Society is warming to the idea of smart cities. Intuitively, we might think of the metropolises of the future as the dominion of companion robots, delivery drones and internet-connected street lights. Yet the concept of smart cities has more to do with using the existing technologies to tackle economic, social, and environmental challenges than moonshot inventions.
To understand the vast topic better, we asked Luigi Campanale, the CEO of SCE Project ASIA, a Milan-headquartered multidisciplinary architecture and engineering firm, about ways Asian cities can use their cultural heritage to fight against massive societal challenges while promoting a better quality of life.
Providing integrated design services, SCE Project Asia has taken part in a number of high profile hospitality and cultural projects such as the restoration of Saigon’s Ben Thanh Market, a preliminary study of St. Joseph's Cathedral in Hanoi and, most recently, entering a design competition for the new Opera House in Thu Thiem, Saigon.
Luigi, who joined SCE Project in 2003 as project architect and starting from 2016 has been the executive director of the company’s Vietnam and Singapore branches, is now leading the design in the whole Indo-Pacific region. Over the years, Luigi has lent his expertise to many iconic developments, including St. Regis Hotel & Serviced Apartments in Kuala Lumpur, ‘“888” retail complex in Danang, the new engine plant for BMW in north-east China and recently the restoration of the ‘Secretariat’ in Yangon, a Victorian-colonial masterpiece and the country’s most intriguing architectural landmark.
Among the challenges tomorrow's cities of Asia face, why do you see heritage preservation as one of the most pressing issues?
Imagine an afternoon spent teleporting around Southeast Asia’s metropolises and taking a snapshot of each. What your photographs will reveal is that cities nowadays tend to look similar, if not the same: anonymous high-rises, a smattering of “landmark” buildings that are pretty much interchangeable, cookie-cutter shopping malls, lack of green spaces and public areas, dearth of cultural facilities and, ultimately, lack of cultural identity.
The world has experienced an unprecedented economic boom and urban growth during the last three decades. This has come at a price. Issues associated with rapid urbanization are beginning to pile up. Land is a scarce commodity that only “the haves” can afford, so the benefits created by the growing economy are canceled out by an ever expanding inequality. Customs and traditions, at least those that can’t be easily packaged and sold to tourists as part of ‘cultural shows’, are being lost too.
On top of that, what the ongoing pandemic has made clear is that the current development model is not sustainable. Natural resources are not infinite and without a fast change of direction future generations are doomed.
To answer your question, the real point here is not only to think about the restoration of heritage buildings in Asia because “we should do so” or “in Europe they did so”, but to consider the whole building stock as an opportunity for a more virtuous development. It means halting the expansion of the cities in the suburbs and focusing on retrofitting buildings within the city.
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SCE Project Asia is a keen advocate for smart cities as a way of making urban conurbations more livable. What solutions do smart cities offer and in what way do they contribute to preserving the cultural legacy?
Smart city principles, if properly interpreted and implemented, don’t have to stand in contrast with the idea of heritage preservation. On the contrary, with smart cities you have a great opportunity to solve structural issues from the planning perspective: focusing on the “public realm” to increase liveability; aiming for a balance between built and natural environments; promoting economic prosperity, social stability and equality; offering more educational opportunities; and creating cultural and recreational facilities.
There are certain practical aspects that need rethinking, like functionality for example. What are we putting inside the newly renovated heritage buildings to ensure they continue to be used in their next incarnation?
Many problems cities currently face aren’t easy to see. How do you communicate ‘invisible’ problems and convince stakeholders to act?
I believe the issues are quite visible to most of us, but there is a diffuse belief among citizens that little can be done to improve liveability, hence a tendency to ignore problems and adapt to the reality on the ground.
To change this mindset, the idea of circular economy (choosing recycled over new) should be introduced to the public. It’s only through information campaigns and introduction of the concept into the school curriculum that we can hope to instill such values as protection of the environment and cultural heritage preservation.
How can cities deal with the influx of new citizens and best absorb these new populations in the built environment in a sustainable way?
Each city presents a different set of characteristics, but in terms of general strategy the idea is to “push” adaptive reuse of existing buildings where possible. Alternatively, we should be encouraging investors through economic incentives to build within the current city boundaries. This way, we eliminate the need to create additional infrastructure to service yet another new suburb.
So the general idea is to stop enlarging mega-cities that are already congested and not balanced. This can be achieved through creating jobs and improving infrastructure outside of mega-cities to discourage migration and integrating projects on a regional level (following the principles of economic aggregation and infrastructure integration) that will encourage people to commute rather than relocate to mega-cities.
You’ve named adaptive reuse as one of the solutions to the heritage preservation problem. What opportunities does repurposing historic gems offer?
Redevelopment opportunities in Vietnam’s tier one cities as well as smaller ones like Dalat are many. Tourism industry and retail could benefit greatly from a policy giving economic incentives to those who invest in adaptive reuse, like converting colonial or modernist villas into boutique hotels or retail outlets providing a unique environment combined with cultural experience. This approach could create a new market for a more sophisticated and sensitive consumer.
The government should put much more effort in restoring old palaces and historical places. One example is Gia Long Palace (the Ho Chi Minh City Museum). A great example of colonial architecture, it lies in a state of neglect and is woefully underutilized. With a right policy in place, all the big players in Vietnam’s real estate industry would be honored to be part of a project of such scale and importance.
You designed Hanoi Felicity Smart District and Saigon Golden Square – can these developments be considered a blueprint for the sustainable cities of the future?
Hanoi Felicity was only the starting point of our Smart City initiative. It is located far from the city center, so certain cultural aspects are absent. Saigon Golden Square, on the other hand, represents the perfect blueprint of our idea of sustainable development: significant presence of integrated public transportation systems; historical buildings that can be restored and repurposed; harmonious integration with the built environment; and implementation of pedestrian and green areas.
What is SCE doing to promote the circular economy and educate the public?
We’ve organized events in the past that bring together city planners, architects, the public and the media and are working on other initiatives slated for late 2020 or beginning of 2021.