Frank Yu

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 August, 2010, 12:00am

Frank Yu spent much of his career as an architect in the United States, but moved to Hong Kong five years ago to co-run his studio, Gravity Partnership. His work takes him across China, from the smallest villages to the largest cities, designing major cultural, commercial and housing projects. With a largely Western education behind him, Yu has found working in China to be quite a steep learning curve.

What's his story? There were no Sunday morning cartoons for Yu when he was growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s. 'My dad was a developer, and ever since my early childhood he would take me with him to his construction sites on Sundays,' he says, remembering being less than impressed with the ritual at the time. Even so, he chose to study architecture at New York's Pratt Institute, before working with US firms Ellerbe Beckett and BTA.

Has his style changed much? The move East has begun to transform Yu's design approach. Although the US landscape is architecturally mixed, to him it seems young compared to China's millennia of history. 'The more I'm exposed to Chinese culture, the more there is to learn,' he says. 'I see an old building and I can touch it, explore inside and try to understand how society functioned 400 years ago, and how people communicated. When you're there it sort of comes to you.'

What has the move taught him? Spending more time with heritage architecture has added more layers to Yu's own work. He finds modern cities quite depressing, with predictable grid patterns and logical building layouts. 'I'm just back from the old city in Lijiang [Yunnan province], and the space there is very comfortable,' he says. 'Everything is close, there are a lot of piazzas and it's built on a mountainside. There was no logic in the old days, it was all organic, but yet it works very well.'

As a result Yu's new projects may not make immediate sense, he says, but they come into their own for those who live in or use them. 'That's what we're missing nowadays, the randomness of life.'

Where can his work be seen? The ICC in Chengdu, to be completed in about six years, will be a 1.6-million-square-metre high-rise complex of retail space, office buildings, hotels and luxury apartments. Yu believes that their securing the project is evidence of a shift among Hong Kong developers. 'They are looking for innovation, finally,' Yu says. 'The Chinese market has woken everybody up, made them more open-minded. Usually, these jobs go to huge firms.'

In Xiamen, the Hai Xia Exchange Centre (below) is due for completion next year; in Hong Kong the studio's design for Chinese University's fifth college will be completed soon.

In Dongguan a few years ago the studio transformed industrial warehouses and a pickle factory into a vital new commercial area called Vanke Canal Road.

What are his favourite buildings? 'I like a building for how it changed the archetype of the time,' Yu says. 'I like a lot of the buildings that Le Corbusier did; the Villa Savoye was and still is a completely new way of living. The Guggenheim by Frank Lloyd Wright changed the way people see a museum, the way to display artwork and travel through a museum.'