The architect currently in charge of renovating the Grand Hotel, Joy Choi Tin Tin, started her office in Macau in 2001 with a hit, the design of the Ho Tung Library facilities. Joy speaks with Business Daily about learning and drawing from diverse experiences, how opportunities have improved for Chinese architects in the city, and how she ended up designing a dozen LRT stations. But the architect urges that an update to the laws and regulations regulating the field is necessary

Where were you trained and how did your early career develop?
I had the chance to join the national examination in China and be accepted in an architectural school in Canton (Guangdong province). In that four-year time, almost every summer I was doing jobs in Macau, working at the archaeological site at Saint Paul’s ruins. During the university time, I also had the chance to go to Hong Kong University as a visiting student. In addition, in my family we are all in architecture and engineering professions, so this had given me a very early understanding of architectural design. Because of all of the training and background, I had a good opportunity to join Palmer and Turner Architects. Before joining Palmer and Turner, after I had graduated, I worked for Manuel Vicente for one year.
I stayed in Palmer and Turner for six years in total. While working there, I did the Bank of China building at Praia Grande. Another project I have worked on, in Beijing, is also a famous landmark complex, with a hotel, offices, and serviced apartments. These kinds of projects require the architect to have language skills, communication skills, technical skills, of course, and management skills as well; not only design skills. So it is a very comprehensive training, in addition to working and practice.

In which ways did your early student and professional experiences shape your practice?
During my time at university, I was more interested in vernacular Chinese architecture, following my professor, who is one of the founders of vernacular Chinese architecture in China. Vernacular architecture promotes local ways of building. Material, climate, and colour are their major concerns in the design elements. In my time, in the 1990s, people didn’t really care too much about this, because in China [at that time] people liked modern, high-rising buildings, or copying architectural styles from anywhere in the world. When I went to Hong Kong University, or while practicing in that architecture firm, I had the opportunity to learn skills, techniques, and technological approaches [to architecture]. But concept and culture-wise, I am still looking back to the vernacular. The main question would be, how can we make use of culture and technology tools to develop the design? I believe it is better if you have a tailor-made design, which fits and then people can use it for a long time and can change it by themselves. So the designer and the architect provide the conditions for this to happen. That’s the concept of my own philosophy of what doing architecture is.

How was the overall local reception to incorporating local methods and culture into architectural design at that time?
I was lucky to be here in Macau and, with this vision, to still work in projects while following my own design philosophy and directions. I say I am lucky because I also had many colleagues in China, and only a few of them are still in the design field. Most of them have already changed their professional orientation, helping clients on the developer’s side; some are project managers, some of them are just running businesses, not really in the field of design. This also depends on the opportunities as well, and in Macau we have the opportunity, and people appreciate it. In the beginning, I remember when I was working for Palmer and Turner, my first project was the Tai Fung Bank [headquarters] located in the Dynasty Plaza area. For this project, the leading architect was in Hong Kong, and I was following him there. While I was working in Palmer and Turner, I was following the Hong Kong design team to carry out the projects, and this later became my basis for starting my own office.

When was your company founded?
It was founded in 2001. Not immediately after Palmer and Turner. After Palmer and Turner I moved to MPS [Macau Professional Services], working with my former boss, [Jorge Miguel] Campina Ferreira, from CESL Asia Group, for three years. Under this group, they were running a lot of infrastructure projects, different facilities management, switch plant management, and a waste plant, in Taipa.
By mid-2001, I was leaving MPS, but actually planning to study in the United States, not really to open the office. I was applying for Yale University for a Master’s degree in law. The legal part has important implications in Macau and elsewhere, and clients would often come and ask how they could build. But I did not go [to Yale], because during the year I was preparing the application, I received several work invitations. One was the Ho Tung library, which was the first project of my office, in 2002. We were not doing the whole project that now can be seen, because it was partially rebuilding it. Later on, we changed the contract, and signed another contract to design it.
The other one was an invitation by the [former] Public Works director, Jaime Carion. At that time, in 2001, I was doing research projects and doing lots of writing. I wrote a letter to the then secretary of Public Works, Ao Man Long, telling him there were very few opportunities for young architects to work in Macau. I was lucky, because I was working for big firms, but there were so few opportunities for Chinese architects. So I wrote a long letter to [the former Secretary] and he responded. He asked the director of Public Works to call me and he said there was a project for the interior design of the Macau ID department at China Plaza [building], in 2002.

What was the situation back then and what has changed so far for people in your field now?
In 2001 and 2002, it was a very low season in construction in Macau. My ex-colleagues were very available, many of them, even in Palmer and Turner, were only working part-time. Actually I used to have a very good team, when I was working for my previous two companies, and we also had people outside, such as structural engineers, and we were always working together, with the architect leading the team. [Nowadays] Chinese architects get more opportunities, for sure. There are many opportunities, because there are now different developers, not only the government. During my early career time, or nearly 15 years ago, we very much relied on the government, or some small private sector projects. Right now the variation is quite big, I would say half-half government and private. But then, I would say, public projects are of one type, and private sector projects are of another type. In the public sector, social facilities such as schools, nurseries, and youth or community centres, have developed more in the past ten years. But it is also very difficult to work on that, because a lot of regulations are local, and we need to follow them, and the contractors are also local. So, local people or local architects are more suitable to handle those projects.

