Lake Hayes architect lands supersized building job in China

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No New Zealand architect has a bigger project on his hands than Lake Hayes’ “one-man band” Fred van Brandenburg. 

Following a chance encounter, he’s designing an eight-hectare headquarters for a high-end fashion house in China. 

The floor space in the five-floor building equates to nine-and-a-half rugby fields. 

Two years down a five-year construction track, the futuristic project is taking shape in Shenzhen city, an hour’s drive from Hong Kong. 

Van Brandenburg, 61, is still amazed how he got the job. 

A Chinese woman made an impromptu visit to his Lake Hayes studio, after admiring a Wanaka house he’d designed. 

“I was busy working on a model with my hands full of glue and had to stop to chat with her,” he recalls. 

The woman – who co-owned the Marisfrolg fashion label with her husband – said she wanted Van Brandenburg to design their headquarters and promised to call when they’d acquired a site. 

The architect had all but forgotten the visit when the woman called a year later to say she and her husband had a site and could he come over. 

When Van Brandenburg arrived, he says they wrote down the floor area as 75,000 square metres. 

“I crossed off a nought and they put it back” – the area’s now 95,000sq m, he says. 

Van Brandenburg’s brief was that the building had to be soaring, but not ostentatious, shouldn’t look Chinese and had to last 100 years. 

At the time, he’d already veered from the lodge architecture for which he was best known, at Arrowtown’s Millbrook Resort and Wairarapa’s Wharekauhau. 

Influenced by the organic style of famous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, who died in 1926, he’d embraced ‘structural art’, based on forms found in nature. 

He’d designed a building based on a flax leaf, for a site in Queenstown’s Church Street. 

His plan was superseded but Van Brandenburg recalls co-developer, local John Martin, telling him, “something will come out of this”. 

Gaudi’s influence is all over Van Brandenburg’s design in China. 

He planned the building to resemble a bird in flight, but he’s also used the shapes of leaves and tree trunks. 

For the front of the building he’s using leaf shapes for 12 roofs, all 25m wide by 30m long. 

A concrete building, clad in stone, tiles and bricks, it will be draped in gardens and surrounded by vegetation and ponds. 

Van Brandenbrug says he couldn’t use any architectural software to generate models, so he tapped into Otago Polytechnic’s product design faculty in Dunedin. 

So far, two factory/warehouse buildings have been shelled out and piling for stage two has started. 

When completed, there’ll also be a central atrium, administration headquarters, catwalk area and a 50-room boutique hotel. 

The 24m roof height is dictated by the reach of the Shenzhen fire department’s step ladder, Van Brandenburg says. 

Towers, however, will reach 45m above the ground. 

Van Brandenburg won’t reveal the construction cost beyond confirming it’s “hundreds of millions of dollars”. 

He travels to China about once a month, usually with his architect son Damien, to supervise a team of architects and engineers. 

“Everything’s through an interpreter. 

“I’m taking the consultants and the contractors down a structural engineering path that even I just recent learnt.” 

Van Brandenburg believes he was chosen as head architect “because I’m a one-man band and I can think things through”.