Yvonne Xu finds out how Hong Kong based architect Manfred Yuen practices architecture with a social agenda.
October 15th, 2013
Groundwork Architecture + Urbanism has a manifesto. Printed loud and clear on its website, it goes by the title ‘The Minimalist Rock-n-Roll’ – a declaration suggestive of a radical outfit set to shake up the architectural scene in no less than a cool, exciting way. The opening lines of the manifesto – ‘We believe in simplicity. We believe in humanity.’ – leave us a little puzzled though.
15:15 Rain-Catcher (2009)
Rock ‘n’ roll, minimalist, simplicity, humanity – these words do not quite gel conceptually; but they form a compacted message that Groundwork’s co-founder Manfred Yuen would passionately explain.
In Singapore recently to speak at the Archifest Conference, and to present Home On The Drift, a project shortlisted for the World Architecture Festival (Future Projects, Experimental Category), Yuen, 33, has a remarkable energy befitting of a young architect on the rise.
M+Inflation Exhibition Landscape, West Kowloon, Hong Kong (2013)
“The tension is exactly what we’re about,” he explains of the seeming conceptual disjoint in the manifesto. “It is about tying extremes together. Architects tend to have too much tendency to play jazz on the architectural stage; the works are harmonised. I like rock-n-roll, you know, with a rebellious attitude.” Yuen also thinks that “architecture should not be mundane; it should be provocative” and that, “at the same time, architects have a social responsibility”.
Fong Yuen Study Hall Heritage Museum, Ma Wan, Hong Kong (2013)
This multifaceted ambition is demonstrated in Groundwork’s projects. Home On The Drift, for one, tackles Hong Kong’s aging population with a bold proposition. “The project asks how we can let old people have social lives, to date, to have sex,” Yuen shares of the project which won an honorable mention at Building Trust International Competition last year. “Most of the elderly who stay in private old folks homes live in small, 4sqm spaces called ‘coffins for the living’ with no privacy. There are half-height partitions; smells, noises are not contained. It’s not the most sanitary. Bear in mind that most elderly spend 90% of their time inside their home and 98% of them pass away there. Now we say, what if this 4sqm coffin suddenly acquires legs and moves? It costs 5000 dollars per month for a tiny bed with no view in an elderly home. Why not spend the same amount of money and take a train and see the world? So let their homes be travelling homes, let the seniors go on a train to China. We take the idea further and say, maybe there can be a website that the elderly can use as a social or dating platform. They don’t even have to physically travel if they don’t want to. We believe in the power of both virtual and physical architecture.”
Tower of Colony, Taipei, Taiwan (2012)
Yuen’s work is certainly not bound to architecture. As a founding member of Blue Eyes Entity, a volunteer organisation that provides house improvement works and design consultants for NGOs in Hong Kong, the architect is no stranger to rolling up his sleeves for charity. “My interest in social issues started when I came back to Hong Kong. I’d worked for Kohn Pedersen Fox, Pentagram Design and Coop Himmelblau and when I came back, suddenly there was no Coop Himmelblau backing me anymore and I was alone. I simply had no work,” Yuen recalls. “I was sitting there doing nothing and I thought, I could go to a party or drink, or I could do something more meaningful. I volunteered to these NGOs and said ‘I’ll help you for free,’ and they became my clients. Some are my best friends now.”
Yuen’s way out of professional doldrums was also his way into his current career upswing. The early charity work had shaped his portfolio and marked Groundwork as a noted practice. Today, the commercial projects they undertake fund the pro-bono ones and Yuen does not see himself giving up the charity work. “We treat these projects like any another project in the office, and even though sometimes I pay out of my pocket for them, the rewards are intangible. I have not met architects in my life who only do things for themselves. At some point in their lives they reach out and do something for others. I believe the more an architect carries on his shoulder the better [he becomes]. You’ve got to have ideals to be a good architect.”
Manfred Yuen / Groundwork Architecture + Urbanism
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