Sean Chiao: Designing Cities

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June 1, 2018 | BY Chit Lijauco

Urban designer Sean Chiao, a product of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, talks to Chit Lijauco about some of his design philosophies and why they are critical to the future of cities

The architect and urban designer Sean Chiao is photographed against the BGC skyscape. In a few hours he would be flying home to Hong Kong but not without stopping by Bonifacio Global City first, perhaps to visit the Philippine branch of his company Aecom and perchance to see again this part of the metropolis which he designed. “I took charge of BGC’s original master plan and the design guidelines. I am pleased to see the development has kept many essential parts of the plan,” he says, but adds, “Unfortunately, the support infrastructure system [such as the North Rail along C-5 and the train station] was not put in place to support the development density.”

Chiao espoused open spaces for the BGC in the mid-1990s, an advocacy that was met with some protest. The unbelievers told him the climate was too hot, and Filipinos do not want to go outdoors—to which he argued that Filipinos prefer staying indoors because there is no place for them to go outdoors. “Great public realm is critical to a successful city. We must create comfortable microclimate to let our citizens enjoy their outdoor public space and through their activities to celebrate their own cultural identity,” he averred.

Since his collaboration with the stakeholders of BGC, and even though his vision was not followed in detail, the president of AECOM Asia Pacific has kept his ties with the Philippines even closer. His company, a Fortune 500 fully integrated global infrastructure firm, is now involved with the comprehensive redevelopment plan of Clark Field into, what he says, the Philippines’ first “smart” city for the 21st century. Chiao reveals in general his design for the over 9,000-hectare former American air base: zoned institutional, commercial, high and low-rise residences, a new national sports centre, and plenty of public open space. “Underlying the whole development will be the right level of infrastructure to make the city thrive—from investments in transportation and technology to 21st century connectivity, mobility, productivity while maintaining a distinctly Filipino city authenticity.”

While doing this, Chiao also points his vision towards Intramuros via a unique collaboration between AECOM and his alma mater, the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). Chiao is a proud alumnus of this prestigious college which counts the famous architects Walter Gropius and IM Pei on its roster of graduates. He first learnt of it when he was doing his undergraduate studies in Taiwan; many of the professors he held in high esteem went to GSD. “Honestly, I didn’t think I could get in,” he revealed in an interview with his alma mater, also describing the opportunity as “both very exciting and intimidating.”

Originally from Taiwan, Chiao knew he wanted to be in the design field as early as when he was in grade school. He never veered away from this focus and was pretty sure, as well, that he did not just want to design buildings, he wanted to design cities and communities. “Buildings are important, and I think the space between buildings is crucial,” he explained. Thus, he looks at places in a more holistic approach, going beyond engineering and infrastructure to create places that impact life, economy, and the environment.

From the time he started building his career after graduation until today when GSD undergrads are perhaps looking up to him as an inspiration, Chiao’s connection with his alma mater has never been broken. When he was looking for a job, most of the heads of design companies who interviewed him were GSD graduates. When it was his turn to hire, he was approached by GSD graduates as well. More recently, he found an opportunity to reconnect with his school through his Asian roots via the GSD research studio. A six-year commitment of AECOM to Harvard’s graduate school of design, the Southeast Asia Studio involves choosing a major city in the region as the subject of a design study that requires students and faculty members to visit it and, according to GSD Dean Mohsen Mostafavi, “…explore holistic approaches to optimise access and usage of public spaces and critical transit infrastructure.” In the last three years, the Studio focused on Southeast Asia, starting with Jakarta, followed by Kuala Lumpur, and this year, Manila.

The Manila study, titled Manila: Future Habitations, focuses on three areas: the Port of Manila, the Baseco compound, and Intramuros including the adjacent Pasig Riverfront. According to AECOM, “the goal of the studio is to find a better condition than what is prevalent, and to work with the constraints of the existing conditions to find opportunity for all, not only for human habitation but the unification of all systems, natural and manmade, into a harmonious whole.” The Harvard team led by Mostafavi did its Manila visit last February; by May it will present the designs of its collaborative groups; in November, it plans to be back in Manila to exhibit the designs created by the 2018 GSD Asia Studio.

This area of Manila that GSD has chosen to design poses so many challenges—from congestion to pollution, from informal settlers to commercial hubs—but has a rich history dating back to the 16th century. With the way GSD students are trained to think, however, it will not be far-fetched to expect the unthinkable.

As Chiao tells Karen Davila in a television interview: “A low-hanging fruit is very important but you need to have a vision. Otherwise, how do you connect [the city] with the rest of the country or the rest of the world? Someone said that if you want to walk fast, you walk alone. If you want to walk far, you walk together. It’s very critical for everybody to walk together, have a vision, share the responsibility, and take Manila a long way, for a long time.”

Photography by Ian Santos

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