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Hong Kong Profile: Sarah Mui – winner of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects’ Young Architect Award 2016

Written by
Douglas Parkes
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The winner of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects’ Young Architect Award 2016 speaks to Douglas Parkes about attitudes to architecture in the SAR and how to get more people thinking about the spaces they inhabit

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Hong Kong has a derisory record of protecting its historic buildings. The original Hong Kong Club, the Central Star Ferry terminal and the old Kowloon Station are merely the city’s most well-known examples of architectural insensitivity. Belatedly, Hongkongers are waking up to what’s being lost. The rebuilding of Queen’s Pier indicates a willingness to correct past mistakes and the efforts made, even in failure, to protect a Wan Chai pawnshop from demolition last year demonstrate that many are feeling more keenly the need to preserve the city’s heritage.

One person at the forefront of changing attitudes to urban design in is Sarah Mui Sze Wa. This year’s winner of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects’ Young Architect Award, Mui was victorious thanks to her proposals to redesign the historic Shek Kip Mei Estate. “It was quite surprising my proposal was selected because I didn’t propose any new architecture,” laughs Mui. The HKIA brief asked architects to submit plans for the regeneration of an existing location with specific consideration given to the elderly. Mui’s proposals, which involved opening up the wet market on the ground floor to increase ease of access, were victorious.

A graduate of Chinese University Hong Kong and London’s Bartlett School of Architecture, Mui is gently scathing of Hong Kong’s urban planning, stating matter of factly ‘we’re not very advanced here’. Elaborating, Mui brings up the Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui. “I’ve always wondered why you need such a big building in front of the waterfront,” she muses. According to her, the building lacks ‘narrative design’ and fails to connect with the rest of the city and the needs of its citizens.

The old Hong Kong Club building, demolished in 1981. Photo: Heather Coulson

Unsurprisingly, Mui sees the quest for profit at the heart of the problem. “Hong Kong is governed by the commercial side,” she comments. “That’s our constraint. When development wasn’t so reliant on commercial considerations the designs were more considerate.” These days, there’s a depressing lack of variety in Hong Kong architecture, according to Mui, and it’s not all down to insensitive demolitions. “I feel in the past 10 or 20 years, it looks like there’s a gap in our architectural history,” she says. “Because before that, there were the tenement houses and a more cultural side of things. There’re a lot of exciting things in those old buildings. Suddenly, though, we moved to skyscrapers and all residential buildings became identical.”

Studying architecture in high school, Mui was set on her career from an early age. Her school, St Paul’s Co-educational College, sits next to St Paul’s Cathedral, ‘my favourite building in Hong Kong’, Mui informs us. It was this building that inspired Mui most in her formative years. “Whenever I went [to the cathedral] it always seemed so exciting,” she recalls. “Why such a high ceiling? What is up with the lighting? How does this structure work? I think those kinds of thoughts planted a seed.”

An insistence on reaching out to the public dominates Mui’s work. She admits that almost every project carries long hours and that at ‘different points you feel near to collapse’. But, she goes on: “I keep telling my colleagues, don’t worry about all these late nights now. When you see people using the café that you designed or how people enjoy food in the space you designed, everything works.”

Having co-founded a design practice, One Bite, with her husband in 2014, Mui’s desire to connect with those who don’t consciously consider architecture goes beyond just buildings. “We also want to focus on food- related designs. We’re even designing cookies – the first ‘archicookies’,” she reveals of her biscuits shaped like Hong Kong landmarks such as the Bank of China Tower. Explaining this seemingly random side business, Mui tells us: “Everyone loves food and we want to use food as a medium to approach people about architecture. I think if you don’t raise awareness or interest, people won’t discuss architecture and what we’ll see is what we’ve got right now. If we help the public to understand more, they’ll ask for something better.” Mui’s food-related plans don’t stop at baking though. “I want to design a local food truck,” she says animatedly. “It may not even sell food, since there’s the question of getting a licence, but we could invite the public to come over and see a food workshop or just provide seating and tables for community meals. A food truck should change the public space. Food connects people and architecture should do the same.”

For more information, visit onebitedesign.com and hkia.net.

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