When people think of what an architect does, most think about the designing of a single building. But California-based architectural and multi-disciplinary design firm The Jerde Partnership has always set its sights on the bigger picture since its founding in 1977 by American architect Jon Jerde.

“We’ve always called it ‘placemaking’,” says Kenneth Ho, 48, design principal of Jerde. He moved to Singapore late last year to oversee the opening and operations of this latest Asian outpost of the firm, which already has a presence in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Seoul. “The idea for us is that all of our projects are never hermetically sealed. They are always indelibly connected to the urban fabric of the city itself.” Its seminal 1985 project Horton Plaza in San Diego is the perfect example of what he means. At that time, most retail malls looked the same – boxy and boring. Horton Plaza blew everyone’s expectations away with its striped loggia, crooked corners, zig-zag storefronts and uniquely located staircases.

“The goal was to break up that ‘box’, open it to the outside, and give people a place to gather,” says Ho. It also proved to be an urban catalyst for the rejuvenation of the nearby Gaslamp Quarter, which went from a rundown district into a bustling neighbourhood. That project set the macro vision of the firm, as Jerde found itself increasingly called upon to not only design buildings, but entire cityscapes as well, in a bid to reverse human flow and revive downtowns all across America and then around the world.

This resulted in projects like Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles, Canal City Hakata in Fukuoka and Roppongi Hills in Tokyo. “For us, placemaking is always about trying to figure out how to orchestrate or curate urban spaces; about social connectivity and how to engage a city to create different experiences,” says Ho. Being called upon for urban planning as much as for building design, it’s not surprising that the Jerde teams use artificial intelligence (AI) to help them in their work. AI is massively useful for architects when it comes to research, analysis, construction and form generation.

For urban planning, it’s even more crucial. “It helps us with the collection of data sets, for example, of how people move around the city. This would inform how we go about setting up a circulation armature,” says Ho. “That forms the backbone to how a project is organised and [why] we craft things a certain way.” The AI applications for city planning are massive.

Ho cites one of the major things he would use it for would be to make cities walkable, dispensing with cars entirely and, with them, the need for roads, traffic lights and carparks. Ho’s vision for AI initiatives also encompasses all the other things that would be necessary to make walkability a reality – underground cities, subterranean malls and, for a place like Singapore, climate control.

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As always, there are drawbacks to technology, with issues like privacy and ownership of information. On the philosophical level, there is also the idea of whether AI could ever replace an architect. “If you define architects as designers of social spaces, then in that sense we will not be doomed,” Ho muses, admitting that even though a machine can use algorithms to generate endless forms, in the end, the actual design should be the work of the architect.

“Ultimately, we are designing the humanistic experience, and it will be hard for a computer to curate and make the right decisions about that.” For Ho, a Singaporean, moving back after over 20 years in the US has given him a chance to take stock of the city, both personally and professionally. “How Singapore has changed in that time has certainly been impressive,” he observes. “There are a lot of untapped opportunities for us to become a collection of neighbourhoods, each with its distinct character.”

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With fresh eyes, he sees things many of us don’t notice. “I see the void decks of HDB blocks as an untapped area for all kinds of urban interventions. I can think of a thousand things to do with those spaces,” he says with a laugh. As the son of an engineer who worked at the former Ford factory in Bukit Timah, Ho developed an interest in automobiles early in life. “I actually wanted to design cars,” he says, explaining how he ended up in his profession. “There was nothing for that at NUS, so I ended up at the School of Architecture.” Clearly it was something he has never regretted. “Architectural school enabled an education that was about critical thinking, giving me a set of tools to always come up with a solution. I think I could certainly design a car now!”

As the new office here strengthens Jerde’s foothold in the region, Ho is clear about the vision the firm has for Singapore. “Our principle about connectivity is also borne out of our intent to always go back to nature,” he says, revealing that the firm is working on two mixed-use projects in the central region of our island. “Roppongi Hills is connected to a historical Edo samurai garden at its base, while the Grand Hyatt [we did] in Haitang Bay has these tall towers full of garden balconies. Singapore has always had this aspiration to be a garden city, and we see a lot of opportunities to help create that tropical sense of place.”

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