pace of urbanization has created opportunities for architectural experimentation that is pushing the design of super-tall structures to new heights, literally and figuratively.


In the face of simultaneous hype and critique of the Chinese building boom, 5+DESIGN is working with a few thoughtful developers pursuing new building types and approaches to development that leverage the best of international and local talents and practices. Two current projects – Harbour Mile, a large scale, urban, mixed-use development in Macau, and Luxehills, a suburban town center and residential complex in Chengdu – are distinct examples from an increasingly sophisticated development community that is not simply importing a slick Western image but establishing a deeper architectural foundation for long-term growth in their cities.


For all the obvious differences in character and content, what these two projects share is an understanding on the part of the developers that the Chinese market is ready for an alternative to the placeless, formulaic towers that now dominate so many of their cities. Recognizing the potential of the Western mixed-use model, they are rolling up their sleeves with teams of international and Chinese architects to adapt the prototype and craft singular developments that incorporate the best aspects of successful projects and beloved places from around the world, yet respond to the special social and cultural requirements of their local markets.


Harbour Mile


The oldest European colony in China, the island city of Macau was under Portuguese rule for more than 150 years until sovereignty was transferred to China in 1999. Today Macau’s flourishing economy is based on tourism, most particularly on gaming. As the only legal gambling location in China with gaming revenues that surpassed those of Las Vegas in 2006, Macau has attracted significant development with casinos, luxury hotels, and upscale shopping malls being built by Las Vegas gaming giants including Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn.


Harbour Mile, however, is being developed by Hong Kong-based Shun Tak Holdings, which is headed by the Macanese Ho family. As local developers they recognize the need for both a more diverse tourism base and first-class residential options for the Macanese and expatriate populations. They also understand the social, cultural, and political implications of developing more than 4 million square feet in their hometown.


Shun Tak’s flagship project is being built on the premier site on the island, directly adjacent to the existing government-owned exhibition center and the landmark Macau Tower. Such high visibility brings public scrutiny and with all eyes on Harbour Mile, Shun Tak has committed to creating a comprehensive development of the highest design and environmental quality. The project will include signature brand retail, a luxury hotel, and gaming space, in addition to a range of residential options from luxury villas and townhomes to rowhouses and high-rise apartments – all with open water views. Contemporary in character, the architecture references the Sino-Portuguese heritage of Macau in the design of arcades and decorative screens, and in gardens, open-air plazas, and balconies.


To achieve their ambitious vision, Shun Tak has assembled an experienced team capable of addressing every aspect of the project. 5+DESIGN is charged with defining the design for the entire development. The executive architect, Wong & Ouyang, as well as the structural, MEP, and traffic engineers are all well-regarded Hong Kong professionals; for the very specific issues related to building in Macau, local architect Eddie Wong & Associates is responsible.


Shun Tak’s own sophisticated internal development team with specialists in design, construction, and marketing is fully engaged, with CEO Pansy Ho and deputy managing director Daisy Ho taking leading roles. While all team members report to the client, interdisciplinary collaboration is essential as the project is proceeding at rapid pace. 5+DESIGN’s Hong Kong office stays engaged with client and other team members on a daily basis as the scope and program change in response to demand in a heated development market. Decisions are constantly measured against the greater aspirations for the project, which is as much about a vision of Macau as it is about Shun Tak.




In Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province and China’s fifth largest city, Chengdu Wide Horizon Real Estate Development has been creating suburban residential communities for a number of years. With a mild climate, lush vegetation, numerous teahouses and bars, the city’s residents have a deep appreciation for their beautiful, natural context and a reputation for knowing how to enjoy life. The development team traveled extensively to research small-scale urban settings and suburban communities in order to define the characteristics that best suit their local market. Once they determined that the California lifestyle with its emphasis on comfort, amenities, and the outdoors was a good fit for their plans they began to assemble design teams from up and down the West Coast.


Although only a few of these hands-on owners speak English, the development team for Luxehills meets monthly in 5+DESIGN’s Hollywood office for a three- to five-day design charrette. The project, a mixed-use town center with 700 residential units integrated with retail, restaurants, office, hotel, and community space that draws on Southern California communities and European hill towns for inspiration, has evolved from an iterative process that includes hours of discussion facilitated by our Chinese speaking architects and the English speakers on the development staff.


With quick, conceptual sketches lining the walls, the collaborative process thrives on the sharing of ideas as we work hand-in-hand with the developers to visualize their concepts and to find an architectural expression for them. Other California-based team members, including Famous Garden Landscape Design, BDI Lighting, and signage and graphic designers Selbert Perkins Design Collaborative, join the discussion as the design concepts move to greater levels of detail.


Back in Chengdu, the executive architect, engineers, and contractors, with their understanding of local codes, government regulations, and market conditions, report directly to the developers with design oversight from 5+DESIGN’s architects. Materials, too, will be locally sourced, eliminating the need to import.


This highly unusual, intensely interactive exchange truly depends on design as a universal language capable of creating a new model of suburban living. Luxehills will offer a first generation of newly affluent Chinese buyers all the amenities of a town center at a human scale with an interactive network of shopping streets and plazas, and access to outdoor activities as well as the benefits of density, diverse architecture, public transportation, and shared community spaces.



Tim Magill and David Moreno are founding partners at 5+DESIGN. The two-year-old firm, with over 65 people in offices in Hollywood, California, and Hong Kong, has teams of international designers working on over 20 projects in 16 cities on four continents.


(click on pictures to enlarge)

(KWP Group)
Harbour Mile, Macau: aerial overview

(Spine 3D)
Eye-level view of the retail piazza

(KWP Group)
North retail façade

(Igor Knezevic)
South view of rowhouses

(Igor Knezevic)
Hotel and serviced apartment towers

Interior retail center “Rodeo Gateway”

Interior view of retail center

(David Moreno)
Luxehills , Chengdu, China: 3D hand sketch of town square

Model view of project

(Michal Suffczynski)
View of central town square

(Michal Suffczynski)
Courtyard view

(David Moreno)
Hand sketch public waterfront area

(David Moreno)
Hand sketch of town square

Luxehills site plan

© 2007