Features

Practice Profile: Choi Ropiha

October 20, 2010

Bold ambition and imagination have seen Choi Ropiha forge an international reputation for architecture that is about more than stylistic novelty and formal play.

Imagine being an architect working in a large respected practice, on large-scale interesting projects – even winning some major awards. Yet, being talented and ambitious you still want more, so after hours you and one of your colleagues enter an international design competition for a small ticket booth in New York’s Times Square (TKTS) – just to distract you from the day-to-day humdrum. Imagine getting a call several months later to say that you’d won against a field of 683 international entries. Imagine starting your own practice on the basis of this project with almost no other work. These are the events that led Tai Ropiha and John Choi to establish Choi Ropiha in 2000.

Imagine you have an architectural practice in Manly that has been surviving for a year on small residential projects, occasional contract work for other architects and some teaching. So, you enter a design competition to revision Parramatta Road, one of Sydney’s worst arterial roads. Imagine then being shortlisted to compete against Ken Yeang and MVRDV. Imagine the euphoria of winning one of greater Sydney’s largest and most ambitious urban design projects to date.

These two projects are particularly representative of Choi Ropiha’s work, due not to any particular aesthetic sensibility or formal strategies, but rather to an intense investigation of the possibilities beyond the immediate brief. Choi refers to this as an expansive approach. The brief for TKTS was simply for a place to sell cheap tickets for Broadway shows. Having observed that Times Square was a place experienced only from the periphery, the pair proposed a series of glowing red steps that provided a place to stop and watch the spectacle of neon and people. The fact that this strategic urban gesture was to house a ticketing operation seems somewhat irrelevant; a little more than one year after its opening it is now synonymous with Times Square and will grow to become an icon of the city. A recent music video by Jay-Z has the American rapper dancing with pop-diva Alicia Keys on the stairs-come-urban stage.

At a vastly different scale, the Parramatta Road Master Plan represents an expansion of the notion of the “expansive” and their collaborative working method. Rather than restrict their aspirations to the aesthetic or spatial qualities of 23 kilometres of roadway, they looked at the rejuvenation of this decrepit piece of engineering infrastructure as a catalyst for change across 18 suburbs. They proposed to extend the role of the road beyond that of a route for private vehicles, to a spine that acted as a central conduit for other infrastructures, including light rail with small interchanges to cross-city bus routes. The comprehensive public transport strategy was costed at around six billion dollars. At the time it seemed excessive, however it proposed viable strategies for some of Sydney’s transport woes. The costs seem minimal when one considers the amount the NSW State Government has spent on aborted transport proposals since that time.

In keeping with the practice’s embrace of collaboration at multiple levels, Choi Ropiha led a multi-disciplinary team they branded as SydneyCENTRAL. The team included Vim Design, Stanisic Associates, Hill PDA and landscape architects McGregor and Partners (now McGregor Coxall). Practice director Stephen Fighera joined Choi Ropiha after Parramatta Road, having helped out too on the TKTS project a few years earlier. He says of their working method, “I’m not sure how it works – sometimes it’s top-down, others it’s bottom up… we’re just really open with everyone and everyone contributes.” This openness within the design team is facilitated by the relaxed nature of the office environment. Most days the team makes lunch together in the large art-deco apartment that serves as their office, overlooking Manly’s Corso. This downtime often serves as a quasi design review session, where ideas are shared in an informal manner. In addition, a large percentage of the staff surf together with Ropiha and Choi, extending the camaraderie beyond the confines of the office. Choi adds that the current scale of the practice is another contributing factor in the open nature of their working methods. He sees the present period as vital to the future critical success of Choi Ropiha, adding, “We’re still writing the DNA of the practice.” As the practice grows the office logistics will change, and he and his partners are aware there needs to be a philosophy that carries them forward for sometime; a philosophy that can be gleaned through osmosis by future members. In writing the DNA for the future, the directors all talk about questioning as a strategy, rather than a specific interest in sustainability or digital organics, for example. Their approach is more akin to that of OMA or Herzog & de Meuron than say Hadid or Gehry.

Current projects include a master plan for Manly Town Centre (the very suburb they work and surf in), mixed-use development in Green Square and an upgrade to Tamarama Surf Life Saving Club. The practice is also working on a range of private dwellings, one of which is of particular interest to Choi. Located in the hinterland near Byron Bay, the site for the house was purchased by an enlightened client who wanted a long-term investment for his grown-up family, a place that multiple generations might use for family vacations. Before pondering the building program, the client set about planting a forest that would take between 60 and 300 years to mature. Choi believes the decision to engage them came through his initial discussions with the client on the unique nature of the project with its long-term aspirations. The design is now being driven through a process of questioning each decision with regard to its unique time frame. “It’s driving everything from construction processes to aesthetic decisions,” describes Choi.

The practice has enjoyed critical success in recent years. TKTS has received a number of design awards in the US, and was named Building of the Decade by New York Magazine, as well a being awarded the AIA Jørn Utzon Award for International Architecture in 2009. Choi Ropiha received three Commendations in the 2009 AR Emerging Architecture Award (Ballast Point, Port Botany Lookout and Vent Shaft), while locally Ballast Point Amenities received an AIA NSW Chapter in 2009. They have also won other international design competitions including the new city of Bin Hai in Tianjin, China (with Kann Finch Group and Waterman International).

Choi has recently been invited to become an Adjunct Professor at the University of Sydney. He hopes to use this position to champion emerging practices to a wider audience. Choi is passionate about the intellectual capacity embedded in smaller practices and wants to investigate how they might be able to contribute to both the discourse and production of architecture beyond the single dwelling.

Imagine is something that Choi Ropiha does well. The practice has made a valuable contribution to the profession and the built environment since its inception in 2000. Its ability, in fact its insistence, to imagine beyond the immediate is an attribute that will hold the culture of the office together as the scale and complexity of the projects increases, and time to surf decreases.

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