Acclaimed Hong Kong designers conjure up vision of the city

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 April, 2015, 6:15am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 April, 2015, 11:07am

Hong Kong's ESKYiU was named one of the 10 most promising architecture firms in the world in December. Being added to Architectural Record's annual Design Vanguard list was a huge achievement for founders Eric Schuldenfrei and Marisa Yiu, but there was little time to celebrate: they had just secured a tight deadline commission to interpret architecture into one of the world's leading art fairs.

For their work as designers of Swire Properties' lounge during the three-day Art Basel Hong Kong in March, the partners decided to "frame" a view of the host city, creating an abstract contemporary installation with its roots in 19th-century Paris. Inspiration came from Walter Benjamin, a German-born author and cultural critic who wrote about the Parisian arcades of the day, linking them to a city's distinctive identity.

This resonated with the couple's own exploration of the notion of space in conversation with its occupants, resulting in their finished work, Ephemera.

The 1,000 sq ft installation is an elegant arcade of interlaced arches crafted from fine steel and sculpted plywood.

Its form is effectively a bridge between the digital era and craftsmanship, to the extent that the initial sketches were born of computer code rather than pencil (digital design being one of Schuldenfrei's specialities).

Schuldenfrei describes it as a series of perspectival openings framing of the city. " Ephemera acts as an abstracted contemporary arcade to provide multiple ways of inhabiting and interacting with the space," he says of the installation. "Each arch is unique. There is one great vantage point that opens up the city view, then a few steps away, it becomes more obscured. The focal point oscillates, in a way, between clarity and obscurity, as you move around it."

Such fluidity of design has shades of Industrial Forest, ESKYIU's installation (completed two years ago and to remain for a few more months) for Spring Workshop, a Wong Chuk Hang community arts space; and Movement Culture, their 2012 installation used as a backdrop at Shaw Studios for movement artist Ido Portal. It aligns with the couple's overarching interest in how architecture connects with the dynamics of contemporary life, and how it can structure surprises.

Even though Ephemera was only around for three days, its creators intended it as "a memento", hence they incorporated a two-way mirror/screen mechanism that captured live images of visitors.

"It's a very simple piece, but also has a lot of complexity," Yiu says.

But now that it's done, the ESKYIU partners are focused on another major public art piece, to be installed at an MTR station. This work, still largely under wraps, will "continue in the trajectory of exploring the dynamics of movement, especially with a different scale in public space".

With a notable absence of actual buildings in their portfolio, is architecture in its traditional form not in this young pair's vocabulary?

"We have dreams," says Yiu, sharing visions of a village-inspired urban housing project, or a pencil-thin high-rise - even, perhaps, a museum one day.

Which is precisely how Design Vanguards are defined - for these are the firms "at the forefront of design", and their architects "the ones to watch", according to the judges made up of peers and critics.

The title is awarded to promising firms around the world that are "expanding the role of the architect by championing new approaches to design and practice".

And the judges believe ESKYIU are doing just that.