Memo From Hong Kong: Insider’s Take
Gary Chang is the founder and managing director of Hong Kong studio Edge Design Institute. Established in 1994, the practice adopts a multi-disciplinary approach, working across the fields of architecture, urban strategies, interiors, and product design. Chang is best known for Domestic Transformer, his metamorphic apartment that addresses the challenges of living in Hong Kong’s micro residential spaces, the outcome of which entails the transformation of a 340-square-foot space into 24 different layouts via an intelligent system of sliding walls. Here, Chang discusses general architecture and interior design trends in Hong Kong, as well as current and upcoming projects.
Interior Design: How would you characterise Hong Kong’s urban fabric?
Gary Chang: Hong Kong is defined by many parallels. On the one hand, the city is densely packed. It has limited resources, particularly in terms of space and time; yet, the city experiences almost instant change. We are also famous for wasting energy—we are definitely not as environmentally conscious as our neighbours in Singapore, Japan and Taiwan. On a more positive note, Hong Kong provides a good environment through which to rethink dense, urban living and provokes dialogue about how to maximise both time and opportunities. I also find it interesting that, when we discuss architecture in Hong Kong, we are almost always discussing interiors!
ID: What does Hong Kong need in order to grow as a design city?
GC: There are so many contradictions in Hong Kong that it is hard to answer your question clearly. Let us take an example instead. The retail sector, for instance, is extremely sophisticated here. Prices are probably amongst the highest in the world, and the city has become a center of big brands looking to enter Mainland China. Everything is supersized and places like Causeway Bay and Central are like battlefields.
Nearly every subway stop is a shopping arcade or mall, and it is these small pockets of Hong Kong that form our public spaces. My experience of moving through shopping malls has never been a comfortable one though. Most stores are forced to relocate every two years so that shopping malls can retain an element of freshness—and their competitive edge. This process not only wastes resources, it also means that every time you enter a shopping mall, you feel as if you are entering a construction site! This city is obsessed with “newness” and it is continuously mutating like a form of plastic surgery, which for me is very strange.
The changes that are taking place in Hong Kong are too quick. Rather than focus all of our attention on new builds, we need to pay attention to the existing fabric also. What about the old stores that have been around for more than 50 years? These historic places define Hong Kong just as much, if not more, than new buildings. I have recently noticed that Hong Kong residents have started to treasure their heritage, which has now become a hot political issue. This is a positive step.
ID: Is there a project that is either currently under development or recently completed that you find particularly interesting?
GC: I am quite interested in the new subway extension that is presently under development, which will allow citizens to conveniently move from the center of the city to the beach. After the SARS outbreak, Hong Kong residents became much more hygiene-conscious. It is now a big trend to travel to the outlying areas in order to go hiking and breathe in the fresh air. Actually, this is another aspect that makes the city unique: we are living inside nature.
ID: What are you currently working on?
GC: Most of the projects that we are currently working on are situated in Hong Kong. They are too numerous to mention in detail—we have about fifteen projects currently in progress—but they range from residential or private homes, to retail and jewellery stores, and even the interiors of a private jet and yacht! Our studio specialises in designing compact spaces: in Mainland China, we have many sales office and mobile home projects that are presently underway, including the re-design of a small, 160-square-foot private residence in Beijing.
ID: How would you describe the ethos of your studio?
GC: We focus on the smart use of resources in our architecture and urban planning projects. We want to make the city, not by building, but through alteration and modification.
ID: What part of the city inspires you most?
GC: I have to say that I am intrigued by temporary structures. The commercial and financial processes in Hong Kong means that, quite often, buildings are short lived. The Ritz-Carlton hotel, for example, had a life span of about 15-20 years. It was demolished, and now the site accommodates office buildings. These interactions captivate me the most.
Life is not just the equation of grand projects. It is also about the small interactions and the culmination of these small interactions. For me, the most inspiring spaces of the city are the inconspicuous, in-between spaces, or the small, non-descript areas. These spaces are striking to me, as I believe they harbour the most potential for development.