Inspiration can strike in many places. For award-winning architect Gordon Gn, the ability to create spaces that enlivens their community and surroundings sparks the creativity behind his building designs.

“I’ve always believed that the work created by architects made a real difference in people’s lives,” says the office director of HKS Singapore in an email interview. A graduate of the Architectural Association in London, Gn is now focusing on designing for healthcare, hospitality and mixed-use developments.

The master plan of Sentosa Island resort. Photo: HKS Singapore

Gn’s works speak for themselves: He is the brain behind the designs of buildings such as Resorts World Sentosa, Macau Island Hospital, and ParkwayHealth Gleneagles Shanghai International Hospital in China.

As a child, Gn gravitated towards drawing and playing with Lego bricks. This eventually led him to pursue architecture, as he wanted to “live in his drawings”. Architecture allows him to bring his designs into reality, he says. 

“As time progressed, I grew more intrigued by how the built environment affected our lives, mood and behaviour. We spend most of our lives in buildings — through architecture, there is an innate ability to shape how people live for the better,” he adds.

Gn has since progressed beyond realising his drawings. Today, Gn is said to be one of the first architects to practice computational design in his works. He tells Options more.

You are one of the first architects to practise computational design. Can you break it down into simpler terms for us?

As it’s something that’s been around for decades, I wouldn’t dare call myself one of the first to practice computational design, although I am a big proponent of this methodology and the opportunity to utilise this to empower designers and architects.

Computational design is the workflow that enables us to enhance project outcomes and performance through a digital model, where we can simulate various scenarios to develop better solutions across multiple criteria. It allows us to test, produce, and see everything within a digital environment that mimics real-world conditions.

We practice many types of simulations within our HKS studio, such as occupancy, environmental, structural and energy simulations. These techniques enable us to evaluate building performance before construction, creating more sustainable and efficient solutions.

Where was it that you first picked up computational design?

My peers and tutors at the Architectural Association exposed me to numerous computational design and parametric software. This piqued my curiosity about how these new tools would impact architecture, design thinking and construction.

After graduating and starting at HKS, my colleagues at the Laboratory for Intensive Exploration (LINE) studio were hugely influential in helping me understand the opportunities for utilising computation to optimise the information and elevate architectural methodologies.

Nustar Resort & Casino, Cebu, Philippines. Photo: HKS Singapore

What’s the difference between traditional architects and those who use computational design? Is there a difference between the work process and the final product?

As a way of thinking, computational design allows us to utilise processes outside the norm that involve algorithmic design, performance optimisation and automated documentation using a variety of programming languages. By leveraging emerging technologies and methodologies, we can elevate architectural design and production modes through simulation, digital fabrication, and visualisation by integrating VR and AR technologies.

The new method of computational design opens the possibilities of discovering unexpected novel designs productively and navigating trade-offs between high-performing designs, their constraints, and their parameters. This contrasts with the traditional manner of form generation and co-design by humans, which is then translated to the computer. Such methodology introduces new ways to think, make, and produce architecture, streamlining work flow — allowing us to iterate rigorously and increase collaboration efforts between designers and clients while unlocking the creative power of AI for architects and engineers.

How does computational design fill the gaps in the current architecture landscape in Asia, and how do you see it altering the entire sector in Asia and globally?

As a region, the design approach practised by many design studios has gone beyond the days of manual sketching, with most practices using digital software for the design process. However, they are still fairly traditional, as digital modelling is a direct visual translation of the designer’s mind.

The current transition from computer-aided design to computational design in architecture represents a profound shift in design thinking and methods. Representation is being replaced by simulation, and the crafting of objects is moving towards generating integrated systems through computational processes. This is a positive direction as it elevates the technological innovation of architecture as an industry that has stagnated behind other popular industries, such as the tech industry. 

Macau Island Hospital. Photo: HKS Singapore

Computational design is said to be able to create breakthroughs for the architectural industry in Singapore, Asia Pacific and beyond. How do you see it happening?

Computational design has allowed sophisticated design intelligence to expand very quickly into the earliest stages of the design process. Architects and designers can now leverage comprehensive, refined feedback tools to test and optimise configurations. This rapid prototyping allows faster and better decisions at the start of a project when those decisions have the greatest impact.

