Built to surprise

Er lebt seit 30 Jahren in der gleichen winzigen Wohnung. Wenn ihm auf Reisen ein Hotelzimmer nicht zusagt, designt er es einfach um. Wenn er in Ruhe seine Heimatstadt Hong Kong durchstreifen will, verkleidet er sich als japanischer Tourist. Er baute das „Kofferhaus“ nahe der chinesischen Mauer, er entwarf ein Tee-set für die italienische Nobelmarke Alessi und gestaltete einen 70 meter hohen Turm mit nur 40 quadratmetern pro Stockwerk: Gary Chang, Stararchitekt und -designer aus Hong Kong, im Gespräch.

How much is Hong Kong as a city an influence for you?

I am totally local. I was born in Hong Kong, I studied in Hong Kong, I live and work in Hong Kong, it’s my base, although I am travelling a lot these days. To me it’s always my place of origin. It’s not the way Hong Kong looks like that influences me, it’s the way people do things there, the people’s way of life, the way they behave. What fascinates me is how fast people there can do many things at the same time. It’s part of our mentality. And there’s a lot of energy that I use as a source of inspiration. I’m not sure whether I could do things in, for example, Europe, in the same way. The mentality is quite different. And I think we look at things in a different way. I always try to see how things are related to each other or similar – not what divides them from each other.

Hong Kong is a city that’s very advanced in regards of arts and architecure. There are a lot of new and very exciting buildings built all the time. Is that something you follow, something that interests you, or do you say: Oh well, just another new building?

Well, that’s a good point. Maybe in this respect, I’m different from other people. When a new building is presented, everybody tries to be at the opening. I don’t. I don’t want to stand in line to see a new building being opened. I have a different approach: I want to be like a tourist in Hong Kong. Actually, I sometimes do that: I grab my camera and have a walk and look at all the new developments in the city. So people sometimes think I’m Japanese, and as most people there don’t speak Japanese, they leave me alone. It gives me a sense of peace to just walk around and study the city I live in, to relax in my own city.

Have you ever been asked to build one of the tall office towers?

Actually, I’ve done one already, about eight years ago, the Mega-iAdvantage Data Centre Building. We built a 140 meters tower in less than half a year. It’s located in the Eastern part of Hong Kong Island. And right now, we are doing another building, not that high, around 70 meters, which is quite short by Hong Kong terms. It looks like a pencil. Each floor has only 40 square meters, and it has 25 stories. So that’s why we call it the pencil. And you have the elevator going right through your apartment. It’s kind of a game, like many projects I do. I try to surpise people: 40 square meters doesn’t sound like a lot but when you put some thought in the construction it can become quite spacious.

Is it a residential building or more like a hotel?

Like a hotel. They are serviced apartments. I mean, nobody would like to live in a place like this for a long time. But for a week or so, I think it’s quite a unique experience.

It’s quite well-known that you have a strong leaning towards hotel rooms. What is it that makes you fascinated with them?

Yes. I am real hotel maniac. It started about ten years ago, when I began travelling a lot. My motto in life is to enjoy what I must do, to enjoy my everyday duties. So after a while and after recognizing that I spend about 40 percent of my time in hotel rooms I decided to put some more thought in it. Nowadays, I really select hotel rooms like I would select my own home. So when I book a hotel through the internet, I do it very carefully, even the room I want to stay in. As I’m an architect and as many hotels even have floor plans on their websites, it’s quite easy to book a certain room. And when I arrive at the hotel, the first thing I do is I walk in front of the hotel and study the building to choose the floor I want to be in. Maybe you haven’t noticed but usually the rooms on the top floors have a lower ceiling. And that’s very important for me.

I heard you even rearrange the rooms if you don’t like them.

Yes, I do. Like here in Vienna ... I stayed at the Le Meridien for two days. I didn’t like it, but for two days it was okay. Anyway, on the second day I totally changed the furniture layout. (He opens his notebook and does a photographic presentation of his hotel room – before and after rearrangement.) When I checked out I thought whether I should put everything back to the original layout, but then I didn’t. So I don’t know what happened afterwards, whether they were angry or not or whether they complied with my way of arranging the room. Of course, I think my arrangement was much better.

It’s interesting, because I’m fascinated by hotel rooms myself. You even did a book about hotels, right?

Yes, I did. So what was your worst experience in terms of hotel rooms?

