Going with the flow: curvy designs for Hong Kong homes

Architects are fond of curved structures for the style and substance they add to a building

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 August, 2015, 12:31am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 August, 2015, 10:11am

Why build a straight wall when a curved one is more interesting? Hong Kong architects are having a hard time persuading clients to waive conventional space delineation when remodelling their city flats; those who succeed believe their ideas are vindicated. They say that interior curves can soften a space and, in the case of smaller flats, can give a feeling of spaciousness.

London-based star architect Thomas Heatherwick, of Heatherwick studio, is known for using the technique in interiors - notably in Seed Cathedral, for the UK pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010 and, more recently, within the round towers of the Learning Hub at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University. The centre, completed March, is his first major new building in Asia.

Its tall and tapered design won in a competition, and implemented in collaboration with local firm CPG Consultants, has been variously likened to "giant parsnips", a beehive, and stacked dim sum baskets. Heatherwick studio counters that by doing away with "unappealing places with endless corridors", the curvaceous design fosters togetherness and sociability, making a better learning environment. Angular classrooms, on the other hand, create "social separation and isolation".

Instead of the traditional format of an educational building "with miles of corridors linking box-like lecture rooms", students can gain 360-degree access into a large central space that links the towers together. The corner-less architecture also allows teachers and students to mix on a more equal basis, the studio says.

Hong Kong has curved wall examples of its own - including Opus on Stubbs Road, a Frank Gehry-designed helical structure housing 12 luxury flats flowing around a central core. AB Concept embraced curves for Argenta, a premium residential development in Mid-Levels, each storey marked by protruding curved ribbons that hug the contours and envelop the building.

Hong Kong's Anderson Lee Leung-chung says architects "don't do curved walls for curved walls' sake". "It really depends on the requirements of the client and their idea for the design," says Lee, founder and director of Index Architecture, who has done curved walls "a few times" in Hong Kong residential projects.

Citing one Mid-Levels flat, he says the aim was to question the generic layout so often seen in the typical Hong Kong "cookie cutter apartment".

"We were changing the configuration from a three-bedroom to two-bedroom layout, and the curve helps to break down the orthogonal nature of the flat," he says.

The curved wall "dissolved" an existing corridor, so that the living room and dining room flow fluidly, thus capitalising on a normally little used circulation space. The design gives an otherwise generic flat some character and creates more space without changing the footprint.

Whether its use is feasible "depends on the nature of the flat and how adventurous the owner would be or could be," Lee says. "Obviously, if you do curved walls it involves a lot more in the scope of the works and extends the construction time; it involves a total renovation."

Also, it's not as easy to arrange furniture. "But if the client is willing to put the time, dedication and commitment into selecting the right furniture for the space, they can have a highly customised interior which, spatially, feels larger."

Cost-wise, he estimates it adds only 5 per cent to 10 per cent more for materials and labour costs, compared with a conventional partition wall.

It looks challenging, but is not that difficult to do
Anderson Lee, director, Index Architecture

Lee's Mid-Levels project has three curved walls, each with a different surface textural treatment, and he also bent them slightly vertically. "It looks challenging," he concedes, "but is not that difficult to do, actually. It's all framing. As long as you are able to plan it ahead of time, draw it out right, then you can build it."

In the construction, plywood was fixed to timber framing of a prescribed shape, followed by a layer of wire mesh, to which soft plaster is applied. This hand-finishing allows for subtle differences in texture, which adds interest - as does the varying use of gloss and semi-gloss paint, which, despite being the same colour, reflects the light in different ways for a charming effect. "There are very subtle changes in the three walls, even though they all look white," he says.

After it was done, the homeowner said the flat feels much bigger, and she now has an interior which "you don't see anywhere in Hong Kong," Lee adds.

American architect Dylan Baker-Rice, founder of local design firm Affect-t, is just back from a trip to Australia "trying to convince a Melbourne client to build curved walls for their new house".

He'd used the technique at the Jardine's Lookout flat he shares with wife Damita Yu, a fellow architect and co-director of the firm. He says they find the flat very pleasant to live in.

"If there's a nice sunset, the light plays off the walls and the ceiling dramatically, so it makes us appreciate not only the form but how it changes at different times of the day, or even different seasons," he says.

He'd been intrigued by curved walls since working on cultural buildings with the technique for Zaha Hadid in London.

"Of course, the scale of those larger buildings was totally different. But when we started our own practice [in 2010] we were interested in trying to use that technique on a residential scale, particularly in the interior space."

They saw it as an alternative to the minimalist style prevalent at the time, which they felt tended to be boxy or cubist - "in some ways rather clinical".

"That was the starting point," Baker-Rice says. "We also had a synergy for mid-century design in the '50s and '60s - in modern architecture there was a lot more experimentation with organic form."

Apart from their own home, the couple have also used curved walls in another residential project, also in Jardine's Lookout, a commercial project and currently a Mid-Levels flat where the curving is more subtle, owing to the owner's initial apprehension. Some people have an affinity with it; others may not, he says.

The couple have done the curved walls in glass, Corian (which makes really precise curves, but can be costly), glass reinforced gypsum (for really organic, sculptural shapes), and off-the-shelf architectural moulding (the cost-saving way to do it). "We're always experimenting; we've tried it in a lot of different materials," Baker-Rice says.

But the technique should be used sparingly, he advises. "If you were to do it everywhere, I think it would be too much. We tend to focus on the key moments in the house - celebrate the entry perhaps, or certain parts of the living room or dining room to make that space more exciting."

The architects agree that there isn't a particular kind of house or flat that the curved wall technique is suited to - but more the willingness of the owner to go with the flow.