The cutting-edge innovation of computational design is integrating machine learning tools into processes. Most architecture design problems require simulations to decide constraints, for instance, finding the most energy-efficient building orientation. But real-time or surrogate modelling can mimic the behaviour of simulations, with data as accurate as a simulation would provide. This enables a data-driven, real-time modelling approach. Architects can make design moves with real-time feedback on the impacts of — for instance — energy performance and structural load analysis. The resulting accuracy is close enough to make intelligent design decisions. 

How can computational design be used to create socially beneficial developments, and what will its impact be on the design ecosystem?

While our contemporary environment is always changing, our professional obligations remain. As architects and designers of our environments, we face increasingly complex and interconnected challenges different from those of our past. In facing challenges of increasing complexity, our ability to solve these problems can be amplified through our intentional use of complexity in our approach — and computational design offers a way to bring a broader range of diverse perspectives to the table. Working within a shared model, we enable the type of split agency necessary for today’s and tomorrow’s problems — leveraging multiple perspectives for more resilient solutions. 

We should also recognise that the built environment accounts for nearly 50% of annual global carbon emissions, and computational design can help make better sustainable design decisions. In January 2020, HKS joined the United Nations Global Impact, and we’ve begun to track our corporate objectives and key results generated through some of these workflows in alignment with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

How do you get inspired for each project and remain inspired for every new project you take on?

As a studio, we approach each project considering its wider context — what it is and what it can be — beyond its strictly functional programme. The ability to enhance a building’s public nature and how the spaces we create can enliven its community and surroundings truly inspires me.  

Our design process typically starts with an analysis of the essential attributes of the project and context. Then we formulate strategies for transforming or adapting these attributes for existence within present and future conditions. We believe that this process is non-prescriptive and allows us to develop narratives and methods that are contextual and relevant and that create a deeper nature of place and sense of ownership for the project’s stakeholders.

Is there a project in your portfolio that you’re particularly proud of? 

The ParkwayHealth Gleneagles Shanghai International Hospital is one of them. We designed the architecture through rigorous simulations and analysis to optimise the design to respond to the variable climatic conditions within the region. The tower design is specifically generated and tuned to the environment by minimising direct heat gain while maximising daylighting for optimal guest comfort. Integrating computational design that utilised daylighting and solar heat gain simulations allowed us to derive the optimal form for building performance.

The ParkwayHealth Gleneagles Shanghai International Hospital. Photo: HKS Singapore

Its design is carefully crafted to be responsive to the environment, maximising daylight and thermal comfort, as well as its program spaces. Algorithmic thinking was applied to design a continuous façade on the podium that adapted to various functions and porosities while minimising the number of unique façade panels needed to maintain cost efficiency.

Architecture is known to be a job that doesn’t pay particularly well, with constantly long hours and never-ending deadlines. What has kept you going in this industry?

Aside from the unrivalled joy of seeing something conceptualised on paper come to life, it would have to be the HKS team. The team has taught me that people are our most important asset, and embracing a flatter, more collaborative culture, allows us to excel and contribute much more efficiently. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is that cultures, like our professional work and deliverables, must constantly sharpen and improve.

Do you have a philosophy when it comes to design?

I personally believe that collaboration breeds the greatest outcomes. There are many layers that influence how we approach the design of a project, but ultimately, it is an organic collaboration between our team, the client, and the collaborators we work with. I believe that innovative design happens through a diversity of perspectives, a diversity of cultures, and a diversity of backgrounds. 

Rabat Ibn Sina Hospital, Morroco. Photo: HKS Singapore

What is something you enjoy doing on your days off?

I spend as much time in nature as I could, doing things like hiking and camping.

Now that the borders have reopened, what cities do you look forward to visiting most?

I look forward to going to Rotterdam and immersing myself in what I feel is one of the architectural capitals of Europe, with its cubist Kijk-Kubus houses, the industrial-styled Van Nelle Factory, or the swan-like Erasmus Bridge. I would also love to visit Bordeaux, not just for the wine (although that is a huge plus), but for its forward-thinking architecture from the La Meca Cultural Centre to the immersive curves of the Cite du Vin wine museum. 

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