Can good design in a mixed-use development improve the quality of life?
Yes, says William Latour, managing director of CHAO Sanlitun, who tells CNA Luxury how working at the mixed-use development and living in design-rich Beijing has been one of the best experiences of his life.
Mixed-use developments may be the building model du jour, but they’ve long been a staple in Asia, with the shophouse – retail on the ground floor and residence on the upper floors – being the prime example.
In Singapore, for example, the People’s Park complex remains a case study on the genre. That said, the CHAO Sanlitun development in Beijing is still something of a highwater mark, its massive footprint incorporating every imaginable social construct from a hotel and art centre, to a co-working space and clubhouse.
But as William Latour, managing director of CHAO tells CNA Luxury, context is all important and, in this case, Beijing – with its buzzing design scene and lifestyle offerings – has been the perfect setting for not just CHAO’s success, but also his life.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU LIVED IN BEIJING?
I’ve been living here for four years now. I first visited it in 2012 and I fell in love with its energetic mood.
HOW HAS THE CITY CHANGED SINCE THEN?
The quality of air has improved dramatically over the years. And, as a result, the sky is blue more often.
CHAO SANLITUN IS BASED ON THE NOTION OF THE GOOD LIFE AND A QUALITY LIFESTYLE. APART FROM THE OBVIOUS HARDWARE, HOW IS THIS MANIFESTED EMOTIONALLY?
Beyond the physical function of CHAO is a philosophy that merges artistic, cultural and extraordinary hospitality experiences. We combine elements that are strongly associated to the contemporary lifestyle. For us, an art piece or a bottle of wine offer a similar way in which to connect to a sensory dimension. The elements of architecture, design and fashion are omnipresent within CHAO, and these create a sophisticated background for those emotions.
HOW DID THIS NOTION COME ABOUT?
Well, we wanted to create an experience that would resonate with a millennial mindset. This meant products and services that were generous and made life easier, as well as intuitive, inspired service. We studied the market and made choices that reflect our brand’s taste and style. Basically, we designed CHAO for the new sybarite – someone who works hard, does not compromise, has an inherent need to be positively surprised and entertained, and has a positive outlook on life.
The Art Center creates a real buzz. Its programme of activities are steeped in local Chinese art and culture. Featuring a variety of artistic creativity, it’s a place to learn and to discover talents.
ARE YOU DEVELOPING ANY NEW ACTIVITIES OR EXPERIENCES THIS YEAR?
We are. We’re launching several stunning new event spaces at the top of our building, which also offers sweeping views across the city. We are also working on extending our wellness experiences. Watch this space, as they say.
ARE THERE PLANS TO OPEN MORE PROPERTIES THAT WILL FEATURE THIS SAME KIND OF DESIGN AND QUALITY OF LIFE PARADIGM?
Oh yes, we are indeed very much interested to develop our portfolio and to recreate the CHAO experience in other cities. In fact, our success in Beijing has attracted several investors across industries. The thing is, CHAO is a delicate formula that resonates with its surroundings and, so, we are taking our time to consider several locations in first-tier cities in China that have truly great potential. The challenge is to find the right location as well as the ideal partner.
WHEN WE TALK ABOUT QUALITY OF LIFE, BEIJING ISN’T A CITY THAT IMMEDIATELY SPRINGS TO MIND. WHAT’S YOUR TAKE ON THIS?
Beijing is the quintessential city for travellers in search of art, fashion, music and cultural experiences. This is the largest market of one of the biggest economies in the world. Which means there are a lot of business opportunities and good connections, too, in terms of collaboration. And as operators, we have come to understand that the local community appreciates our choices.
FROM THE MACRO TO THE MICRO: WHAT DOES QUALITY OF LIFE MEAN TO YOU, PERSONALLY?
Finding reasons to laugh and ways to be inspired.
WHAT ABOUT GOOD DESIGN?
It needs to be meaningful, practical, and beautiful to watch unfold.
I am such an unapologetic fan of Sanlitun simply because I enjoy the myriad of experiences offered within such a small area. There’s no need for a car here. All you need is available within walking distance. There is always a new venue to discover. I spend a lot of time in the 798 Beijing Art District where you can find brilliant galleries. The chic-boheme crowd is a bit surprising, and I immensely enjoy the hutong areas because they allow me to connect and explore the city’s real culture.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE DESIGN STORE IN BEIJING?
I am a bit of a fashion addict. But in spite of my designer inhibitions and penchant for classic car design, there is a retailer in Beijing that I really appreciate. It’s called Magmode and it exclusively stocks emerging labels, a majority of them by young Chinese designers. The pieces are stunning and inventive, with a breakthrough style that I find so very hard to resist.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE DESIGNED SPACE OR EXPERIENCE IN BEIJING?
The exhibitions featured by Central Academy of Fine Arts, UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, M Woods art museum, and Redbrick Art Museum are my favourites. I also spend quite a bit of time exploring the new dining experience that are blossoming around Sanlitun.
WHAT’S THE MOST OVERRATED BEIJING EXPERIENCE?
The main historical spots can, at times, be overcrowded, making it hard to grasp the serene atmosphere that they were originally designed to deliver.
WHAT’S THE MOST UNDERRATED BEIJING EXPERIENCE?
Its local fashion and electro underground music.
WHAT’S A PERFECT WEEKEND FOR YOU?
Party on Friday night. Visit an art gallery on Saturday, dine with friends in the evening, and relax in a hot spring spa on Sunday to gear up for the week ahead. I recently got my Chinese driving license, so I am discovering more and more of the countryside in the city’s outskirts. There are really great places to visit such as the Cuandixia village, which has remained unchanged for the last 500 years.
BEIJING IS YOUR CURRENT HOME, BUT WHERE IS “HOME HOME”?
Home for me is Paris and Bordeaux. I go back about three times a year. What do I miss most? The view over the Eiffel Tower from my balcony, my 1998 Bentley Turbo RT, and the understated, tranquil beauty of my village in the countryside of Bordeaux.
DO YOU FIND BEIJING A CHALLENGING EXPERIENCE AS AN EXPAT?
Not really. It’s been one of my most satisfying expatriate experiences. Yes, it’s not easy in the sense that competition is fierce, but the city remains trendy and Beijingers are welcoming and friendly.
WHAT’S BEEN THE MOST IMPORTANT LIFE LESSON THAT BEIJING HAS TAUGHT YOU?
Never choose the easy choice. Don’t pay attention to stereotypes and believe in your intuition.
ONE LAST QUESTION: WHAT’S THE ONE THING THAT STILL SURPRISES YOU ABOUT BEIJING?
The way this megapolis has remained human. Everyone is willing to offer help and assist each other.
“[The one thing that still surprises me about Beijing is the] way this megapolis has remained human. Everyone is willing to offer help and assist each other.” – William Latour