Christopher Lee of Populous (Courtesy company)

Firm has ‘several major, very exciting projects’ in U.K., Asia, Middle East

Christopher Lee is the managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at the architecture firm Populous and is overseeing multiple international projects as live events continue their return, and was an honoree in our recent Impact International: UK/Euro feature. VenuesNow caught up with him to talk about his state of mind, his projects, how COVID-19 has changed building requirements, trends he’s observing and more.

Please describe your state of mind in the middle of 2021.
I’m feeling much more optimistic than I was in the middle of 2020. From a bigger perspective, I personally have come to the realization that this pandemic is not something that is simply going to come and go. It’s going to be with us for some time, I think, for several more years. What I’m very excited by is the ability for us all to finally be able to get back into seeing live sports and live events. … I’m optimistic and excited about the future, and from a business perspective, we’re feeling positive.

Can you elaborate on the projects and initiatives you’ve worked on in the past year, and those you have in the pipeline?
We as a practice, globally, have been very fortunate, with a number of our projects continuing through the 18-month pandemic. We’ve got several major, very exciting projects that we’re in the middle of, projects like Co-op Live here in Manchester. Globally we’re in the middle of a major project with the Kai Tak Sports Park in Hong Kong. We’re doing increasing work in mainland Europe, which is very exciting, (and) we’ve got a big footprint in the Middle East. A lot of our Middle Eastern work actually pushed forward faster during the pandemic. So, we’ve got both major sporting and major concert venue projects either on site in construction or in early design stages.

Can you explain what makes certain projects like the ones in the Middle East accelerate during a time like this?
We saw a lot of early design projects accelerate while some of the construction work was slowing down. They effectively shifted budgets from construction into design. There’s a lot of work we’re doing in Saudi Arabia at the moment, a very exciting country that is opening up rapidly. The infrastructure needs updating, so there’s a lot of work in the live music and sporting areas in Saudi but also across the Middle East.

That goes along with much of what the local promoters said: There’s a definite need for more venues to create a proper tour circuit.
Definitely. We opened Coca-Cola Arena (in Dubai) 2 1/2 years ago. Yas Bay (Arena) is now open, the beginnings of international quality, 18,000- to 20,000-seat live concert arenas. Multiple more are being planned in Saudi Arabia.

The world may have been in lockdown, but the relevant companies seemed to hardly slow down when it came to pursuing entertainment building projects over these past 18 months. What are the reasons for the continued investment into these buildings?
The growth of live events, and particularly live music, hasn’t slowed down. In fact, it has accelerated. There are some broader shifts, as more and more acts are having to tour to make money. We don’t have enough venues, certainly across our region in the EMEA, for the multiple levels of touring acts. If you look at London, for example, we’ve had a single venue, the O2 Arena, a brilliant venue, that we opened in 2005-2006. But it is one single arena. Compare it to New York, which has three within a couple of miles of each other. So, London’s become an interesting one.

And across Europe, where we built what is now the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Berlin, there haven’t been a lot of music-specific venues, and I think that’s a shift we’re seeing, a move from what was a bit of a hybrid North American model in the early 2000s. The projects we do in North America tend to have an anchor sporting tenant — ice hockey or basketball — and then create live music (around that). What we’re beginning to see globally, but specifically in Europe, is the evolution and the growth of the single-focus live music venue, which I think is hugely exciting.

You’re beginning to see arenas becoming more akin to somewhere between a nightclub and a theater or an opera house rather than a football stadium, as a typology. Projects like Co-op Live are at the forefront of that and beginning to think of these building types very differently, super-focused on customers’ experience, but also the experience of the touring acts, which is increasingly important. There’s (also) a need for these venues to be genuinely sustainable in their design, their output, and their energy consumption. We start seeing both our consumers, certainly Gen X and below, and touring acts like Coldplay take a position on (sustainable) touring. The new Climate Pledge Arena … in Seattle is taking sustainability to an entirely new level. That’s an incredibly promising and exciting development.

What are paths that venues can take to become more sustainable?
I think it’s our responsibility to use these venues often, reduce water and electricity consumption, and, depending on where we are in the world, (make use of) the ability to potentially create electricity, wind and solar power. Recycling and minimization, if not eradication, of single-use plastics, all the way through to low flush taps, low flush urinals, the unglamorous side of sustainability, are now genuinely being incorporated on a real level. Whereas maybe a decade ago, they were being incorporated, but perhaps on a return-on-investment decision. There are other forces at play now. Our customers and acts are demanding it.

Has the pandemic led to different requirements people are looking at when designing buildings?
Yes. There are a bunch of probably programmatic pieces that lots of our clients are now discussing with us, for existing buildings (as well as) buildings that we’re in the process of designing. Simple things like building in a bit more space outside, to accommodate not only the security checks but potential future health checks; the minimization of touch points, which is already happening, but it’s accelerated; cashless, ticketless, touchless taps and urinals, all the various pieces.

