As an architect with more than 17 years of experience covering a diversity of building typologies from concept to detail design development, Ferdinand Cheung has established his background in office towers and complexes, commercial mixed-use developments, residential apartments and houses, hotels, and master planning.
Currently a design director at Benoy, the renowned British architectural firm, Cheung spearheads the Asia portfolio in large-scale, mixed-use projects, which include the high-profile Xuhui Vanke Center in Shanghai, International Finance Squares (IFS) for Wharf Group in Chengdu, Chongqing and Changsha. Joining Benoy in 2008, Cheung's background includes working at Wong & Ouyang (HK) as well as P&T Architects and Engineers (HK), both of them sizeable practices in the field. Additionally, he has also worked at smaller practices with just a handful of employees — and one thing he learned over the years is that no job is too small; it is part of the process of accumulating experience.
Back when he was studying architecture at The University of Hong Kong, Cheung started interning at a small company of his professor's. Even though the first things he did could be considered menial — organising the library and preparing materials for the designers' daily tasks — the process endowed him insight on how to run a design practice, proving invaluable for what was to come in his future.
"It was a mentor-apprentice relationship," Cheung says of his professor and employer. "He actually advised me on the necessity of exploring different sizes of company, and seeing which one fit me best."
In his second year after graduation, Cheung joined a small Hong Kong firm. At that time, most of the projects undertaken were modest and consisted primarily of small-scale projects; design was only one part of his job. However, being exposed to every single element of the process and the experience trained him to complete his work under tight time constraints.
Today, after years of experience in the industry, covering many realised and distinguished residential and commercial projects he undertook earlier in his career with P&T Architects and Engineers, Cheung sees himself as a "big company type": "Because my interest is in design, being in big companies allows me to focus on that territory," he explains. "In smaller firms, one has the opportunity to explore, getting involved in every part of business, however you're not always exposed to a diversity of projects."
Cheung explains that a big firm is actually built on the mechanism of running multiple small units, with different teams running alongside each other and working together.
The same concept applies to Cheung's approach to design: regardless of the size of a project, he starts from the context of the property, echoing its surroundings and cultural factors. From his design for the Skyhigh residence on the Peak in Hong Kong to the large-scale IFS in Chengdu, environmental cues shape the souls of his projects. "No matter whether it's residences or commercial complexes, it's about space and people," he says.
With years of experience working on different projects with various clients under his belt, Cheung says that becoming a successful architect has less to do with working for big or small firms, but more with the mentality the person has: passion, a willingness to explore, questioning and challenging oneself are imperative qualities for success.
Naturally, he employs this philosophy to his different roles in academia: formerly as an assistant professor supervising the design studio of the final year thesis students in their Master's programme at The University of Hong Kong (HKU), for example, and now as a regular guest critic HKU and the architectural department of Hong Kong Design Institute.
"In my classes, I wish to inspire students and their way of thinking, rather than teaching them skills, because that's the way design is," he concludes.
This article, "No Job Too Small”, originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Perspective magazine.
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