Architect in Profile - Elena Galli Giallini

This month’s exclusive Q&A profiles Hong Kong-based Elena Galli Giallini – the Architect responsible for the elegant design of Shanghai’s Grand Gateway 66 north building, which featured in our July issue. Here, we find out more about Elena’s portfolio and architectural ethos.


Elena Galli Giallini

Please tell us a bit about your career background.

I studied architecture in Turin and Venice University of Architecture (Italy), graduating under the guidance of Gino Valle. Soon after graduation, I worked in Italy for my own studio, specialising in architectural design, renovations of old buildings, interiors and industrial designs. In 1995, I moved to Japan, starting a collaboration spanning almost 18 years with renowned major Japanese enterprises, property developers and industrialists, focusing on residential multi-family complex and industrial design projects.

Then, I moved to Hong Kong and established my office in 2013, which provides all-round solutions in the fields of architecture, interior design and product design; with particular attention to bespoke approaches and craftsmanship value.

Had you always wanted to pursue a career in architecture?

I remember spending a great deal of my free time during my childhood drawing colourful landscapes, prairies with unusual trees under a blue sky and randomly arranged, small pitched roof houses. My drawings were bucolic renditions of wild Africa, where I was born. Houses were the expression of my sense of inhabitation, which gives us the feeling of belonging to a particular place.

Later on, in Italy, my black ink drawings and etchings were mostly representations of cathedrals, palaces, architectural ruins, reminiscent of Italian cities’ glorious pasts.

With a love for art and creativity and a keen interest in the architectural and historical patrimony in Italy – particularly from the Renaissance period – intertwined with my passion for scientific and mathematical disciplines, architecture and design was a natural choice. There is no other discipline that can be defined by its intrinsic, indissoluble combination of artistic-aesthetical aspects and technical-scientific contents.

Who has been your greatest source of inspiration?

My first inspiration, at a young age, came from Renaissance creators such as Leonardo da Vinci, Brunelleschi and Michelangelo, Leon Battista Alberti, Palladio, Botticelli, Mantegna, Bellini – and so many others. Their creations were astonishingly inventive; they were inventors of new theories and techniques that made way for radical change in many fields – visual representation (think about the invention of perspective) as well as techniques and methods of construction (think about the engineering marvel of the cupola for the Duomo in Firenze, for which Brunelleschi invented a wholly innovative and advanced construction method). They inspire me for their limitless mastery on each aspect of the creative disciplines, encompassing paintings, visual arts, sculpture and architecture; they were real precursors and multidisciplinary creators.

What has been your most notable project to date?

I would like to pick a couple of my recent retail complexes for a high-end segment in China, which are parts of extensive mixed-use developments, comprising hotels, apartments and office towers.

In Chengdu, our Sino Ocean Taikoo Li underground shopping mall is embedded in a historical, unique area enriched by Daci Temple, dating back to the third century, and surrounded by heritage buildings. The development is defined by a low-rise, high-density modern village where you can enjoy a number of activities and experiences. Our project’s key element was the bold, unconventional design which created a strong relationship with both the heritage environment and the ‘Sichuan’ style. Our organic scheme also expressed a symbolical reference to the natural landscape typical of the region.

In Shanghai, our renovation for Grand Gateway 66 (north building) – which is now a unique landmark in the Xujiahui district – has brought not only a total transformation to the development but also the rejuvenation of the entire surrounding area.

How do you approach your projects?

My European, cultural background has merged with my working experience of more than 25 years in Asia – first in Japan, then here in China. This reinforces my belief that to generate creative outputs through design, we cannot rely on ‘fixed formulas’ and ‘all-in-one’ recipes.

My approach, rather than by a ‘personal style’, is defined by a working philosophy, based on a constant search for novelty, both aesthetically and functionally. I aim to create a strong identity, and this requires interpreting the sense of history and the direction for the future.

For each project, my design methodology is centred on a holistic approach. I integrate all the distinctive variables, including culture, lifestyle, the city and its environment. These are meaningful elements that inform my design strategy in the quest for relevant solutions, coherent with the environment.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for designing in sustainability?

The main challenge is to be able to create widespread awareness about the inevitability of sustainability. Designing, thinking, producing, managing resources and production process in ‘sustainability mode’ is no longer an option if we want our planet to survive. The environmental and climate crises are just the most visible effects of a worldwide hyperconsumption-driven lifestyle and mass production fuelled by conventional mass-market business strategies.

As a by-product, we are accumulating unmanageable waste, making architecture and spaces that become soon unadaptable and obsolete, therefore producing additional waste, manufacturing unnecessary products and depleting natural resources.

The real challenge is to have new comprehensive legislation and policies adopted in the mass market in every field – not just in the construction industry – to pave the way for eco-friendly production and sustainable consumption models. Proper use of technologies such as AI and strategic design will then concur to produce a new kind of wealth that also targets social health and wellbeing. Again, design will be a strategic and fundamental tool in this journey.

What is your favourite building?

Diversity is actually what I look for. To me, specificity expresses a building’s relevance and its correspondence to particular environmental conditions. I always refer to a place as ‘Genius Loci’, a concept defined first by Cristian Norberg Shultz in his fundamental book about the phenomenology of architecture, which is still very relevant.

I am particularly fond of architecture that is able to provide sensory and emotional experiences. What I look for is authenticity, the interplay of natural materials, a great level of customisation and detailing as well as unusual and innovative solutions, solved with simplicity and understatement. Some examples are the works from Renzo Piano (Parliament of Malta), Rafael Moneo, Eduardo Souto De Moura, Peter Zhumtor, Alvaro Siza, Carlo Scarpa and Chinese Architect, Wang Shu (Ningbo History Museum).

What can we expect to see from you over the next year?

The full completion of a second retail building (140,000m2), part of the Shanghai Grand Gateway 66 mixed-use development – which, as the design architect and interior designer, we have developed renovation projects for both the north and south retail buildings.

As China is progressing ahead in its phase of recovery from COVID-19, we also expect to be able to deepen the conversations for projects in commercial and retail fields.

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