I once had this single room in Cannes, during the film festival: It was very noisy, and it had the toilet bowl right in the room, without even so much as a curtain to hide it. Like in a prison cell. And, of course, it cost a lot of money.

Wow. I’d love to see that. Because I have a second profession: I’ve been a hotel critic for Hong Kong newspaper for three years now. I criticize one hotel every week. Not many people in the world do this. There a lots of food critics but not many hotel critics.

So what is your main criteria for a good hotel?

Well, luxury is definitely not a criteria. I even like to stay in hostels sometimes. I like the Easy Hotel they opened in London recently. It’s very basic, just a queen size bed which is very comfortable, and the bathroom works very well. I mean, what else do you need really? It hasn’t even got windows, but I don’t mind. The bed is surrounded by walls on three sides so I feel safe because I can’t fall over. The only thing is that you have to organize your stuff because there is really no furniture.

In Hong Kong space is very limited, even space for living. Maybe that’s why you can adapt to such a concept.

That’s right. I did a book about my own home in which I have been living for 30 years now. I never wanted to move but there were five transformations. When I still lived with my family we were seven people in a 4 by 8 meter apartment – 32 square meters. And you know what: When I walked into the Loos Bar the other day, it has exactly the same volume. Volume, not space. It’s a little bit smaller but higher ...

Is this your first time in Vienna?

No, it’s my fifth or sixth time. I think.

So what do you think, in terms of architecture?

I think it’s very well organized, vertically. Not chaotic. Although I don’t like this comparison: Asia is chaotic, Europe is organized. But I guess what’s important is what you don’t see: Maybe people’s minds are much less organized than the buildings.

I think places like Tokyo, or Singapore or Hong Kong are much more organized than, let’s say, Vienna.

Yes, but even there: I think it’s people’s minds ... That’s what really defines a city. And I think Hong Kong people can be quite messy.

Can you tell me about the Suitcase House you built next to the Great Wall in China?

In whatever we build we follow the 4 Cs: Everything is about change, about choice, about creativity, and about co-existence. The visual consideration is not what’s most important. As I said before: What’s more important is what you don’t see. So the Suitcase House is really about undefined conditions.

It’s also a hotel, right?

Yes, it’s a hotel, it has been a hotel for five years now, managed by Kempinski. I was one of twelve architects involved in the project, and each one of us was invited to build one house.

And it’s really close to the Great Wall.

Actually, that’s the best thing about it. Inside the compound, you have „private“ access to one part of the Great Wall, a part which is completely natural, not renovated like in the main tourist area.

So other hotels have their private beaches, and this one got a private access to the Wall?

Exactly. Very unusual.

As a Hong Kong person, what are your feelings toward the People’s Republic of China?

I already did projects in China before the 1997 handover, like many other Hong Kong people did. So the connection already existed. I was not afraid and I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the handover. In Hong Kong, people have a very pragmatic approach to things. This whole thing is like a process, and it’s still going on. So we are going to see what will happen. I mean, Mainland China is changing a lot, too, you know.

Some people say that the PRC will not change Hong Kong but that Hong Kong will change the PRC.

You got a point there. I think in some ways we can – and have already done so – change the way Mainland Chinese people look at us and behave towards us, slowly but gradually. For many Mainland people, Hong Kong is still a model of doing things, especially regarding doing work. Hong Kong people are very fast and efficient, that hasn’t changed because of the handover.

Do you have any family in Mainland China?

No, my relatives are all in Canada. A lot of them moved to Canada before the handover.

I’ve seen a photo of your office which is full of Lego bricks.

Yes, we often use Lego for our projects. We play around a lot until we have a really striking idea. It really help us when we are in need of ideas.

I have a feeling that in recent years architecture has developed into a system in which a handful of star architects have divided the world between them. They do all the spectacular buildings, like the Beijing Olympic Stadium, and all the other architects are not even heard about. What’s your opinion?

You’re right. I would say 95 percent of the world’s architecture go absolutely unnoticed. But to me, cities are not about big projects, a city consists of many more ingredients than just the big buildings. We are really dominated by the thought that architecture is all about big projects, big investments, big architects. I disagree with this idea. Architecture is also about what we do in small projects, housing projects, kindergartens, and so on. Just everyday life.

The interview took place during the 16th Architecture Congress at Architekturzentrum Wien in November 2008.