Channeling Rome, architects focus on ceilings

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 8:13am

Unless it's the Sistine Chapel, our natural instinct when entering a building is not to look up. But seeing the interior projects of Hong Kong-based architects davidclovers, you immediately have the sense that "something is happening". And, yes - it's above you.

American architect David Erdman (co-founder of the practice with Hong Kong architect Clover Lee) first played with the notion of ceilings being more than one-dimensional when in Rome.

Studying period architecture for the Rome Prize (an American Academy residency, which he won in 2008), he noted a technique that tapped the senses; things that were not so much seen, as felt.

"Like the ceiling," Erdman says. "There is a lower and upper hemisphere to how space is designed, and often we engage only the lower [how we walk, see and navigate the space]."

The Rome projects showed him that by also engaging the upper hemisphere "architecture becomes something that allows for a greater process of discovery and interaction".

In a davidclovers interior, ceilings are not as one might ordinarily expect, sitting statically atop the walls.

Instead, they twist and bend and even disappear, subtly organising, illuminating and enriching the space.

"It's a six-sided design concept," Erdman says of the ceilings, which have become the firm's signature. "Instead of focusing only on four walls, we incorporate the floor and ceiling as well, so the whole space integrates horizontally and vertically - even around corners, and across floors."

Erdman asserts that the concept is also practical, because it allows different ways of managing a space It is also "very feasible" to retrofit in many modern buildings. But developers often balk at the idea, fearing it too challenging. The firm's latest project, de Ricou Tower at Repulse Bay, is its most ambitious yet, says Erdman.

Davidclovers was awarded both the architecture and interior design contracts to renovate the 37-storey tower - with 10 serviced apartments and 39 unfurnished units - so the partners were able to let their imaginations run free.

Built in the 1980s, the tower had relatively low head heights, which offered "an immediate opportunity to improve the mood of the space".

"Even when we can only do limited structural works to a building, we can still widen or heighten spaces, actually and perceptually," Erdman says. This is achieved by "nipping and tucking" the structure and playing up the ceiling - here, by creating a 3-D appearance.

The dramatic result is seen in the main lobby, where sculptured wood is embedded and suspended within a plaster structural housing, infused with LED lighting (a kind-of non-chandelier chandelier), which glows, even in daylight.

Wood reappears in glimpses in the lift lobby, adding a textural layer that is progressively more immersive from the common areas into the units.

Transitioning through the individual apartments, ceilings are a combination of rustic, wide-panelled oak and glass fibre-reinforced gypsum panels that seemingly wash in and ebb out. These two materials provide an interior landscape that plays off the sea vista beyond, transforming the interior with the changing light throughout the day and night, Erdman says.

Erdman and Lee view their work on de Ricou Tower as "the crescendo" of their ceiling experiments to date.

The partners had more timid schemes ready as a backup, in case this one was rejected. Happily, it wasn't.