People Profile: Director Oscar Martinez on the great design opportunities in South-East Asia

Chapman Taylor Director Oscar Martinez leads our South-East Asian operations from our Bangkok studio. With over fifteen years of experience in architecture and property development, Oscar has designed and developed buildings and masterplans for world-class projects across Europe, Asia and the Middle East. In this interview, he tells us about how his career took him from London to the Middle East and Asia, his strategy for Chapman Taylor’s direction in South-East Asia and the opportunities now available to develop pioneering projects across the region.

Tell us about your background and route into architecture

I have been interested in art since childhood – I was drawing at the age of four, and was doing oil paintings at six! My parents enrolled me in a renowned artist’s studio, which I loved from the moment I walked in. I would happily spend long hours away from everyone else, completely captivated by my new reality. As I grew older, I also developed a love for nature and science, and everything related to logic and numbers. Architecture was therefore the perfect subject for me, blending all my interests. My grandfather worked in the planning department in my home town of Logroño, in the Rioja region of northern Spain, and his work was a formative influence for me.

I studied initially in Pamplona and Madrid, and later in London, where I gained work experience – this gave me the opportunity to learn about diverse and contrasting design philosophies and techniques. I worked in London for a few years at SOM (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill), designing projects all around the world and developing a deeper understanding of how different cultures, geographies, climates and other factors influence the architecture in each location.

After London, I moved to Dubai, where I worked for the Embassy of Spain in foreign trade and international business across several Middle Eastern countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). I concentrated on the fields of architecture, infrastructure, masterplanning and large-scale developments. After that, I was involved in sustainable property management for the European Commission in Brussels (with a large portfolio of more than 74 buildings), before moving to Bangkok.

Mui Dinh Ecopark, Vietnam

Why did you move to Bangkok, and how did you come to join Chapman Taylor?

It was completely by chance. I arrived temporarily (I thought) to set up and expand operations in Asia for a London company, and I ended up staying and getting involved in property development for a leading developer, directing a few large-scale projects and high-rise buildings in Thailand.

I was then offered the opportunity to take over Chapman Taylor’s operations in South-East Asia from (now London Interiors Director) Jon Grant, who originally started, and successfully grew, the business over the previous five years. Chapman Taylor had a great vision for growth in the region, looking into new markets such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia, and had in place the right elements and positioning to make it a success. I was attracted to the challenge and to the great potential for developing outstanding work in the region.

Sa Pa luxury wellness and cultural resort, Vietnam

What does your role involve?

I have two main hats, the design hat and the business hat (although I might wear others on any given day). I run our operations in the region, leading the design for the projects in collaboration with the specialist sector leaders from our international network. My main focus is working closely with our clients to ensure that we create world-class projects for them, using my international experience of both design and property development to help deliver attractive developments that are functionally efficient, innovative and commercially successful.

In just a few years, we have expanded our talent base, resources and presence, and we have established a strong, permanent regional base that is known for creating and delivering industry-leading designs across multiple sectors. We are even working on projects in Europe, the Middle East and North Asia because clients and international colleagues request our involvement due to the expertise we have.

Coc San hillside district, Vietnam

What is your central design philosophy?

My experience has taught me that there is a very high level of sophistication in simplicity – it is a lot more difficult to achieve something clean, efficient, harmonised and uncluttered, but the end-result is always superior, stands the test of time, is more operationally and cost-efficient and ensures a smoother user experience. Whenever we start on a new project, be it a masterplan, a high-rise tower or an interior design, I always stress the importance of removing anything unnecessary which takes value away from the design. Following this principle results in a more refined and sophisticated end-product – simple, timeless and pure, with higher value and a much longer lifespan.

Brighton Grand Hotel in Pattaya

What projects has your studio completed recently?

We recently completed and opened the first phase of The British Club in Bangkok – an exclusive members-only club which offers restaurants, bars, a fitness centre, swimming pools, squash courts, games rooms, offices and other amenities. Phase two has now begun. The design is all about conveying British traditions, events, history and modern identity – the ‘Cool Britannia’ and the ‘Rule Brittania’ under one roof.

We also recently completed a major IKEA development at Bangyai’s Central Westgate centre, creating the largest IKEA store in South-East Asia. This was an innovative design which incorporated many unusual new features and merged the store seamlessly with the adjacent shopping centre over several floors. There is an array of bespoke F&B areas within the scheme, including an organic restaurant, several bistros and more informal cafés – some of them with their own libraries. The building is also highly sustainable – it has been certified LEED Platinum and Green Mark Platinum, and incorporates recycling and water-saving features, rooftop photovoltaic panels, an energy-saving façade and recycled materials. The development has been an extraordinary success since opening and it is now being used as a flagship reference for IKEA developments elsewhere in the region.

In terms of interior design, we recently completed the modern and relaxing interior design for the Brighton Grand Hotel in Pattaya, and we will soon be starting a few other resorts on the south coast of Thailand. We have just finished new offices in Bangkok for Hongkong Land, a major international property investment group, and we are on track to complete construction of the new premium flagship Fitness First ICON, at Bangkok’s ICON SIAM shopping centre, in mid-2019.

Hongkong Land offices, Bangkok

What are the particular challenges faced when designing for South-East Asia?

