Chris Mulvey of Safdie Architects on Raffles City Chongqing and the Firm's Unique Approach

Design:ED Podcast is an inside look into the field of architecture told from the perspective of individuals that are leading the industry. This motivational series grants unique insight into the making of a successful design career, from humble beginnings to worldwide recognition. Every week, featured guests share their personal highs and lows on their journey to success, that is sure to inspire audiences at all levels of the industry. Listening to their stories will provide a rare blueprint for anyone seeking to advance their career, and elevate their work to the next level.

In this episode, host Aaron Prinz speaks with Chris Mulvey, Managing Principal of Safdie Architects. Chris provides the podcast with an inside look into the design of Raffles City Chongqing, what it is like to work side-by-side with Moshe Safdie, and the firm’s unique approach to architecture as a global design firm.


Safdie Architects is known for creating some of the most unique architecture with Habitat 67 and Jewel that just opened in Singapore and now with Raffles City Chongqing. Can you take our audience through that design process? (2:10) 

  • “I think it’s an interesting evolution for us. A lot of people and the media point towards Marina Bay Sands as being one of the first sky parks. It was the first to have that sort of name or nomenclature but for us, Habitat 67 really had the first sky park. It was at an individual level of trying to bring people’s backyards and gardens up in the sky and give everyone that as an amenity but there were also the pedestrian streets that brought people from one apartment to the next… I think this notion of trying to find ways to bring human living environments in areas where there is density is something that has always been of interest to Moshe and the interest of the firm. I would say the genesis of the sky park in Marina Bay Sands and the conservatory which is kind of a glass enclosed variation in Chongqing, were both very much responses to the site. In Singapore, the client had an incredible amount of program that needed to fit on a relatively small site. The hotel couldn't fit above the casino or the convention center or the theaters it just didn't work structurally or programmatically. By the time you deployed all of the program area across the site there was very little site area so where you would normally put the pool and the parks, at the base of the hotel or on a podium, that space wasn't available. Moshe said, “let's put it where it wants to go and where it can go.” That's what gave rise to the sky parks across the tops of the towers. I think Chongqing was very different. They're both similar in the respect that they have multiple towers that we were able to deal with that once. It's not a building typology it's an urban typology. When you have more than one building what does that mean and what can you do? In Chongqing it was very different. We wanted to take this dense city to the perimeter of the site and push the towers to the perimeter of the site. Because we want to create a fantastic public space, a public garden, on the roof of the podium. In this part of the city, probably the densest city in China, they didn't have that type of space. We thought by pushing this to the perimeter, we're going to give everyone on the roof of the podium a park. Therefore, some of the program that we were trying to create, we wanted to do that in the sky. We were going to elevate that so it's sort of this bustling street in the sky. In Singapore, it's the hotel but in Chongqing it's the public observatory, a private residential club, it's the hotel lobby, two restaurants, a cafe, and sort of an overlook over the river. It's much more programmatically diverse. For us, not only formally and conceptually, it’s the next generation from a programmatic standpoint. It's also interesting to look at how much can you push that in terms of the typology…”    

Raffles City is now the world’s tallest sky bridge. How much of Safdie Architects designs are just pushing new typologies just for the sake of creating something that has never been done before? (5:10)

  • “We are trying to develop, and Moshe has been doing this for 50 years. He has been trying to develop ways to mitigate scale and break down the scale of buildings. That's what Habitat was. It was fractionalizing the apartment building to create individuality and a sense of individual ownership in a location within a broader context. As we get faced with doing that in more and more dense areas, particularly in Asia where we have been working a lot over the last ten or twelve years, it's a much more significant problem. It is probably one of the most critical problems facing architects and urban designers today. How do you deal with scale? One way is that you move the people and the public off of the ground plane and give them the experience of being on those different levels and breaking down the scale both programmatically and visually. There are some similarities, of course, between the projects but programmatically and conceptually they are different. They are also very much related to their location. We are fortunate to have projects located on sites, with clients, that are adventurous so we can explore these ideas. In some locations they are relevant and in some locations they are not. There is a good deal of time between Marina Bay Sands and Chongqing, ten years at least, where we didn’t get to explore those types of things. You look at other ways of addressing these same issues. Whether it is in residential projects or other areas, like in Jewel. We are trying to look at the same issues but the nature of that project, and the nature of the site and the program, don’t allow for that. They allow for innovation in another area but not necessarily this. I think what we are trying to do is advance the discourse by creating those types of spaces that are memorable places for people in the city and really look at the intersection of urbanism and architecture…” 

