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Humanist Approach to Architecture & Design

"In an exclusive interview, the groundwork partners answered our questions about experimental architecture, their practice and their studio in Hong Kong" - Editor

Manfred Yuen (Right) & CY Lau (Left), Founding Architect & Director, Groundwork Architecture

Tell us more about experimental architecture. How do you incorporate it in your practice? What

are its fundamentals?

We have started in London back in 2007 and “paper architecture” were our only outputs

(exhibitions, drawing, exploring representation methods etc), they were our passion. Of course,

we wanted real building projects, but no one trusted us to build back then!

Now, we are actually buildings and spaces, but we have never stopped experimenting, because

the thought process behind the experimental works have provided the philosophical anchorages

for the “real work” to blossom when opportunities arise. Our recent works with elderly homes

and children playgrounds both started as experimental projects.


You design cater to the people first and not only in a technical manner but also in a manner that

it helps them in aspects of their lives. Is this something very important to you when it comes to

your projects? Any past experiences that have led you to run your practice in this direction?

Yes, the user experiences are the most important drivers for our works. When I have moved

from Mainland China back to Hong Kong in 2011, after a failed attempt to set up Groundwork

there, I have no real work, so I have started to visiting homes of singleton elders and help

refurbishing them as a volunteer, and eventually help organizing the events. I felt that the works

are much more fulfilling than my experience working for star-architect practices, and I wonder

how I may translate these experiences into a sustainable office.


Your project The Fairyland Playscape has a futuristic perspective towards playgrounds. Why

was it important for you to create a social impact through this project?

It was one of our first playscape, we called it a “playable art”. K11(shopping mall chain in Hong

Kong and Mainland China) had engaged us because we have completed a two years research

for the Hong Kong Government on the future of our playgrounds and they would like to see how

we may implement the research into reality.

Fairyland Playscape was rather successful and it had attracted many visitors, and we thought

most of the visitors were children, that was not entirely true! Most visitors were 21-35 years old,

who found the place “instagramable”. The young people were “playing” and “feeling” the space.

The inflatable structure allowed them to be physically engaged with an art piece. As for the

children, we saw them bouncing, sliding, climbing, taking risks, playing with their parents and

friends, sweating and laughing. I guess the break-through was to see how people at all age may

play together. Imagine if the space carried no aesthetics value, do you think that the youngster

would have went in?


A lot of architects would shy away from a site like the one in your project The Revival of the

Gingko House. What potentials did you see in it?

Some great architecture were great because they were adding value to under-valued

property/lands. Herzog & De Meuron gained their first international recognitions by converting

the Bankside Power Station into the Tate Modern in London.


Most architects would shy away from NGO projects because of their lower budget (not

necessarily the fee though). I bought Dirk Dalichau, the Director for Eaton Hotel, to Gingko

House Viet Street, and I told him that we were on shoestring budget, he replied: “well, it is great

that you have less money but more creativity to spend”. Constraints are our best design tool.

Groundwork loves constraints, which is why most of our clients only approached us because of a

challenging design brief, and facing these challenges sharped us – sharper, perhaps.


Tell us about your workplace and its environment in Hong Kong. What’s it like?

As we had expanded, we moved our Hong Kong office from Central to Kennedy Town two years

ago. Our studio’s street level entrance is marked by a 2m X 1m black stainless-steel canopy,

with a large white slogan: “Science of Rebellion” printed across it: I guess that sort-of

encapsulated the spirit of our work environment.

Our works are not only limited to architectural design, we are also brand builders and

entrepreneurial. We would take part in meaningful businesses and social ventures. Thus,

people from all walks of lives visited our Hong Kong office: students, artists, government

officials, hawker stalls owners, hedge-fund managers, politicians, grannies of the local

community, etc.

We simply wish that everyone at Groundwork are happy and grow with us, these are our only

goals. It will be a bonus if our team members would turn out to be rebels who would challenge

status-quos and social norms, and someday start something on their own.


What projects are you currently working on?

As an architect, we are building two kindergarten in Shenzhen, new work places for HSBC,

Alliance Primary School extension, Oootopia III (serviced residence), a flat for my partner Fiona

Bao, a transitional housing for the Hong Kong Government, a warehouse for Hop Hing Group, a

park in Shenzhen, a school in Cambodia, Gingko House II, …phew!!

As an entrepreneur, we are setting up a coffee/beer chain in Japan and a playroom chain in

China. As an artist, we are exhibiting our works in Los Angeles this September, an indoor inflatable

playscape at Shenzhen Vanke City this August and a playscape design in the Urban

Architectural Bi-City Biennale (UABB) this December in Shenzhen.


How did your partnership happen? How was your firm and its direction affected after?

I have invited CY Lau to join Groundwork in 2015. CY is a much better architects than me and I

can no longer run Groundwork alone, as I was very tried. CY and I were classmates from 1998-

2011. He is now my best of friends. I wish to say that we are both learning from each other, but

the truth is that I am learning much more from him. CY take cares of the office while I run around

the world, giving talks and meeting new opportunities.

We meet Fiona Bao back in 2017, she was the designer director for a Mainland China real-

estate developer and she was our client. Fiona was (and still is) passionate, charming and

energetic, but she felt that she was losing touch with humanity and numbed by developer’s

capitalistic ideals. We discussed a partnership in early 2018 and she agreed. Fiona saw how

Groundwork were able to touch people’s heart with design; we saw how she would made us

wonderful (and she did). Fiona is currently heading our Shenzhen office and she is responsible

for our Mainland China operations.

So far, Groundwork had generated every piece of design works as a team. Our partners’

characters and leadership style differences are the best ingredients for creativity. To work with

differences, we must learn how to respect each other. And because we learned respecting each

other, we also learned how to respect our staffs, clients, users, competitors etc. In-short, we

became better people because of our partnership.


What factors are important for a partnership such as yours to function?

Appreciation, respect and humor: we must perfect the art of self-mockery and the delirious joy of

teasing each other.


You (C Y Lau) have worked on a variety of projects with various firms before joining

Groundwork. How is Groundwork different according to you? How does it stand out from the

rest?

Groundwork has strong faith in design and humanity. Every project has its own soul which gives

deeper meaning to the design beyond mere visual stun. Groundwork is rebellious. It challenges

the norm by attacking the situation from different angles and creating new paradigm shift in a

suffocating design environment.

Q: TDC

A: Manfred Yuen & CY Lau

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