April 14th, 2014

A Police Dormitory Reborn as a Design Hub

Hong Kong’s design scene is thriving, but like many of this city’s creative endeavours, it exists beyond the spotlight, in old factory buildings and back alley studios. That could soon change. After two years of renovations, the former Police Married Quarters on Aberdeen Street has been reborn as PMQ, a design hub that aims to raise the public profile of local design by giving designers more opportunities to build their own brands.

“It’s a project that nobody has done before,” says William To, the PMQ’s creative director, who is also project director at the Hong Kong Design Centre. “It will attract all sorts of designers from different disciplines to come and interact with each other and the public.”

Built in 1951 to house police officers and their families, the PMQ now contains 130 design studios, along with shops, restaurants, a library, exhibition space, a rooftop garden and outdoor gathering areas. When it is fully open next month, it will contain a mixture of well-known brands like Vivienne Tam alongside up-and-comers such as Hoiming, a leatherworking studio.

Studio spaces are small — about 450 square feet — but To says the goal is to foster a community, not to create an office complex. Spacious open-air corridors in front of each unit will be used for exhibitions and pop-up events; there will be a co-working space and units for overseas designers-in-residence; and tenants must keep their doors open to the public between 1pm and 8pm every day.


March 25th, 2014

The Best Tram in the World

Detour tram

As the tram lurched past the dried seafood shops of Des Voeux Road, a cool breeze passing through its open windows, passengers were served a round of cocktails. “Do you reckon this is the best tram in the world at the moment?” asked one woman sipping an Old Fashioned. “I think so,” replied another.

Needless to say, this was no ordinary tram journey. For ten days last December, four of Hong Kong’s double-decker trams were made over for Detour, an annual art and design festival. One tram was converted into a classroom; another was transformed into a giant camera obscura; a maintenance tram became a mobile radio station and concert venue. The fourth was the Eatery tram, whose teak-framed upper deck was fashioned into a sleek dining hall, blond wood and brass railings bracketed by strips of soft LED lights.

“To make the space feel bigger, we removed all hand holds and rails that obstructed the line of vision, made all the tables and benches out of light-colored pine, painted the walls and ceilings white and put in light-colored wood veneer flooring,” says Billy Potts, who designed the interior with partners Albert Tong, Cara To and Sjors van Buyten.

Detour tram


February 20th, 2013

What’s Left of Industrial Hong Kong


Industrial buildings in Chai Wan

China’s Pearl River Delta is often called the world’s factory floor, but 40 years ago, that title belonged to Hong Kong. In the 1970s, 22,000 factories and workshops furiously churned out everything from clothes to watches to jewellery. Then, when low wages and a newly-liberalised economy made mainland China an attractive prospect in the 1990s, business owners moved their factories across the border. Left behind were hundreds of now-quiet industrial buildings – and even more out-of-work men and women with skills in sewing, watchmaking, cobbling and other trades.

But that’s not the end of the story. In recent years, a small group of Hong Kong designers are building new brands on the remnants of the city’s industrial heritage and traditional craft skills. What is not yet clear, however, is whether this is the birth of a new generation of skilled and design-savvy craftspeople – or simply the last gasp of Hong Kong manufacturing.

When designers Kit Lee and Jeff Wan discovered that high rents were forcing a 40-year-old shoe workshop named Ming Kee to close, they bought the shop’s equipment and hired its shoemaking master, a 60-something man known affectionately as Uncle Kong. (“He’s a bit media shy,” says Lee, explaining that he doesn’t like to reveal too much about himself.) That was their first step towards Shoe Artistry, a brand that aims to reinvigorate Hong Kong’s tradition of bespoke shoemaking. Uncle Kong now makes shoes in a second-floor space above the busy Ladies Market, where Lee and Wan also hold public workshops. They eventually plan to move to a new studio in the PMQ design hub, which will open next year.

“Design and industry should work hand in hand,” says Lee, who used to source apparel from mainland Chinese factories for a company in Singapore. “Every year there are so many design students being churned out but without industry they have no connection to how things are made.” At the same time, she says, Hong Kong has lost touch with its own industrial skills. “Instead of always looking to China to get things made, why don’t we look at what Hong Kong has to offer?”


January 28th, 2013

A Detour in Urban Design


When artist-activist John Bela wandered around Wan Chai, Hong Kong’s melting pot neighbourhood of historic shophouses, packed street markets and hooker bars, he encountered a sense of déjà-vu. “I felt like a prisoner in a cage surrounded by leering cars and trucks,” he says. “This is the case in many cities where traffic engineers have dominated the design of streets.”

