The Founder and Director of The Oval Partnership loves buildings. In fact, he sees them as living, breathing organisms, writes Christie Lee.
A graduate of the prestigious Barlett School of Architecture, Christopher Law is a man of many hats. Aside from being the Director of The Oval Partnership – a multi-disciplinary architectural firm with offices in Hong Kong, London, Liverpool, Beijing and Shanghai – he also heads the Very Hong Kong Foundation and Steering Committee of the Urban Conservation and Community Participation Blue House Project. Law epitomises a new crop of architects who are no longer satisfied in merely building ‘iconic’ buildings; they see architecture as playing an important role in the construction of a civil society and thus in facilitating human exchange. The architect says it best: “The best kind of architecture is one which looks better with people living in it and spoiling it.”
Could you elaborate on the concept of ‘intelligent’ and ‘green’ building technologies in your work?
The real world is very complex and full of contradictions. On one hand, people are buying into all latest luxury goods, but on the other, they also realise the importance of going back to their roots. What we’re trying to do at INTEGAR is to build a house of the future. To put it in more concrete terms, we want to use high technology to provide low-energy living. One of our projects is the Kunming Eco-town, which comprises four prototype houses and a Visitor’s Centre that are made of lightweight steel and bamboo.
Given that it only takes four years for it to reach maturity, bamboo is one of the fastest-growing building materials in the world. It also absorbs a lot of carbon dioxide. The fastest-growing building material is hemp, and we did toy with the idea of using it, like in 15th century France, but well, maybe later (chuckles).
Is bamboo as durable as say, timber, which is also a sustainable building material?
The Kunming Eco-town was built in 2008, and it’s still up and running extremely well.
Do you think developers will be receptive to the idea of using bamboo as a building material?
Before we even talk about that, there needs to be regulations written for bamboo. Unless the government puts that in place, property developers won’t budge.
When do you think that will happen?
Realistically, 10 to 15 years.
Who are your influences?
There is this guy by the name of Steven Groak. In his book The Idea of Building, he puts forward the idea that buildings should be seen as complete integrated systems, in other words, an open system. When many people look at a building, they see it as a fixed object. That’s a very artificial way of looking at buildings because the life of the building doesn’t actually end there. Take the Blue House as an example. While it started out as a shophouse, the top floors went on to become, at various points, a school, medical clinic, fraternity office and most recently, a museum. A building can only survive through the ages if it knows to adapt to the changing needs of a community.
Could you tell us about the Very Hong Kong Foundation?
To put it in a nutshell, we want to mobilise people to do things in public spaces. The key thing is we aren’t paying anyone to do anything. We’re just providing a space and inviting whoever is interested to perform or interact in that space. We’ve taken over Central, Wanchai and we’re planning to do something in Aberdeen next. While one can argue that our project has nothing to do with architecture, a lot of them actually require spatial architectural skills.
Is there support from the government and local communities?
Since we try to get the local communities as involved as possible, they’re generally quite supportive. The challenge for us is to cut through the red tape at the top level.
What’s the role of the architect in the 21st century?
People are getting disillusioned with the government, not just locally, but also in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. While I’m in no way saying that architects can solve the problem, what we can do is to make sense of this reality and hopefully, chart an easier way forward.
The Oval Partnership