Design duo foster debate on the built environment

Couple create food for thought in multimedia projects, opening a forum for interactivity and social comment on urban structures

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 May, 2013, 2:33am

One of the more creative projects to emerge in art-obsessed Hong Kong this year is an intriguing installation by architects Eric Schuldenfrei and Marisa Yiu Kar-san, of ESKYIU studio.

Titled Industrial Forest, the work comprises hundreds of 4.2-metre-high, pencil-thin metallic bamboo filaments arranged within mirrored walls to simulate an infinite forest beside a highway on the third-floor terrace of Spring Workshop, a non-profit art space in Wong Chuk Hang.

"We are fascinated with facades and building skins as an interface between inside and outside," says the Princeton-educated Yiu, who was raised in Hong Kong and returned in 2007 to establish the multi-disciplinary ESKYIU with Schuldenfrei.

Spring's industrial forest, which will remain planted for two years, is emblematic of the duo's innovative take on what architecture encompasses and how it can contribute in different ways to modern urban environments.

There are plans for the forest installation to evolve, introducing experiences such as herbal gardens and experimental sound components to inspire discussion on what Yiu calls "the complexity of artifice and nature".

The installation's eerily realistic artificial grass, showing the effects of global warming together with the bamboo's photovoltaic lighting - which reflects current weather conditions; blue for clear skies and a glowing red-orange when pollution is high - has already stimulated commentary on the state of Hong Kong's environment, particularly the air.

Parallel to their successful architectural work and academic responsibilities, the couple's passion is for developing a diverse architectural practice that embodies how art and technology entice the public to touch and experience their works, whether in a gallery or public areas.

"It is about design as advocacy and engaging the public around issues on the built environment and the ways architecture can impact daily life," says Schuldenfrei. "Often the work we do is not so much an architectural product, but is instead designed to stimulate the process, to engage with the public and to raise questions about the future."

The duo met while working in New York and have been responsible for a range of innovative projects. Last year, for example, they were commissioned as cultural curators for Nike's greater China Flyknit collective at the Festival of Sport in Shanghai, where they developed a platform designed to generate communication between creatives in diverse fields.

"Nike had just developed a revolutionary technology called Flyknit that creates a knitted upper for sports footwear that is light and almost entirely seamless so it significantly reduces material waste," explains Schuldenfrei. "We drew on these concepts of sustainability, lightness, formfitting and performance as inspiration for creating an interactive installation that would combine sport, creativity and arts in an integrated way."

Yiu recalls: "The festival drew over 200,000 visitors, including local Olympians and top athletes throughout the world.

"We led a series of collective workshops where 25 creatives from around China were brought together to challenge the perception of sport. The project ultimately culminated in an exhibition at Beijing Design Week."

The point, Yiu stresses, goes beyond sport to demonstrate that "if we can achieve higher performance with less material in designing our cities and urban fabric then we can have less waste and a higher quality of life".

The designers are also known for their urban pastoral projects. One, a skyscraper lettuce (real lettuce growing tall with a small footprint of soil) at the Venice Biennale in 2008, captured people's imagination of edible density and hanging gardens with Chinese paper lanterns.

Yiu was also chief curator of the 2009 Hong Kong & Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture, and in the recent 2011 edition ESKYIU created a conceptual habitat installation that explored ways of future living, promoting water-based industries, fishing communities and diversity.

Prototypes and social sustainability models also examined options for integrated mixed-use living, leisure and work urbanism, with the goal of building social communities in high-population-density locations into existing waterfronts and urban fabrics.

In 2010, the couple received the prestigious Architectural League Prize for their portfolio.

Schuldenfrei, who studied at Cornell University and obtained his doctorate at Cambridge in "architecture and the moving image", brings his passion for the evolving relationship between architecture and animation, as well as technology and art, to many of his projects. Past works include an art installation commissioned by Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; multimedia projects for Salvatore Ferragamo's "Walk of Style"; and animations for Diller + Scofidio's theatre performance, Jetlag.

In 2011, he was honoured with the Outstanding Teaching Award from the University of Hong Kong. His most recent film project for Wong Chuk Hang's industrial forest is not only a visual record of the installation, but also highlights the "ephemeral nature and the notion of time", he says.

"Our first collaboration together in New York also involved a filmic interactive project that was about a neighbourhood affected by 9/11," says Yiu. "It was a productive collaboration because Eric loves working on interactive media projects and I am interested in social projects. We enjoy having a mix of projects covering our interest in art, architecture and public engagement."

Yiu and Schuldenfrei are working on an innovative museum project in northern China, details of which are under wraps for now. "It is very exciting because it is not just about storing and presenting artefacts. The small community there is highly creative and the idea we wanted to bring is how to create a space where their crafts can be continually added, so their culture isn't frozen in a moment."

Their focus, however, remains firmly fixed on Hong Kong, where they believe the time is ripe for positive change. The role they hope to play is to help build a new platform for innovative perspectives, ideas and experiments in the field of architecture.

"We keep being asked what our niche is," says Yiu. "But we prefer to be open to any process that allows us to make productive improvements. We think this allows us to bring something innovative to the process because we are not just thinking in terms of one particular solution."

Spring Workshop: 3/F Remex Centre, 42 Wong Chuk Hang Road, Aberdeen, tel: 2110 4370