Date: August 5, 2020
For Cheng Hsing Yao, the tenets of architecture and design are inextricably linked with nuances that make up the kaleidoscope of human life.
“It’s a fascinating discipline that combines art and science, engineering and aesthetics,” said Cheng, an architect by training and the country head of GuocoLand Ltd’s Singapore operations.
“It’s a profession that requires the use of your left and right brain, and a practice that makes you appreciate the multi-faceted nature of daily life.”
Today, Cheng continues to play a part in shaping Singapore’s cityscape through his day job of developing several high profile projects in the city, as well as serving in various governmental and institutional committees and councils.
The Bachelor of Architecture graduate from Newcastle University in the UK, who also holds a Master in Design Studies from Harvard University, first started off in Singapore’s public service.
There, he held leadership roles at the Centre for Liveable Cities and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), participating in iconic projects like Marina Bay and the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City.
Those were formative years for him in terms of seeing how public policies interact with private initiatives. “The public sector sets the framework and infrastructure for the city, while the private sector participates through the market, injecting capital to develop buildings for end-users,” he said.
“However, the real testament of how good the public policy or the development is finally the user’s experience. This is why no matter how large our projects are, we always start from the user’s perspective.”
A building project takes several years to plan and build, and after that, it can last for generations. Thus, the development concept and quality must stand the test of time, and be able to remain relevant over the long term.
“Having a good sense of the future is critical in development. What are the emergent trends, technological changes, lifestyle changes, and so on. For example, we’ve seen for some time how boundaries between living, working and playing have been blurring. This change has really accelerated in recent times,” he added.
“We’ve also seen that business cycles are shorter and less predictable, and almost all business sectors were facing one form of disruption or another. Thus, we put a lot of emphasis to make the homes or offices that we build as flexible and adaptable as possible.”
In 2012, Cheng joined GuocoLand first as Chief Operating Officer of the Singapore operations, before taking up his current appointment as Group Managing Director of GuocoLand Singapore.
Today, his experience is widely sought by professional and industry associations such as the Real Estate Developer’s Association of Singapore (REDAS) where he is Vice President, in addition to serving as a board member of the National Parks Board, and an executive committee member of the Urban Land Institute Singapore.
Listed on the Mainboard of Singapore Exchange since 1978, GuocoLand focuses on property development, property investment, property management and hotel operations. Its footprint spans the residential, hospitality, commercial and retail segments, as well as geographical markets of Singapore, China, Malaysia and Vietnam.
GuocoLand’s parent – Guoco Group Ltd – is listed on The Stock Exchange of Hong Kong and a member of the Hong Leong group of companies.
Looking back on the last eight years, Cheng finds deep satisfaction in seeing the progressive realisation of GuocoLand’s flagship developments in Singapore. They include Guoco Tower – Singapore’s tallest building – and Martin Modern, its luxury residential development situated in the highly coveted lifestyle enclave of Robertson Quay.
“Guoco Tower is a game changer. It represents several firsts for us,” Cheng noted.
“It is the group’s first Premium Grade A office as well as integrated mixed development built on top of one of the busiest MRT stations in Singapore. It’s the realisation of the group’s plan to develop a property investment business, in addition to its high-end residential business.”
“It’s also our first foray into place making and management. The development has changed the image and positioning of Tanjong Pagar into a premium commercial centre in the CBD.”
Guoco Tower’s tenants comprise many regional headquarters of multinational companies from business sectors like tech, media, finance and consumer.
“The 150,000 sq ft urban park of Guoco Tower is anchored by a key public space, surrounded by a retail village. We use it to hold events and activities. It also serves as a green lung for people to chill in,” he added.
The effects of Guoco Tower – dubbed “Vertical City” by netizens – on the community are already obvious.
“It has been, and continues to be, a catalyst in the rejuvenation of the Tanjong Pagar district,” said Cheng, who also co-chairs the Business Improvement District, or BID, called Discover Tanjong Pagar, comprising eight landlords that collectively work to place-manage the district.
Completed in phases in 2016 and 2017, Guoco Tower integrates 890,000 square feet of premium Grade A office space and 100,000 sq ft of lifestyle and food retail concepts, with 223 hotel rooms in Sofitel Singapore City Centre, as well as an Urban Park and City Room events venue. Crowning the 290-metre high Tower is the luxurious 181-unit Wallich Residence, with Singapore’s largest, highest and most expensive penthouse.
Designed as a green building with nature and sustainability in mind, Guoco Tower generates 250,000 kWh of renewable energy annually through its rooftop photovoltaic solar panels. This, and other energy-efficient building services, contribute to around 30% of energy savings compared with similar buildings. The development also captures and recycles 75% of rainwater to reduce water consumption.
The development has clinched a slew of accolades, including the World Gold Winner title for Mixed-Use Development category at the 2020 FIABCI World Prix d’Excellence Awards, the 2019 Urban Land Institute Global Awards for Excellence, as well as the Urban Habitat Single-Site Scale Award of Excellence under the 2019 Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat Annual Awards.
