Patrick Bingham-Hall has worked worldwide for over thirty years. His books, photographs and essays reflect a broad cultural and historical awareness, as well as a comprehensive knowledge of architecture and design. His work is regularly featured in leading design publications.
Patrick is also the founder and owner of Pesaro Publishing, having edited and produced many books for other publishers. With a wide-ranging global client base, he worked with many famous architects and architecture firms, one of which is WOHA – the winner of Building of the Year at WAF 2018. Handhome contacted Patrick to have a further understanding of his work, also to share valuable insights to the readers.
Handhome: From photography and publishing to writing books, your works show immense knowledge in culture and society, could you shed some light on your passions since the beginning day of your career? What makes such an impressive progress?
Patrick Bingham-Hall: I began my career as an architectural photographer, but I quickly discovered that I was most interested in travelling and experiencing as many cultures as possible. Inevitably this impacted upon the content of my photos, as I was keen to show the value and the context of a building.
When I set up my own publishing company, I began editing text written by academics for the books, but I then realised I should write the text myself. Because I had spent time photographing the building, I understood the architecture and its location, so I did not rely on academic theorising: I was writing with first-hand knowledge. I continue to do this, my career is really a combination of photography and writing about architecture, and I love to work in a variety of locations. I’m not sure I can really say that anywhere is “home” these days.
I am essentially interested in architecture as a cultural artefact in a particular context, in what role a new building plays in contemporary society, and in what role a historic building played in its time and in ours. All architecture is a reflection of society, even if it turns its back on public life, because that is also a reflection of society. Having said that, I strongly advocate that all architects should prioritise the “greater good”, in order to ensure that their buildings are as beneficial as possible to as many people as possible.
Having travelled around the world, and with your global experience, what do you think about cultural and architectural changes in today’s society?
I see a loss of confidence and many unprecedented divisions in Western culture and society. I think this started in the 1980s, when selfishness crept into government and corporate behaviour: the ‘greed is good’ mentality. On the other hand, I am increasingly fascinated by the vitality of Asia because there is a great sense of pride and excitement.
The changes in the last thirty years have been incredible, and I have been lucky to work in Asia over that period. In general, I think that Asian society and culture has a more enlightened understanding of communal goodwill than the West, and I love the sense of optimism.
I think that architecture has suffered terribly with the rise of technology. It appears that algorithms decide the design approach, so the notion of architecture as an art is disappearing. I understand that developers need to minimise their financial risk, but the opportunities for individual expression have also been minimised. However, it is gratifying to see that some architects are experimenting with new forms that can actively reduce the impact of climate change.
As a photographer and book publisher working with WOHA, what do you have in mind about the project that won The Building of The Year at this year’s World Architecture Festival? What is its most prominent character?
I knew about the Kampung Admiralty project for many years before it was completed, because I had photographed the early models, and I was asked to explain the concept for books and magazines. I loved the idea of a public park covering the roof, and it is now a fantastic place to visit: it is really nice to see a vision of the future that is primarily concerned with encouraging nature. The Singapore location is very boring with endless concrete housing blocks, so the WOHA ‘park in the sky’ is a real pleasure.
Kampung Admiralty is not just about the park though, as it is a genuinely integrated project with great benefits for the surrounding community, not just the residents of the building. It contains a supermarket and shops, a large food court, a medical centre, child-care facilities, and apartments for the elderly. It is a mini-city really. I think that’s a great idea for high-density living: highly sociable mini-cities within a mega city. It is so good to see that a building with a practical vision for the future won the award.
How do you feel about WOHA’s buildings?
I have known the two directors (Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell) for nearly twenty years, so I have watched the evolution of their architecture from the moment they designed their first large projects. They were obviously very good architects, but it was fantastic to witness their ideological development, when they increasingly prioritised the benefits of their architecture rather than designing cute things to look at. The benefits were environmental, social and aesthetic. They are such good architects that they could instinctively convert functional structures into buildings that look terrific.
WOHA are a famous architectural practice, but they are not afraid to do large public buildings where the budget is small and there is no scope for expensive details. Kampung Admiralty was part of a series of buildings that genuinely invented a new typology for environmental awareness and social responsibility. The buildings were prototypes and will be highly influential. The list of buildings includes the School of the Arts, Parkroyal on Pickering, Oasia Downtown, and SkyVille@Dawson in Singapore, and The Met in Bangkok. It will be fascinating to see their next set of projects, as they are moving into master planning, using those same environmental and social principles at a large urban scale.
As one of the richest continents in historical and cultural heritage, could you share some opinions on the urbanization happening in Asia? And retaining old architecture in the modern cities?
As we are all seeing, Asian cities are growing at a frightening speed and that is very difficult to regulate. Many bad things are happening, socially and environmentally, but nobody can stop the migration to the cities. If Indians want to go to Mumbai to try and make more money, it is their right to do so, but installing the required infrastructure will be impossible. Architects are in a difficult position because they will only receive a few opportunities to implement responsible strategies, and the majority of their commissions will be for quick and cheap construction. I hope that things will get better when the growing Asian economies stabilise.
Personally, I think that all old architecture should be retained and reused in some way, but I know that cannot happen. We must keep any public or civic buildings, and of course we must keep the temples and shrines. Some cities have historic precincts that should be retained, but to be honest, many large cities never had interesting architectural typologies, apart from the public buildings. The Old Quarter in Hanoi must be preserved, like the similar neighbourhoods in Singapore and Penang. The main reason that tourists visit cities is to experience the charm of their culture and heritage, so it makes economic sense to retain the old buildings and neighbourhoods. Nobody travels to a city to look at glass towers.
Have you ever looked into Vietnamese architecture and culture? Are you curious about anything relating to our country?
I have photographed in Vietnam many times, mainly working for international architects, but I have only been to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. I would like to explore the countryside and the smaller towns one day. I am curious about what will happen in Ho Chi Minh City, because the riverfront is so under-utilised. I am sure that huge developments will happen on all that land, and I am worried that they will be misguided and ugly.
The city has a fantastic opportunity though, so I hope that something really good will be built. And I hope the centre of Hanoi remains unspoiled with those wonderful lakes, which I think will happen because all the towers are rising in the new district in the west.
After receiving positive feedbacks for our own book Ghé 01, I believe Handhome readers in general, also architecture and photography lovers anywhere in Vietnam would love to know more about good books for these topics? Could you recommend some such titles? What’s your favourite read?
The Ghé 01 book looks very interesting and I look forward to buying it. Not many books are published these days on historic architecture in Asia, which is a shame, but I am a publisher and I know much it costs to do a book. In fact, not many books on historic architecture are being published anywhere at the moment, so I can’t recommend any recent books.
I published a book on Singapore’s architecture history fifteen years ago, but I don’t think it’s in print anymore. The absence of books on historic Asian architecture will become a problem, because books are the best documents for architecture, with text and photos. Instagram doesn’t give you much information! The historic architecture of most countries has been documented adequately, but some Asian countries have missed out, probably because of 20th century wars and isolationist governments. Somehow the documentation must be done. Maybe you will do it for Vietnam.
More images by Patrick Bingham-Hall
Thank you, Patrick, for your time!