Aron Tsang Wai-Chun, Anthony Ko Chun-Ming and Rosalia Leung Ho-Ching first met while they were students in the Bachelor of Architecture programme. Nearly a decade later, a community-based project on Oil Street brought them back together.
In 2018, Tsang’s practice, Napp Studio and Architects, was chosen to mount an exhibition at Oi!, a government-run art space housed inside a century-old compound that was once the clubhouse for the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. “Oi! is about the community, its proximity and its heritage,” says Tsang. “We wanted to find a way to talk about public space with the people around it.”
Tsang banded together with Ko and Leung for the project. It wasn’t their first collaboration. Since graduating from HKU, the trio has worked on a number of projects that use street furniture to raise critical questions about Hong Kong’s urban space. In 2016, they developed Plus Furniture, a system of tables and benches that can be mounted on Hong Kong’s ubiquitous roadside fences. The concept was refined the following year in Park in the City, a colourful chair that hangs on the fences and doubles as a book-sharing shelf when it is folded up.
“We try to use urban furniture as a way to get people to acknowledge their city,” says Ko. For Oi!, the team designed a collection of mobile “drawing carts” where people could sketch impressions of their neighbourhood. Made of wood, the carts had a drafting table, a curtain with pockets for people to put their drawings and an awning to shield everything from the elements.
After building the carts, the designers wheeled them into the neighbourhood around Oil Street. They started by offering a tutorial on the basics of drawing and design, and they offered worksheets that people would be familiar with from their school days. “We started with some empty sheets of paper and little by little people draw what their community is about,” says Leung. “With this project we didn’t have a fixed outcome. It was about involving different perspectives.”
“We had much more feedback than we expected,” adds Tsang. What the public drew was revealing. One child sketched a view from his apartment window that was shrouded by construction scaffolding; another drew Victoria Harbour as seen through the pillars of the Island East Corridor, an expressway built above the water. Leung says these were “very acute observations” of the barriers people encounter in the urban landscape.
Other drawings were more cheerful. Interactions between kaifong — neighbours — was a common theme. “It’s interesting to see people’s different ways of seeing and thinking,” says Ko. And for these young architects, it underlines the need for design projects to be participatory. “I’ve always rejected the idea of architects as the sole designer [of a project],” says Tsang.
The exhibition that resulted from Tsang, Ko and Leung’s work was called 100 Drawings on Community, and it ran at Oi! in the summer of 2018. Dozens of community drawings were showcased alongside one of the mobile carts the architects had built.
Since then, the trio have each pursued their own projects, often with an eye towards the community. Leung currently works as a lecturer at the Faculty of Architecture and she is researching the role of public participation in the design process. She also leads workshops that pair architecture students with local residents, including one that led to the construction of a public eco-toilet in a rural village in Kam Tin.
Ko recently finished his Master of Architecture studies at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, and he now works for the Hong Kong studio of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. He also does drawing and installation work through his personal practice, Dilemma Studio.
Through Napp Studio, Tsang is working on a variety of projects, including a vitrine inside the JC Contemporary gallery at Tai Kwun, exhibition design for the Ambiguously Yours show at M+, and experimental furniture pieces developed in collaboration with other designers and craftspeople, including a stool made of hand-folded sheets of metal and a wooden lounge chair that was exhibited at the Salone del Mobile in Milan. “I like to work across scales,” he says. “It helps me think.”
In 2019, the three architects watched with interest as Hong Kong’s urban landscape was transformed by months of pro-democracy protests. Throughout the city, roadside fences were removed by protesters, which had the effect of freeing up spaces that had been previously regimented and constrained – although, ironically, it also eliminated the need for the public seating the trio had designed to be mounted on the fences.
They say it’s all part of the same process of public engagement. “It raises critical questions about how the city is configured,” says Ko. “The message is that ordinary citizens can get involved in shaping their city.”