For years, Bela has fought for more humane public spaces in his hometown of San Francisco, where he helped launched Park(ing) Day, a now-global initiative to convert street parking spaces into miniature public parks. When he came to Hong Kong to curate the latest Detour design festival, he was dismayed by the city’s “twentieth century” approach to designing streets, which treats them as traffic funnels instead of public gathering spaces.

With the help of co-curator Justine Topfer and Detour creative director Aidan Li, Bela assembled an international crew of designers to challenge Hong Kong’s approach to public space in engaging ways. The result was “Design Renegade: Prototyping Public Space,” a two-week event held last December at the recently-decommissioned Wan Chai Police Station. In addition to lectures, concerts, a design market and exhibits inside the police station, a vacant lot across the street was transformed into an urbanist’s playground.

Detour Hong Kong

Detour from above. Photo courtesy the organizers


December 12th, 2012

Mobile Architecture

View from the Arch

Despite the fact that I’ve never owned a car, and I drive only a couple of times a year, I’ve always had a fascination with car design. When I was a kid, I knew all the marques. I would sit in the back seat of my parents’ van, naming the cars that went by, a copy of the Consumer Reports car guide on my lap. Even today, when I’m stuck on traffic on the bus here in Hong Kong, I’ll gaze out and catalogue my fellow travellers: the bulbous Nissan Marchs, hulking Toyota Alphards, the endless varieties of 3-Series BMWs and C-Class Mercedes that are so common in Hong Kong.

Of course, my interest isn’t limited to private automobiles. When I visited other North American cities with my family, I noted with interest how New Flyer buses were common in the west, Novabuses in the east. I learned to appreciate the classic New Look buses that served as workhorses on so many Calgary Transit routes, retro-stylish even as they struggled up the long hill to my house, ancient engines moaning in protest.

I bring this up because of Thomas Heatherwick, who delivered a very animated and entertaining talk last weekend at the Business of Design Week forum in Hong Kong. Heatherwick is a British designer whose London-based studio has produced, among other things, the “Seed Cathedral” at the 2010 Shanghai Expo and the spectacular cauldron of the 2012 Olympic Games. Heatherwick is also the designer of the New Bus for London, which he highlighted in his talk at BODW.

When the bus was unveiled last year, there was some sense that it was at best a vanity project, at worst an attempt to indulge nostalgia, since the new bus was meant as a revival of the iconic Routemaster bus, which was produced until 1968, retired from regular service in 2005 and known for its hop-on, hop-off open back end. The typically rancorous peanut gallery at Dezeen blasted Heatherwick’s design as “steampunky art nouveau” and a “glorified student project” that put “fashion over function.” One cranky commenter insisted that “the bus should be practical above all else,” as if Heatherwick had produced a three-wheeled jitney that ran on the distilled essence of gold.


December 21st, 2011

Ma Yansong’s Organic Architecture

Mississauga was as close to a blank slate as Beijing-based architect Ma Yansong could hope for. For more than twenty years, the sprawling city in the suburbs of Toronto has been searching fruitlessly for an identity. Its first attempt came in 1987, when a national design competition produced a post-modern City Hall that resembled a mutant farmstead. But it wasn’t enough to counter the effect of the featureless apartment towers, shopping malls and low-density subdivisions that spread over the young city’s flat landscape.

So when Mississauga tried its hand at creating another civic landmark, the Absolute Towers, a pair of 56-storey and 50-storey apartment buildings that would anchor a privately-built housing complex, it opened the field internationally. Ma submitted a proposal for an improbably nebulous structure with no vertical lines. Each floor seemed piled on top of one another like an unwieldy stack of papers. For all the novelty of its form, however, the tower was memorably beautiful, with a curve that brought to mind the hourglass figure of Marilyn Monroe — which is exactly what Mississauga locals began calling the building after it won the competition.

“I was a little bit surprised about Marilyn Monroe, but I was very happy,” says Ma from his office in Beijing, where I spoke with him by phone earlier this year. “I went to the press conference and was asked, ‘Why is this building so sexy?’ I didn’t try to make it a sexy building, but what I like is a natural shape.”

The tower is human in its function as well as its form. Each floor has a different layout and is framed by a wraparound balcony, so “there will be a lot of people on the balconies,” says Ma. “You can see them and they can see each other. That’s my vision of urban life, a lot of people integrated with one another.”


November 3rd, 2011

Transit by Design

Sheung Shui Station

Lai King Station, next to Hong Kong’s sprawling container port, has special significance for Wilfred Yeung. “This was my first assignment when I joined the MTR,” he says as we ride down the escalator from the busy platform upstairs. In the mid-1990s, as a young architect, Yeung was given the task of expanding the station to accommodate a new metro line. Rather than expand the station into an unwieldy maze of corridors, tracks were rerouted so that passengers could transfer between lines simply by walking across the platform.