We are consciously designing and using some quite sophisticated tools and begin to lay out some of the spaces within those buildings, should we ever go back into these kinds of pandemic. How to operate the building safely all the way through to looking at the seating bowls and how to lay out seats in relation to a potential future social distancing requirement? There is quite a transformational change, as well as broader pieces like mechanical, electrical light track design or more fresh air. There’s a broader move across the industry, and particularly within public assembly venues, of building wellness, more natural ventilation, more natural daylight.

Any personal takeaways from the pandemic?
I don’t want to sit in Zoom meetings anymore.

Some interesting takeaways regarding how we work have come out of it. I spent most of my life prior to 2020 sitting on planes, but I have managed to deal with and design major buildings and win new clients remotely. I don’t think videoconferencing replaces face-to-face meetings, but I think we can do a lot on videoconferencing without having to jump on a plane and be there in person. We’re seeing more flexible working methods for our staff. We’ve instituted a working from home policy that’s going to be expanded as we move forward. I think a lot of us, broadly, want a little bit more work-life balance, perhaps. Maybe this pandemic has taught us that having a bit more time at home is a great thing.

It can’t be easy, though, designing a building over Zoom?
Designing buildings remotely is extremely hard. Imagine trying to design complex buildings, coordinate dozens of consultants’ work on varying forms of interaction, Zoom calls or the like. Face-to-face is still important, but I think we’ll use face-to-face a lot more effectively now, (knowing) that it might not always happen.

As this industry emerges from what has been an incredibly challenging year and a half, what do you predict in the coming year for the venue business?
The desire for the live event, for that singular shared moment, if anything has only increased. I think we’ve seen some exciting developments in building typologies, the singular music focus venues. We’ve always focused on experience and designing experiences first and foremost. That’s ever more present on the venue side. We’re going to see some extremely exciting new venues coming onto the market or being finalized in construction in the next year or so that is really going to change our experience of going to see live music for the better.

What do you consider your biggest accomplishment in your career? And why?
That’s a tricky question. I think as designers and architects, the challenge that you have on the drawing board will always be your next greatest accomplishment. I’ve been fortunate, as architects and in my position within Populous, to have worked on some amazing venues around the world, in countries from Mexico to Brazil to Australia, where I’m originally from. It’s always exciting, and the next great accomplishment is what you’re currently working on.

Can you name one thing that makes Tottenham Hotspur Stadium the finest in the world?
I think Tottenham is an amazing building. I do think it’s probably the greatest football stadium in the world. And I don’t think there is one thing. I think Tottenham’s success is very much down to (Tottenham Hotspur Chairman) Daniel Levy’s vision. Daniel was a brilliant client, challenging and demanding, which is great. It is the curation of a whole series of different pieces within that building, but it probably goes back to what we talked about before – designing experiences!

When we started designing that building, Daniel and I said that this is all about experience. And if we design the experiences, whether you are in the highest-end club or you’re in the least expensive seat, everything should be considered. This is a very democratic building. And, equally, the idea of multiple experiences and freedom of choice is weirdly revolutionary, certainly for the English football market. It’s something we’ve done for a long time in the North American market, where if you’re in an NFL stadium there’s this idea of a longer game day, a big event. You don’t just sit in your seat, you’re going to have a drink, go to the party deck — (this) is a new thing in English football. Whether it’s having a craft beer down in Tottenham Hotspur Stadium’s Beavertown microbrewery or being able to sit in the Tunnel Club, the multiplicity of experiences is the key to success

You’ve lived and worked in Australia, the U.S., the U.K. Any place you like best or feel most at home?
I was born and bred in Australia. I moved to the U.K. for a decade and then moved to the States, to New York, for eight or so years. All my kids were born in New York. I love them all. I think they’re all brilliant countries and cities. I miss Australia desperately at the moment, having not been back for two years. The world is such a great place, and I’m extremely fortunate to be able to live and work in multiple places. I love being able to work in Italy or Spain or Mexico. That’s the bit I love most about my job.

Do you have a business philosophy you live by?
If you focus on producing quality work, all the other bits of business follow behind. I think people can overfocus on profit projections and sales targets and increasing revenues. But I think if you produce quality work, focus on keeping your clients happy and exceeding their expectations, if you hire great staff and you look after your staff, the business success follows.

Do you have a most memorable concert or show of your life?
I saw an amazing Nick Cave concert, just before the pandemic, which must be 2019, at the O2. I’m a huge Nick Cave fan, and it was a phenomenal concert. Before that, I saw Muse at Madison Square Garden, which, again, I’m a huge Muse fan, was a brilliant concert. That’s two recent ones I thought were absolutely amazing.

You’re dealing with massive buildings all the time. Is there a small grassroots venue that you’re most looking forward to visiting now that things are opening back up?
I do love the Roundhouse here in London, a brilliant venue to have that intimacy. I love the Madison Square Gardens and O2s and soon-to-be Co-ops, which is a totally different experience, and equally amazing. But, yeah, probably the Roundhouse would be my favorite smaller venue in London.

Last question. You talked about what you love most about your job. Do you have one thing you love most about life in general?
That would easily be my family. I just had a great two-week holiday with them in Greece. It’s been nice to have enough time to spend with my three kids and my wife.