Are locals more suitable because they understand the law and regulations?
Yes, the law and the regulations, but also the people, and the methods and the material, and all those things. In our profession, the local practice is very different from that of people from China or people from Hong Kong. From China, architects or designers don’t approach the project material-wise, or follow the tendering part or the project part. They only do the design. Hong Kong is closer to Macau’s way of working, but it is also different from the Portuguese way. In Hong Kong, they run all the stages of the project, from the very beginning until the handing over of the key to the client, so that makes the fee higher. But the Macau type, Portuguese type, is just in-between Hong Kong and China. The architects [here] work with the material, the tender, the contractors, and the finishing, but the ‘fiscal’ [oversight], the supervision part would be another team. Those are the three different types. So if you are running a local Macau project, local people are more suitable. No matter if it is Portuguese or Chinese. They are good enough to work.

Since the new urban planning law and the new land law has been approved, has it become easier for you to work?
It is quite similar, because the latest regulations, or rather the guidelines we work with, called ‘circular,’ date from 2009. But it is not the most complete one. It is the one that is easier for architects and engineers to practice. So those are only selective. But the fire law dates from 1995, which is very old, and the building regulations are from 1963. It is really out of date. Between 1985 and 1990 a small ‘circular’ or updating on the building regulations was issued, in Portuguese, and it is still the one being used.

In your office, you have people coming from different parts of the world, with different training. Is it difficult to find enough qualified architects in Macau?
Yes, correct. It is not easy to find people, so we prefer to train them. We are a young company, so we have no problem in doing that. Everybody is young, with energy, patience, and we have the same vision, which I think is the most important. If our members don’t share the same vision, they usually won’t stay a long time. Macau is a very quiet place, or as we say, everything is very low-key, not many positive ways of promotion, or encouragement. So it is very dependent on the architect himself or herself to understand or to appreciate their own profession. Design is a special profession. It is very particular. In some professions, with instruction and directions, you can immediately produce the work, but design is not like that. It is very subjective. It is not easy to keep people, and you need to explore yourself and explore others. If you don’t have love for the project, you cannot do the project.

Your office won several contracts to design the Light Rail Transit (LRT) stations. Had you previously acquired experience while working for companies like MPS to take on a project like this?
No, the LRT project is totally different from MPS’s kind of infrastructure, which is more industry-related and enterprise-based. For the LRT, the government launched an invited tender, for which they had certain criteria. You needed to have certain experience, a team of infrastructure engineers, and so on. So, they only invited infrastructure companies. They did not directly invite architects. But those from the infrastructure companies would invite the architects to join the team. We joined two teams, and they won the tenders. One team for one zone, which comprises around three to four stations, depending on the location. In the beginning, we joined two teams who won the tenders, so that means we were working in two zones, which makes around eight stations. Later on, another team had an architect who left, and they invited us to join them. So, finally, we were part of three teams, and that’s why we are doing eleven stations out of 23 in total.

Was it a first for your company to work on this type of project?
Yes, but we only designed the stations, it has nothing to do with the metro itself. Four stations are in Taipa, which are already built. But for this project, the government has some type of arrangements. The government has one typical station, which should apply to most of the stations’ designs. But they are still open for architects to design individually, because the locations are different, the environment is different, so we will tailor-make for the particular one [allowed by the government] not for the standard one, that is, the template for most of them.

How are the stations and what have you planned for the tailor-made ones?
The stations are semi-open, with no air-conditioning systems, all of them, although the rain proofing is not perfect. Under heavy rain and wind, it might affect people, and not be very convenient. We have also proposed one green station, but this project has been suspended. It is the one located in the NAPE area. There was a lot of fighting and discussion about having a station inside the garden and the park [Alameda Dr. Carlos d’Assumpção]. Actually if they managed to build the station, it would be very beautiful, a total eco-garden, with vertical green walls, a rainwater collection system for the plants, and also with solar panels and a wind mill. But this station was suspended before the project was launched.

Is the LRT actually going to run on the Macau peninsula?
I guess so, because the train cars are already here, sitting somewhere. It is a matter of time, although on the Macau side it has been delayed too much. For one, there are plans to change the China-Macau border, in Gongbei. They have a new urban planning there. And the Gongbei one is very important because it will be connected to Phase 2 on the Inner harbour side and it will also connect NAPE Harbour. We have also designed the station for the ferry terminal. One is at the Sands hotel, one is at the Wynn hotel, and one is at the science museum. Now the one in the garden has been removed.

Casinos are other large-sized projects, but they are not being designed by local architects, are they?
No, the design and the development come from the United States, or from Hong Kong. Macau architects only endorse the projects, because there should be a locally-registered architect to endorse the project. It is the same for the hotels. And also they don’t follow the Macau Law, they follow American standards in regards to design regulations. Say, for instance, in regards to fire escapes, their design is totally different, and American architects know [about the American regulations] better than us, I cannot go into details. There are so many laws regarding the height, the width, the staircases, the space of the fire compartment, the arrangements for shops and the public area, the window openings. There are so many related to design that they don’t really need to follow Macau’s. They follow their own standards.

What about safety regulations?
For projects other than the casino-hotels, the local authority would not accept [to apply foreign regulations]. For Ho Tung library, we had to follow the local regulations. It is different, this is very technical. The scale is different, the regulation to be followed is another one. So this means the regulation needs to be updated anyway, anytime. It is a lot of work. There have always been discussions in the legislative assembly and at the executive council level, but the latest attempt has been banned at the top level. So it will have to be revised again.