"In an exclusive interview, the groundwork partners answered our questions about experimental architecture, their practice and their studio in Hong Kong" - Editor
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
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
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.
A: Manfred Yuen & CY Lau