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Reflecting on a global career

October 05, 2020

By Christina Cattelan

A well-traveled architect looks at her time spent on several continents

On this World Architecture Day, I reflect on more than two decades in architecture, living and working across three continents, and the professional variety and enrichment that it has provided. I can’t help but wonder if I would have taken the same opportunities had it not been for my father, who set the precedent bringing up his own family in the cosmopolitan melting pot of Hong Kong.

Taking a chance

In the early 1970s, my father worked as young civil structural engineer in Southampton, England. One day, a colleague dropped a paper on his desk with an ad circled: Assistant resident partner required in Hong Kong.

Dad quickly applied and was offered the position. Landing at Kai Tak airport, the doors opened and a wall of heat and humidity slammed against his body. He set forth amongst the laundry of string vests and blouses hanging from bamboo poles, poking out of concrete towers where multi-generational families lived in one-bedroom apartments, packed beside and on top of each other like the adjacent shipping container yards.

My father recalls walking into the office on his first day to find tension and grievances—the partner in charge quit. My father, the newly arrived young engineer, was left to pick up the pieces. One of his early projects was the Connaught Centre, now known as Jardine House—a 52-storey office building in Central. It was the tallest building in Asia and, innovatively, the first double-cored, reinforced concrete skyscraper. Shortly after the completion of this building, I was born.

Dad’s two-year post became 22 deeply fulfilling and adventurous years. The pace at which the environment pulsed meant he could complete project after project to swiftly move up the ranks. The journey shaped my father and inspired me.

Hong Kong Skyline. 

Influenced by my environment

Fast forward to today—Jardine House isn’t even among the 120 tallest buildings in Hong Kong, a fact that demonstrates how much Hong Kong has grown up, literally. A once prominent harbor-view office tower is now deep in a jungle of towers designed by international architects, adding to one of the world’s most impressive and dynamic skylines.

I couldn’t help but want to be an architect. Living in this city of contrasts—where glass shards grew up within fragile bamboo scaffolding cages that swayed in the high winds—my destiny was sealed.

A return to my roots

Despite being English, my first experience living in the United Kingdom was to study architecture—first in Newcastle, then at the Mackintosh School of Architecture in Glasgow. In between my undergraduate and post-graduate degrees, I decided to return to Hong Kong to work for a year. My dad supported the idea, saying: “A year working in Hong Kong is the equivalent of five back home.”

The work was thick and fast, first for a small local practice, drawing up shopping malls and working on schematics whilst taking advantage of free Mandarin lessons over lunch breaks. Then I moved to a large international practice. The only similarity—other than the hush and focus across the offices—was the rhythmic circulation of a tea person offering caffeine in various sweet and milky guises to fuel the momentum of the workforce. From skyscraper hotels, mixed-use developments, and high-end residential developments to master plans, urban landscapes, and interiors, my experience quickly grew from schematics to tender documentation with projects across Asia. 

Li Ka Shing Centre, Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute, University of Cambridge. 

Settling down, but not for long

After my post-graduate studies, I joined a small Glasgow-based team led by an inspirational director with an infectious passion for design. The artsy, stylish environment suited me, and I started to get comfortable, working on competitions for local developers. Then a competition for the World Trade Centre Financial District in Dubai came into the office.

Three months into my job, I was called into the director’s office and asked if I could go to Dubai to help for six weeks. I had until lunchtime to decide; the flight left the next day. I remember running to the phone box to call my dad for advice.

24 hours later, I boarded a flight to the desert.

A new adventure

Six weeks in Dubai quickly became three years, working from an office at the foot of the World Trade Centre, Dubai’s tallest building at the time.

It was in the late 1990s, as the economy shifted from oil to finance and tourism. Dubai was at the precipice of a construction boom. I was part of reshaping the office—which had been a large engineering team supported by a small architecture practice—into a design studio as competition after competition entered the doors and projects were secured.

As in Hong Kong, the work varied and the pace was fast. I started to feel the weight of responsibility for the environment and began to build my sustainable design credentials, seeing projects through to completion on site. My work included the United Arab Emirates’ first stock exchange trading floor and the music department for the American School of Dubai. The exposure enabled me to take my professional exams within the minimum period of 24 months practical experience.

This was the beginning of a long relationship with like-minded colleagues and mentors with a passion and commitment to design excellence.

Seeking a change

The international start of my career catapulted me into a world I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. Yet I eventually found myself hungry for the street life and the historical and cultural input of Europe. I longed for a richer experience of my home country. London seemed the next logical stop.

I joined Anshen+Allen, a firm that would later become part of Stantec, just after the millennium. This was the beginning of a long relationship with like-minded colleagues and mentors with a passion and commitment to design excellence. It has offered me the opportunity to specialize and grow my focus on architecture with social responsibility, while creating a legacy of quality design, social enrichment, and transformation. Highlights have included the Li Ka Shing Cancer Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, and being part of the leadership for the Building Schools for the Future Programme—delivering more than 40 schools and becoming a Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) education client design advisor. 

Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, University of Manchester. 

Coming full circle

The rhythm of my role is different from my days in Asia and the Middle East, yet it still offers diversity. Each time I felt a lull in my career trajectory, Stantec supported me in identifying new challenges. And as the firm has moved toward more globalized practices, I again find myself immersed in international work. Projects travel over oceans and through the ethernet, landing on my desk in London.

Stantec’s London studio promotes design excellence and is actively delivering work locally and across continents, including in Hong Kong. My work has even taken me back to the Middle East, as I collaborate across time zones with colleagues on four continents for projects such as the Qatar Museums Cultural District—a new civic park with visitor amenities in a sculptural dune formation on the waterfront for the Qatar Museums Authority.

It all feels strangely familiar—and very fulfilling.

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