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It takes a certain type of daring to venture into the unknown - for an architecture practice from Singapore, that means going to an emerging market and making a pitch for a high-profile project. A little chutzpah might also be necessary to convince a developer that your specific design is just the vision he's looking for, even if the developer himself doesn't know it yet. As CEO Emerging Markets for ONG&ONG, Andy Goh relishes such challenges. In recent years, the homegrown design firm has blazed a path in frontier markets such as Cambodia and Myanmar, playing a significant role in the fast-growing hospitality and residential sectors there.
It helps that Singapore brands have built up a strong reputation over the years in the region. it's the ability to come up with interesting design solutions that makes the difference. ONG&ONG was one of the early players in Indochina, competing - and winning - against international firms. Since 2011 Mr Goh, 42, has worked on over 20 projects in the region, establishing offices in Yangon and Bangkok and winning a clutch of architecture awards in the process. Among his notable projects are The Bay Condominium in Phnom Penh, Botanic Residence & Lifestyle Mall in Siem Reap and Alma Resort in Nha Trang (Vietnam). The group has about 800 employees, of which 600 are based in Singapore.
Hence, it's well equipped to seize opportunities that come the company's way. "Frontier markets give us the opportunity to craft beauty and soul into our designs," he says.
What are the benefits and pitfalls of doing business in an emerging market?
Not many firms in Singapore actively go out to capture that end of the market. We entered Myanmar about six years ago and in any frontier market there are institutional voids to fill. If you enter the market first you can have better command of the fee. We think clients would prefer to have all services (design, management, engineering) covered so you can further value add to the product, to have it all under one roof and keep working to make the product better. In Phnom Penh, The Bay Condominium was designed to be the tallest building (55 storeys, 2,000 units) in Cambodia - people who have never stayed in a condo are suddenly exposed to super architecture. But the project is now delayed because if you're playing the condo game you have to aim at the middle class - and Cambodia has got very little middle class. Beyond the local elite it's the international market you have to target.
What is the role of the architect in an emerging market?
I enjoy emerging markets because nobody comes to you with a fixed brief. Things are still up for deliberation and you're not controlled by things like plot ratio, so you have room to push the design envelope. Developers do like the one-stop concept. Our role is part businessman, part finance person and part visionary - it's knowing market trends and finally it's defining the product. It's mind-blowing in a sense because we are trying to help design a product. We get introduced to the client, and the next step is demonstrating our design capability - they want to see what you can do for their specific project. Clients are quite sophisticated nowadays, they want a concept design before they appoint you. We know what the markets will accept, so if your vision is too far ahead of the curve it won't take off - it's got to be a balance between your vision and what the market can take.
What are the advantages of being a Singapore firm competing for jobs in places like Yangon and Siem Reap?
The Singapore brand has the trustworthiness, the reliability factor and it helps get your foot in the door, but the next part is the pure design and you still need to do something quite edgy that will get you the job. For example, we were asked to do a luxury villa concept for a hotel near a national park in Sri Lanka but we convinced the client to do a treehouse concept instead, defined as "exclusive, elevated living". The advantage of having regional offices is it develops interpersonal skills - the client can call you, come to the office, shake your hand, and ask for that massive discount.
What aspect of your job do you like best?
It's the satisfaction that comes from putting a relevant product out there. The recognition and awards are the result of doing something correctly and the moments I enjoy are not always knowing where you are, but knowing that you can practise good design anywhere in the world. It's also not stopping at just one country but doing what you can in one geographical area. It's not that I have a 'saviour' complex, it's knowing that you can penetrate a certain market and be able to put out good design to be enjoyed by people.
You have a liking for bicycles, motorbikes and V8 engines - how has that influenced your architecture and what would your perfect design gig be?
I've always enjoyed mechanical stuff and anything that has got wheels - in essence, I like things that are beautifully put together. I'd like to do something to be enjoyed and understood by the masses, like a well-designed hotel. I want people to experience the soul of a space, to be able to go into that space and your soul is uplifted. Even something like the most basic effect of sunlight shining through louvres - how do you make that happen? You don't need expensive marble, just something that is well put together by someone. Good design is about people being able to take away the experience of the space you made, that makes them come back to it - if your brand entertains that promise, they will go to it. With Airbnb you don't just buy overnight space, you buy the experience - shouldn't that expectation apply to hotels as well?