You started at Safdie Architects as an intern. In your opinion what sets the office apart from other firms at that level and what keeps people with the firm? (11:04)

  • “I think most people join the office for to have the experience of working directly with Moshe. That comes whether you’re an intern or a principal. He is very accessible, and he works on all the projects. He is the lead designer on all the projects that we undertake. When I came on initially, he was working with a very close group of principals that had been with him a very long time. Anywhere from fifteen to thirty years at that point. People join for that reason and people join for the types of projects that we get to do, but people stay because of the collegiality. It is a very open office, very non-hierarchical. That creates a lot of younger architects to really rise rather quickly, take responsibility, and get exposed to a wide array of things. Aside from the architectural projects and the urban projects, we still lecture quite widely and do a lot of publications and exhibitions. You get exposed to a lot of facets of the practice. There were three or four of us that came in the same summer of the same year. We are all still here. We have been practicing, not only with each other, but along side Moshe for twenty-five years, and we have developed as that next core group of principals that are working with him and supporting and directing the office…”  

You have taken part in a number of projects all over the world from Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas to the Singapore and China. How has the exposure to so may different cultures influenced the way in which you, or the firm, approach a design? (13:40)

  • “That has always been what the office has done. Moshe began in Montreal with Habitat but then he moved the office to Somerville because he came to teach at Harvard at the GSD. We had an office in Jerusalem because of his upbringing and work that we were doing there. We ended up being based in Boston just because that is where he rooted himself and decided to build the practice but a majority of our work is not in Boston. A majority of our work is international. We all support and really appreciate Moshe’s general approach and what we try to do as architects is to put ourselves in the place of the people that are going to use that building. So that is not only a programmatic issue of, what does someone that comes to a library do or want to achieve? What is that experience for them? It can be a wonderful place to share knowledge but that person is also from a certain area. A library in Salt Lake is very different than a library in Vancouver. The office has always been rooted in diversity, and that is one of the most fantastic parts of the office that we try to keep balanced all the time. We are always working at different geographies at different scales with different program types for different clients, and that variety allows us to go from one to the next and look at the unique conditions and parameters of each site. Ten or twelve years ago, we were working with a curator in New York, Donald Albrecht, to put together a retrospective of the offices work… Donald came up with a very apt way of describing Moshe as a “global citizen.” It’s this person who has, not only the ability, but the interest to draw from and represent local cultural and local aspirations. That is one of the first principles that we operate in as an office. We do not start work on a project until we have gone to the site, and spent time in the city to really understand the specifics of geography and climate, but the nuances of the site. That becomes the basis of how we start our work…” 

You lead the firm’s business management and operations. I think some young architects value design over the business side of architecture. How does having a clear understanding of the business contribute to Safdie Architects? (19:20)

  • “There is a tendency that those growing up in the profession may not see the business side as “design” so to say or not as a creative effort. Therefore, it begins to get relegated or marginalized. If you can’t be sustainable in terms of your operations, then you are not going to have the opportunity to come back and do good design. We do believe that if you do good work then you will get good work, but what I’ve really learned to understand is that the business side of the practice is obviously integral for the ability for us to apply our trade. It goes over everything. It’s ensuring that we have appropriate and adequate fees to be able to explore the designs to the extent that we would want to and to develop the documents to a certain level that it can be built in a certain area. That changes for the level of documentation that is needed in Singapore where things are done as a design build approach. It is very different from India and it is very different from the US. Understanding the context, then you have to come up with a creative designed response. A turning point for me was working with the firm’s previous managing principal and realizing that the business side of things aren’t just tasks. If they are treated as tasks then it is just calculation, accounting, or bookkeeping. That’s not what the business is about. It’s about being creative to how we approach things. Why do we put this person on this project and not that one? Because it’s going to give them a different career path… A lot of this is done as a collective. Being able to have those more business side discussions actively with the other designers, principals and project managers allows us to see thing a little differently…”  

About this author
Cite: Design:ED. "Chris Mulvey of Safdie Architects on Raffles City Chongqing and the Firm's Unique Approach" 04 Jan 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

萨夫迪建筑事务所合伙人Chris Mulvey,谈重庆来福士方案

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