The market here is very different from that, for example, in Europe – there is an extraordinary rate of development, with whole cities and districts being created rapidly, and economic expansion in the region averages between 4% and 7% a year. The main challenge is time – how to deliver high-quality and context-appropriate design within much shorter timescales. We have the expertise to adapt to the rapidly changing environment and process, with multiple variables being considered and iterations evolving constantly as matters progress.

Thailand, in particular, is now quite mature, in terms of development. It is something of a test market for new concepts, particularly in commercial areas, retail and hospitality. Developers from across the region, and from places such as Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore, come to Thailand to be inspired by new ideas, concepts and techniques, because they know it is such an innovative market. Thailand’s culture values fine arts, design and craftsmanship very highly – an appreciation of good design and an eye for artistic detail is embedded from a very young age, and that is why there are so many good designers here. We feel lucky to have such a talented and skilled team in our Bangkok studio – working on projects worldwide, sharing knowledge and helping to shape our company’s future.

Hon Thi Eco Islands in Nha Phu Bay, Vietnam

What is in the pipeline?

A major project is on the way at Mui Dinh Ecopark in Ninh Thuan, Vietnam (which won “Best Futura Mega-Project” at the 2018 Global MIPIM Awards) – one of the biggest hospitality masterplans in South-East Asia, with seven beachside resort hotels, 500 ocean view villas, an adventure park, an ecological discovery park, a hilltop casino, a mountain clubhouse, a beach club, an impressive natural sand dune landscape and many other attractive elements. The infrastructure is under construction, so we will be able to see something special taking shape very soon.

We have also designed other large masterplans in Vietnam, such as the zero-waste Hon Thi Eco Islands in Nha Phu Bay, the Coc San hillside district and the Sa Pa luxury wellness and cultural resort. In central Ho Chi Minh City, we are creating Nam Quang Landmark Tower, a new retail, office and residential tower which blends design inspiration from traditional Vietnamese silk lanterns with innovative architectural materials to create a striking focal point on the city’s skyline.

We are currently developing a complex of seaside luxury villas – The Cove, at Koh Phangan. It is a delight to work on crafted individual residences because we get to work at a very close, human scale, and the smallest details can bring a wonderful accent to each of the spaces. The development is now under construction and we hope that the new owners will be able to enjoy the beautiful setting within a year.

We are designing some major transport infrastructure projects for high-speed rail hubs, as well as a number of luxury healthcare developments which emphasise wellbeing, biophilic design and sensorial experiences. Beyond South-East Asia, we have been working on a spectacular new wellness resort in India, a masterplan in Oman and shopping centres in the UK, among other global projects.

The Cove, at Koh Phangan, Thailand

What changes can we expect in the coming years?

We are currently working on a highly advanced ‘smart city’, which will be an exemplar of how buildings and cities will need to be designed in the not-too-distant future. New developments need to integrate ‘smart city’ components or will miss the opportunity and require retrofitting later. Technology and user experience is evolving at lightning speed and ‘proptech’ is already changing the way we think about the built environment. New business models include offering space as a service, co-living, co-working, AI and machine learning processes, driverless cars, etc. These are not just concepts, they are real operating businesses. We are now expanding our design work for ‘smart cities’ in the region because, in just a few years, all new buildings will need to be ‘smart’ (using technology and cutting-edge planning to create buildings which can optimise and improve themselves – self-monitoring, self-configuring, self-diagnosing and self-correcting without human intervention).

Whether designing individual residences, office buildings, shopping centres or entire districts, simplicity and user experience will be key – too often, developments in the region are over-complicated or have an unfocused concept. Some of them throw too much technology in without looking at customer interaction, and people are not interested in operating machines all day. It is the similar to UX web design, which seeks an online shopping process with fewer clicks to achieve higher sales - the more clicks required, the lower the chance of a completed transaction.

IKEA Bangyai - The largest IKEA store in South-East Asia

What brings clients back to your studio?

The studio’s strength is the expertise we have in designing high-quality developments to international standards, along with our specialised sector knowledge. We have a strong portfolio of high-quality international projects as well as a talented team, stationed locally in South-East Asia. We understand the market, local regulations and the intricate contextual details needed for all stages from initial concept to completion. It isn’t easy to find international firms with both a permanent presence in the region and the capability to bring projects of such scale and complexity through to delivery.

Chapman Taylor has a well-defined design ethos, based on creativity, collaboration, credible design and client focus. We never impose a certain style or preconception – we always start from zero for each client and project, and we research thoroughly, examine the context and drive our designs according to our findings. We are like a bespoke tailor – we will create something solely for, and completely adapted to, the particular situation, delivering unique and irreplaceable buildings, spaces and places. That is why our clients come back to us repeatedly.

Oscar Martinez (B.Sc. Tech. Architecture, Degree Architecture Eng., Grad Cert. Arch: Computing & Digital Design)

Director, Bangkok

With over a decade of experience in architecture and property development, Oscar has designed and developed buildings and masterplans for world-class projects across Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Now based in Asia, he concentrates on delivering unique projects and leading designs for our ambitious clients in the region.

Areas of expertise:

Masterplanning / Residential / Commercial / Retail

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