After more than 40 years of architectural practice and passion for sustainability, Jeffrey Heller, FAIA, has become more than just a remarkable architect. He’s a major influence in drafting the blueprint for coherent green developments that serve as a sustainable environment for intensifying economic growth.
‘I very much wanted to participate in this era of growth and help make a positive difference in the world,’ says Heller.
With utmost respect in nature’s course, Heller has made models of sustainable/liveable master plans and infrastructures in China and San Francisco.
Heller founded Heller Manus Architects in San Francisco in 1984. Since then, he has led his firm into creating some of the most remarkable sustainable architectural projects and large-scale urban planning, including the first LEED Gold office towers in San Francisco and Shanghai; the first LEED Platinum neighbourhood development master plan; and sustainable/liveable master plans for Guangzhou’s North and South Axes, Shanghai’s Yangpu Waterfront, and Ulanhot in Inner Mongolia.
‘Our core philosophy is a combination of the following elements: contextual and people-friendly design (buildings that are appropriate to their setting); contemporary design to express the spirit of our time; and sustainable design which is to be achieved through visual, physical and technical design – a true green project,’ says Heller.
By expertly practicing this philosophy, Heller is often invited to speak in different conventions in different parts of the world, including the US–China Green Energy Council Mayor Summit & Smart City Development Forum 2011. He has also been awarded with myriad of recognitions, including the 2011 Guangdong Lingnan Characteristic Planning Award, Bronze Award for Guangzhou South Axis and 2003 PCBC Best Apartment Project for the Emeryville Amtrak Station in California.
Armed with his infallible creativity and a gigantic passion for creating sustainable designs, Heller was able to work together with leaders and decision-makers in realising the vision for a better world.
‘The move towards sustainability is sometimes viewed in a too technical way. Not enough attention is paid to balancing quality-of-life issues and technical sustainability issues. The three fundamental elements of sustainable design are technical sustainability, mobility and liveability. It is very important to balance those three elements in order to achieve a good future for the hundreds of millions of people living in cities,’ shares Heller.
He started his practice in San Francisco and as he gained the respect of decision-makers in China, he went back to international work and played a role in developing the country making it adapt better to the natural perils brought by swift advancement.
‘In Asia in general, it is a race against time to create the correct physical setting for the rapid growth that is occurring almost everywhere. If the problems of urban design and infrastructure are not solved in a timely matter, or if the work is not done correctly, it is my belief that it will take ten times the effort to undo a bad decision,’ he shares.
MAKING A MARK IN CHINA
The cosmopolitan charm of Shanghai opened Heller’s drive to pursue his vision in the most progressive country in Asia.
‘Shanghai and later Guangzhou were for me inspirations because my experience in both cities has been that of a balance of dynamic growth and commitment to good urban planning practice. The government, the academics and the planners all strive to the same goal,’ he says.
As China’s economy and energy requirement exponentially grows, leaders and decisionmakers got Heller on board to aid them in dealing with the dangers brought by rapid urbanisation.
‘Over the last decade China has increasingly become aware of the growing problems created by its expanding energy footprint. [It] has recognised the issue in its 12th five-year plan resulting in a coherent and consistent policy from central government down to local government,’ says Heller.
China’s green policy, as directed by its central government, is aggressively reinforced by its local government. While the rest of Asia is experiencing economic progress in this day and age, China was able to address expansion concerns better than its Asian neighbours.
He is currently working on high-speed transit and high-rise buildings which, he believes, play a big part of the sustainability equation.
‘I believe that tall buildings are an essential part of high-density -sustainable urban planning. Urban cores that are more compact are more sustainable than those that are spread out. New York City and San Francisco are far more sustainable than Los Angeles. One of the keys to sustainable planning is to have compact urban cores where the need to use automobiles can be reduced by providing excellent public transit. Tall buildings are an essential part of this approach, especially given the vast numbers of people being -urbanised in Asia,’ he shares.
However, according to Heller, politics still play a major role in the development of large-scale architecture and urban-planning projects. The success of these strongly relies on the efforts of Heller Manus Architects and the political/community leaders.
‘There is no way to keep the political process outside of the design process. The skill is in interpreting the political will into good design and liveable cities. What is important, however, is that politicians should certainly be good listeners in the design process. Without that, bad results happen,’ shares Heller.
With this teamwork in place, the vision towards creating sustainable cities and provinces in China comes to realisation.
Making life more liveable
Though Heller’s profile may make him look like a serious superhero, he also has his own way of making his life more fun and liveable.
Many may not know about the fully operational amusement-size train that he has in his backyard, or the fact that, aside from being a talented philanthropist-architect, he is also a pizza connoisseur.
And even if the actualisation of his dreams of becoming a Formula One race car driver is still in question, he keeps himself busy with saving the world through architecture.
‘Diversification and perseverance are key to our practice’s longevity. Architecture is a very difficult and cyclical profession, and maintaining a practice over a long period of time requires a very high level of commitment and toughness,’ he concludes.
By Lucci Coral
*Photos courtesy of Heller Manus Architects