Likewise for Martin Modern, when the Group undertook the project, it started by questioning the definition of a luxury residential product.
“We began by asking what constitutes luxury in modern life. We realised modern lives are very hectic, and the home should be a place where time slows down, and people can recharge physically and mentally,” Cheng said.
The development, which comprises 450 residential units, was based on the concept of living within a botanic garden. An architect, better known for his work in Good Class Bungalow Areas than condominiums, was brought on board to design Martin Modern.
“Besides the concept that centres on having people feel like they’re coming home to a botanical garden, we also wanted to find a newer and more edgy aesthetics for luxury,” Cheng said.
“So we invited ip:li Architects, which has been prolific in building bungalows for clients with more cutting-edge taste. It was a rigorous process to marry the new aesthetics with the DNA of our high-end properties,” he added.
“The result is extremely rewarding, because it has redefined luxury, and also the area.”
Leader in Rejuvenation
Such benchmark projects also represent key milestones in the Group’s metamorphosis, Cheng said.
“GuocoLand has transformed from a developer of residential properties to one of large-scale, integrated mixed developments. It’s a conscious diversification strategy. Increasingly, we’re also being recognised for our abilities to uplift or rejuvenate the districts where we develop.”
Slated for completion in 2022 is its next flagship project – Guoco Midtown – situated in the Beach Road area, which will be another development that will transform its location.
Guoco Midtown comprises premium Grade A offices, public and retail spaces, an exclusive 33-storey residential tower Midtown Bay, and the conserved Beach Road Police Station building.
Located at the intersection of two key development corridors along Beach Road and the Ophir-Rochor Road area, Guoco Midtown will connect the three office micromarkets of City Hall, Marina Centre and Bugis. It also has an increased footprint via the Tan Quee Lan Street site.
Guoco Midtown is poised to become the new social heart for the Beach Road area. It will boost the district’s identity and vibrancy by providing a series of public spaces that can cater to different public activities and events.
“This is a follow-up to what we have done in Tanjong Pagar, where we have focused on building a place that the community can feel connected to,” Cheng said.
“By introducing new concepts based on live-work-play trends, this development will attract a whole new community of businesses, talents, residents and visitors. We believe it will redefine the area, and possibly create a new district identity.”
In the meantime, COVID-19 has been a major disruption to economies and lifestyles. Cheng sees the effects more in terms of an acceleration of trends.
For example, many companies have started to adopt work-from-home as an integral part of their work space strategy. The hectic lifestyle also means wellness will be an important consideration for home owners as well as office workers.
“Over the last few years, we’ve seen more and more black swan events – ranging from geopolitical to climate, economic, and now, health issues. I can’t remember a point in time over the past few years where we ever had a true Goldilocks environment.”
In fact, it is this phenomena of constant change that underscores the importance of being at the cutting edge of developments.
“Are we staying ahead of developing trends? Where are things heading? How do we remain at the forefront of such changes, and be relevant to our customers and users over the long term? These questions are perpetually in the back of my mind,” Cheng said.
There are no easy answers, and he is wary of latching onto what appears to be a quick fix. “It’s important to consider things holistically. It’s not just about resolving the problem at hand, but also coming up with an elegant solution that’s also adaptable through time.”
Unsurprisingly, his problem-solving approach – involving first principles, where one starts from the most basic or fundamental issue, rather than secondary input, then build an analysis from there – harks back to the fundamentals of design thinking.
While Cheng definitely encourages young people thinking of taking up architecture to do so if they have the interest, he points out that what’s more important is to pick up skills that can last a lifetime.
“Academic qualification is only one reference point of one’s capability. There’re many other more important life skills,” he said.
“Like the ability to learn and be creative, no matter your age. And the ability to look at things with a fresh pair of eyes, so that your analysis is not prejudiced by past experiences.”
GuocoLand has been listed on Singapore Exchange since 1978. The principal business activities of its subsidiaries are property development, property investment, hotel operations and property management. The Group has established property operations in Singapore, China, Malaysia and Vietnam, comprising residential, hospitality, commercial and retail developments. In 2017, GuocoLand marked its expansion beyond Asia into the UK and Australia through a strategic partnership with Eco World Development Group Bhd. The parent company of GuocoLand is Guoco Group Ltd, a company listed on the Mainboard of The Stock Exchange of Hong Kong. Guoco Group is a member of the Hong Leong group of companies. As at 30 June 2019, the GuocoLand Group had total assets of S$10.0 billion and total equity attributable to equity holders of S$4.2 billion.
The company website is: www.guocoland.com.sg.
Click here for the company’s StockFacts page.
For the half year ended 31 December 2019 financial results, click here.
First published on SGX website on 30 July 2020
About kopi-C: the Company brew
Text: Jennifer LH Tan
Photo: Company file
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