It’s this kind of efficiency that passengers have come to expect from the MTR, the world’s ninth-busiest metro system, with 1.41 billion passenger rides last year. Not only efficiency, but seemingly endless expansion. Over the next five years, the MTR will open seven new metro stations and a high-speed rail line; several more lines and an overhaul of existing stations are in the works. But attitudes in Hong Kong are changing, and growth for growth’s sake is not longer held in high esteem. Nor is a purely functional metro system, no matter how fast and reliable it might be. The MTR’s new challenge is to move millions of people a day through a system that is at once convenient, comfortable and aesthetically interesting.

Aesthetics weren’t the top priority when the MTR was first planned in the 1970s, but under the guidance of British architect Roland Paoletti — who later oversaw the design of London’s renowned Jubilee Line extension in the late 1990s — it managed to create a visually distinctive system with limited resources. Paoletti made extensive use of commonly-available, brightly-coloured mosaic tiles to create a distinct identity for each station. “It’s still so significant that it’s hard to depart from when we plan new stations,” says Yeung, who is now the MTR’s chief architect. “People associate the MTR with bright colours.”


October 31st, 2011

“Urbanized”: Democracy and Design

Posted in Architecture, Art and Design, Film, Politics, Video by Christopher Szabla
YouTube Preview Image

Gary Hustwit clearly wanted his new documentary, Urbanized, to get more people talking or writing about cities. But he might not have expected the very literal way that admirers at Field Notes, a stationery company, would help facilitate that goal — by supplying notepads branded with the film’s logo to audiences attending early theatrical runs.

According to info printed inside, the notebooks, which are like disposable Moleskines, were inspired by “the vanishing subgenre of agricultural memo books”, boasting “innards printed on a Miller TP104 28″ x 40″ 2-color printing press,” and were inevitably produced in Portland, Oregon — capital of all that’s preciously artisanal. It’s not exactly surprising that any tribute to Hustwit would come in the form of such obsessively crafted items; his first two films, Helvetica and Objectified, have attained a certain cult status among font geeks and industrial design nerds, respectively.

Urbanized, the third in Hustwit’s so-called “design trilogy,” has a slightly different valence. There’s a definite utilitarian logic in the decision to value Helvetica over another font, or in thinking about how to craft a tool or household object. But urban design impacts many more lives on a scale orders of magnitude larger than either.

As the film chronicles, that realization has forced a once-distant discipline to consult, increasingly, those whose lives it affects. Many of the ideas the documentary presents underscore Hustwit’s enthusiasm for such engagement — whether initiated by planners and architects or their erstwhile subjects. “You have book clubs,” he implored, after a recent screening in Manhattan, “start city clubs!” Urbanized could be seen as a simple, layered presentation of world cities’ design choices — but to the extent that the documentary moves in any one direction, it’s as a meditation on how and why urban design should be democratized.


June 13th, 2011

Recovery by Design

Ein Junge nach der Zerstörung. Erdbeben und Tsunami, Japan 2011

Photo by the Swiss Red Cross

The violence of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that shook Japan on March 11th was shocking enough, but what followed was almost unimaginable. Thirty minutes after the quake, a massive tsunami swept through the northeastern Tohoku region with waves up to 120 feet high. Entire towns were crushed and swept away. By the time the water receded, tens of thousands of people were dead and half a million left homeless.

It was Japan’s worst disaster since World War II, but this is a country familiar with nature’s wrath, and not long after the quake, Japan’s designers sprung into action with plans to help deal with the catastrophe. Their attitude was summed up by architect Shigeru Ban. “We don’t need innovative ideas,” he told the New York Times. “We just need to build normal things that can be made easily and quickly.”

Ban speaks from experience. For years, he has been used paper tubes as a material in his buildings. When an earthquake devastated the western Japanese city of Kobe in 1995, he put the technique to use in building emergency shelters with beer crate foundations and paper tube walls. He has done the same thing for earthquake survivors in Haiti, Turkey and China. He has even built a paper tube concert hall in the earthquake ravaged Italian town of L’Aquila, whose opening was marked in April by a performance of Japanese musicians with an Italian orchestra.

This time, Ban focused on building partitions for earthquake survivors living in emergency shelters. With a frame made of paper tubes and walls of white canvas, the partitions create flexible rooms that offer privacy, which becomes increasingly important as the wait for temporary government housing drags on for months. “People are evacuated to locations under a big roof, such as gymnasiums,” said Ban. “For the first few days, it’s okay, but then people suffer because there’s no privacy between families.”