Case Study of Architect Christopher Lee

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A Malaysian-born, UK-based architect - Christopher Lee, a co-founder and principal of Serie Architects London, Mumbai and Beijing is making a mark for himself all over the world, who has a very experienced and interesting working experience in his life of being an successful architect today.

The tote (selected building)

The tote, a “tree” inspiring building was completed in 2009 by Christ lee in the middle of one of the most scenic green areas in Mumbai, India. A transformation of a series of abandoned buildings into a unique banquet hall, “ The Tote” was one of the most satisfying project among his design because of the difficulties that the design team have to overcome. Due to the disused building from Mumbai’s colonial era, conservation is a compulsory.

Through analyze the architecture and urban forms in relation to relevant architectural theories
of the selected architect and one of his designed building, this project provide an opportunity for us to understand the architect’s architectural theory. Using architecture as primary text, this project claims that the world of form is not arbitrary but displays an internal logic that has the capacity to convey meaning.

The Tote



Being sheltered by one hundred years old of walnut trees, the location of “The Tote” in Mumbai colonial past was the inspiration of the architect decision, which also the most interesting aspect of the whole design.

Due to the interesting aspect of the site where the whole building is covered by mature rain trees where the building is shaded for the whole year, the site has its potential to create a sense of allowing the whole proposed program to occur outdoors. Christ Lee attempts to continue this idea of a continuously separated space, with a blur boundary, into the envelope of the conservation building. The building was orientated to the north and south to allow indirect sunlight into the building due to the role of the spaces which function as a banquet hall.

The extraordinary canopy of the Indian walnut trees surrounded the banquet hall goes up and down according to the branches of the tree extended inside to shade the ceiling to floor glass wall which fix on the north and south of the banquet hall. In order to filtrate the light of the sun penetrating into the hall through the trees, the ceiling, was cut at certain areas of intersection on the roof.


Branching out of the trees branched formed the natural shading for the building and create a natural outdoor banquet hall.

As the walnut trees wholly shelter the building itself for the entire year, solar heat absorbed from the roof and the window was cooler down by the tree surrounded through evapotranspiration. Hence, the building has a very good air flow of ventilation and the building itself consumed very low energy consumption even India is a hot tropical country.

Architectural Theories

Critical regionalism

The tote, was to be retained as Heritage Grade II B structure and heritage conservation guidelines has to follow the rules of preserving the roof profile of three-quarters and one quarter of the entire building. According to Frampton, critical regionalism should adopt modern architecture critically for its universal progressive qualities but at the same time should value responses particular to the context. Emphasis should be on topography, climate, light, tectonic form rather than scenography and the tactile sence rather than the visual. (Kenneth Frampton, 1985). As the site was situated on lush of greenery, the architect do not manipulate much on the site but he enter a dialectical relation with the nature, taking advantages of the site, avoiding flattening the space in order to deal with the irregularities of the physical landscapes.

In order to conserve the historical area, modern design were adopted into the building design as well. For the banquet hall, roof were remained untouched while a very impressive design of structural system were added into the hall which not merely play the role of a building’s structure, yet the building concept design as well.


When Christ lee presented the opportunity to design a combination of banquet with a fine-dining restaurant and bar, he began to re-examine the essentials of this specific type and typology. In the postmodern period, theorist reconsidered the notion of type as the essence of architecture, seen in some cases as comparable to linguistic deep structure.

Basically, Christ lee interpret the objects surrounded the site and brought it into designing the shell of the building. Creation of unique structural system imitating the branches off of the central post of a walnut tree’s shape and interpret it into the supporting structure of the hall. The banquet hall space is relatively simple yet with a very outstanding visual, different branching length and sizes in structural system to define the various spaces in the Tote.

With the idea of blending the surrounding site into the building, the long banquet hall were installed with floor-to-ceiling windows both on north and south to allow for full views of the walnut trees in the courtyard. To create a more light and airy feeling in a dense green area, the branching structure systems are all painted white in color to enhance the feeling.


A very outstanding design that will immediately capture your eye vision was the bar which nestled within a 9m high space on the upper level. The design is still based on the imitation of the form of the trees yet it is much more abstract approach was implemented for the bar and restaurant. A very modern way of designing the wooden panel into a three-dimensional shape with the idea of transforming the geometric shapes of a tree leaves. The three-dimensional wooden panels were brought out in bronze color and clad all up on the wall and the ceiling. Comparing to the banquet hall which is fully supported by the branches structure system, the bar has a much more looser in feeling where it itself present a life of its own within the existing building envelope.


The tote’s design, Christ lee very emphasize the engagement of the building to the city even within an interior setup. Citing the type-typology studies conducted by Aldo Rossi in the 1960s and 1970s as a starting point, Christ lee try to create a thought of method that would bring to the public of acceptance of type-typology agreements. In contrast to the functionalist which emphasizing on economic as well as political forces in modernist thought , typology as design method was Christ lee’s “concept of type”.

Type, in Tote’s case, was used as being projective to the city and thus generative of architecture, as opposed to being relegated to an observing and examining role. Secondly type-generation on the basis of formal or structural organisation made type go beyond the normal programme or function generated criteria. This kind of lateral thinking that provided pan-project logic led to typological innovation.


Due to the hi-tech detailed of the branching supporting system, details were precisely planned before constructing. Steel fabricators and professional labor are needed in the construction of the structure, as it is much more difficult compare to normal steel construction method. The structure was fabricated in tree shaped and it is a big challenge to the engineering on lay the structure. To have a more precision work, Christ lee exploded out two sectional drawings of the steel structure, which is one in box section and

an I-section.

The I-section was selected to construct, it is due to the reason that the web of the I-beam could go to laser cutting to ensure of the dimensional precision, while depending on the skilled fabricators to weld the flanges on and connect the trusses perfectly. The truss geometry was improved for flat branching as opposed to an angular one to decrease the amount of weld joints. The success of the installation is that the final product conceals the fabrication method and appears to be a system of curved sections.

To ensure the highest degree of accuracy and perfection of connection, all the steel branches were specially modeled and laser cut for connection, meanwhile to reduce the amount of visible seams. Other than that, a formation of the complexity between the openings and coves were formed where the angular trusses encounter the ceiling supports. From this openings, it hides three different types of lighting systems inside it which is operable and fulfill the client’s needs. Through this lighting arrangement, Serie was able to recreate the effect of light filtering in through the canopy of a rain tree grove.

The interior of the fine-dining restaurant and bar on the upper level is a very outstanding yet very complicated organization of 3-dimensional, faceted wooden paneling, acoustically treated with sound proofing material. The pattern of the paneling is a series of trees with intersecting branches. The design was devised a 3 point co-ordinate system to map out the pattern onto the walls of the heritage wing, given the 3 dimensional nature of the panelling and that each intersecting point had a totally different x,y and z co-ordinate. This system allowed local craftsmen using fairly primitive tools to achieve a high level of fit and finish for the interior works. The faceted panelling is finished in walnut veneer with bronze channels making up the tree pattern.

Discussion and conclusion

In my opinion, most modern cities who depend ultimately on some form of the idealistic philosophy do not really approaches the ideal of “type” of a building design. Even thought the “type” is only an abstraction nevertheless The tote, has completely achieved it itself kind of “type” by the architect. Christ lee has brings together the two different understanding of type, with the type of idea and type of model. This project is perfectly integrated into the selected site, by mimicking the surrounding canopy of Indian walnuts.An oasis of relaxation.