Orient Occident Atelier

Hong Kong isn’t an easy place for a young architect to experiment. High land values and strict building regulations mean that smaller, risk-taking projects are often limited to conceptual installations or interior design. But Magic Kwan and Kenrick Wong didn’t let that stop them – they just set their sights further afield. What they found was an opportunity not just to practice architecture, but to develop a project from the ground up, watch as it evolves and stay connected as it takes on a life of its own.

It all started 11 years ago, when Kwan and Wong visited the rural outskirts of Battambang, Cambodia as student volunteers with the organisation Humanity in Focus. The villages they visited struggled with basic infrastructure, but the pair weren’t sure what they could offer. “As a student I thought I couldn’t do anything to the situation,” recalls Wong. “But later I felt we were better equipped. Magic and I started to talk about it.”

After graduating and working for several years at different architecture firms, Kwan and Wong wondered whether they could use their knowledge and skills to make a lasting contribution to Battambang. One of the things they had noticed on their earlier visit was that, although village children were able to attend free public school, classes ended around lunchtime, leaving them with little to do for the rest of the day. Kwan and Wong hatched a plan for a space where the kids could continue learning in a more fun and informal setting.

Together, they launched a design firm, Orient Occident Atelier — OOA — and set to work finding partners for what came to be known as the Adventurous Global School. “We had a free hand to do a design that really suited the local context,” says Kwan. “We had a mission to not just be a normal charity school where after it’s completed the whole team is gone. After the hardware is there we wanted to activate the programme and react to the changing needs in the community. In that way we hope it’s a more sustainable way of development.”

They based their design around something they call the Griddy, “which is a master light steel frame with a lot of voids and pre-drilled holes where we can attach sliding doors and panels,” says Kwan. “We didn’t fully know how the curriculum would evolve and how the classrooms would be used. We thought that hopefully the flexibility to allow the teaching to evolve beyond a normal blackboard setting.”

The project went as quickly as funding came in. “The whole process spanned two years,” says Kwan. “There were a lot of pauses. During that process we were able to bring foreign students to this school – and the local NGO brought foreign engineers as well. The villagers are living right next to it so there was a lot of teaching happening next to that construction site. It created this semi-incomplete space that we were able to utilise as a teaching tool.”

That gave Kwan and Wong time to refine their design and adapt it to the way villagers actually used it. Initially, the shelf-like openings of the Griddy structure were meant to be sealed, but they changed their plans when they saw how local kids used the site while it was under construction. “The Griddy structure was used by the kids as a jungle gym,” says Kwan. “Because it’s two storeys high and there are different facets in the steel frame, the kids just roamed around the steel structure. We never had that in mind but because it was being built at a slower pace, we were able to take that in mind and design it as a more playful space.”

They ended up keeping some of the Griddy’s voids open, creating a series of hidden spaces that children can explore and climb right up to the ceiling. “There are a lot of windows and doors you can unlock to play peek-a-boo,” says Kwan. “It’s like a giant playground.”

The design takes other local conditions into account, too. The architects learned that the area around the school was affected by torrential rains, termites and dust, which led them to create a sheltered, open-air space with abundant natural ventilation and light – just the opposite of many existing structures nearby. “When we visited the local school it was always very dark and very hot,” says Kwan. “It’s like a tissue box, a one-storey elongated space with little openings.” By contrast, the Griddy structure allowed Kwan and Wong to create a permeable façade with many windows that can be opened and closed, working together with a central atrium and breezeblocks to encourage ventilation.

Most of the materials used in the school were locally sourced. “The brick factory is just ten minutes away,” says Wong. “We thought because it’s a rural setting we must have to use mud, brickwork or bamboo, which we loved – but to our surprise [local workers] were able to do a good job of reinforced concrete foundations and superstructure, and they were familiar with light steel work. They have a large variety of metal available.”

The school opened in 2015 and Wong and Kwan have remained involved since then. That has led to other projects in the area, notably one called Waterhall, which opened next to the school in early 2019. “We found very basic infrastructure was missing in the village, like clean water,” says Wong. The only source of fresh water nearby is a polluted lake, so “people either collect rainwater or buy expensive water from private entities,” he says.

In response, the pair got a grant from the Hong Kong Institute of Architects together with two architect friends to build a filtration tower for the lake water. The water is dispensed inside a circular hall with a decorative brick wall – an attractive space for villagers to gather as they fetch water.

These days, OOA is busy working on a resort in the Caribbean, a hostel in Siem Reap and pop-up installations in Hong Kong. What the school taught them was that, whatever the project, the design process is what’s most important. “We believe that our design discipline can apply to different scales,” he says. “If you scale them up it becomes a building, if you scale them up even more it becomes a city,” adds Kwan. “But if you scale them down it becomes insulation or furniture. What intrigues us is objects and the space in between them.”

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