Lauded architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “More and more, so it seems to me, light is the beautifier of the building.”
For architects, light is the most important aspect of design — if it’s done very well, the design can look incredible. If it’s not done right, whatever the design is, it will look awful.
Noor, which translates to “light from the heavens”, was established in 2003 by David Hodkinson and Luc Lejeune. Fast forward to today, now “Studio Noor” is a leading architecture and design studio with a focus on hospitality projects headquartered in Vietnam and Greece. To David, they don’t just design hospitality, they enjoy and consume the industry.
Growing up exposed to his father’s printing and cartography background, David already knew he wanted to be an architect. And he excels at it. David brings with him years of global experience working for UK’s Glenn Howells and Architecture PLB, not to mention having achieved a First Class Honors degree in Architecture at Oxford Brookes University in England, and getting his Master’s in Architecture and Interiors from the Royal College of Art in London.
Fondly enough, before taking his Master’s, his “Okay, let’s try something else” brought him to Vietnam, spending six to seven months of touring around the country. While in Royal College of Art, all David had in mind was how he felt so alive and in touch with life in Vietnam. Eighteen years later, he is still here… bringing light from the heavens through his projects.
Vietcetera visited Studio Noor, tucked in one of Saigon’s busiest streets, to meet with their co-founding partner and design director, David Hodkinson, to talk about how the studio is managing overseas projects despite the pandemic and why not having a signature design is their kind of signature.
If Studio Noor were a person, what would he/she be like?
For sure, well-traveled. Studio Noor is the kind of person who enjoys a new experience, always up for a new adventure, the first in line to try the newest restaurant in town, or resort, or basically anything that’s fresh and unique. Also, this person is somewhere between the age of 35 to 45 — not too young, not too old, and still has the energy to take on an adventure any time of day.
How does Noor Studio select projects? What are some of the must-haves for you to consider a project?
We’ve been here 18 years and I think people already have an understanding of who we are, what kind of projects we do. Every project that we take is different. I think people see that we like to do something different every time. Let’s just say, not having a signature is our signature, if that even makes sense. But of course, we do have a specialty and we like to do bespoke, beautiful, elegant interiors but at the same time, we like a challenge. A great example would be the Azerai Ke Ga Bay, which is a minimalist, understated resort. Then 25 minutes down the road, we’re doing a 250-room family 5-star hotel. Two totally different projects. So we’re not really fixed on one thing, we like the challenge, that’s what keeps it fresh. It makes a lot more work, but as I say, we like the challenge. Often we don’t choose our projects as such, they choose us. We are more hospitality-focused, but it’s not like we’re rejecting projects. Oftentimes we are introduced by the hotel operators like Hyatt, Hilton, or Marriott. When asked, we always put in a proposal, it’s just whether or not we’re selected.
You worked with the legendary hotelier Adrian Zecha on Azerai Ke Ga Bay. What was the experience like?
There are two hoteliers who I always wanted to work with, one is Ian Schrager and the other is Adrian Zecha. Adrian Zecha founded Aman, Regent International Hotels, GHM, and Azerai among others, these are hotels and resorts that we all love and I’ve always appreciated their designs. To be able to work with Adrian Zecha was an honor. Although he’s not involved in the day-to-day developments of the project, he’s got a team working closely with us and just as professional as he is. I met Adrian to discuss the design two or three times in Singapore and here in Vietnam at the site. There was trust and understanding as to what kind of design and what the direction is. One of the reasons why they brought us on to the project is because we have previously been involved in La Residence before it became Azerai. The only thing that let us down was the pandemic, otherwise, we would have opened six or seven months earlier.
Your projects span the world: from luxury river cruise boats in the Amazon to hotels in KSA. From a management perspective, especially with restrictions on travel, how do you manage such a geographically dispersed team?
How did we manage? Surprisingly, with practice, I think. Our team is here in Saigon and the design is happening mostly here. My business partner is based in Athens, Greece because we’re also growing our business in Europe. So working with people overseas whilst I am here is not really an experience that’s new to me. Even though we have projects in Peru, Saudi Arabia, we tend to have close relationships with our clients. Because of that, there’s understanding and trust, which makes a big difference. They don’t have to see me. With Zoom and all these apps, we become very adaptive. It’s always “we got this idea and what do you think,” that kind of relationship.
Some see adaptive reuse as the next big thing in hospitality, as such projects combine storytelling with heritage preservation. Is it wishful thinking? Why is Vietnam not embracing the trend (yet)?
It’s a great idea, I think. It can work very well with certain kinds of buildings and certain kinds of projects. Obviously, with bars and restaurants, it’s very easy because reusing an existing space adds a character to a space that you can’t design, but for hotels, it can be more challenging. We were looking at one project in Myanmar which was an old trading office from the 1920s I believe, and they had all these old furniture pieces and screens which informed our proposal for the hotel. So the design of the bathroom took inspiration from the screen that was serving as partitions in the office. It can be fascinating, but obviously bringing in all the services and these kinds of things can be a challenge and quite expensive. In Vietnam, we’ve always wanted to do this kind of project. But there can be a lack of appreciation of heritage buildings here. As I understand, the primary reason is the value of land and also maybe because a lot of the architecture isn't inherently Vietnamese so not everyone has the respect for it that it deserves, which is very important to have. However, this is changing and in the future, we’d love to see it more in Vietnam.
What's your WHY? Why do you do things, why do you even bother making your projects 'extra' special?
Business is one side, but actually, for me, I’d rather spend the extra time to make it right and to be proud of it, to make sure it’s working as per the brief than counting the hours. I want us all to be proud of it at the end of the day. Not the kind like ‘this is my legacy’ sort of thing. I mean, Azerai is the combination of experience of 18 years, it’s a design-led yet understated project but it’s something that I’m very proud of. Not just about reputation but something that I can say, “I’m happy and I’ve done it, we’ve finished it well”.
How do you move forward when people tell you your idea is not good enough?
To be honest, I don’t accept no for an answer because we know what we’re doing. As an architect, most of our business is interior design but in order to do that properly, you have to understand every other aspect whether the structure or even the air conditioning. If I know we can find another solution to make the design work then I will push until we can make it happen. One project we had on Dong Khoi at the Sheraton was a coffee shop called Mojo. It was a tiny space, only 6-meter wide with 3 floors, and we added a mezzanine. But to add this mezzanine, we needed some sort of structure. The first structural engineer we worked with wanted to put columns, which meant the space would become smaller than it already was. So I was like, “Okay forget this, let’s not do this, we need to find another structural engineer who’s more up for a challenge”. So we worked with another structural engineer and we simply hung the mezzanine from the slab above so there was no column below and it was so much better and saved us a lot of space. So this kind of thing if I know we can find a better solution, then I will be very strict with it.
What’s in the pipeline that you’re really excited about?
There’s a resort in Danang which was actually the first 5-star resort in Vietnam — The Furama Resort Da Nang. When I was here for that break in 2000, we went on a family trip there. Twenty years later, they’ve asked us to be involved in a renovation. It’s just under 200 keys and was built incredibly well but they’ve never undertaken a full renovation for over 20 years. And it excites me and the whole team that we’re coming in to do it. Aside from that, Novaland has a lot of hotels on the go, and we’re working on two, the Movenpick Novaworld Phan Thiet and the Avani Cam Ranh Resort & Villas which is opening in 2022. Today, most of our projects are in Vietnam. The development of hotels and resorts is booming. Despite the global crisis, it makes sense to develop a hotel during this period when the occupancy is down because people will eventually come back. One of the great things about being here during the pandemic is being able to enjoy Vietnam and I think everyone has the same feeling. We’re very lucky.