Hungry for innovation

An interview with H. Koon Wee, Eunice Seng and Darren Zhou of SKEW Collaborative, Shanghai and Hong Kong, on life and architecture in China

SKEW Collaborative is based in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Originally the office was founded in New York. What made you move to China?
Moving back to Asia came about due to a confluence of practical and personal reasons. As Chinese diaspora who were educated in the east coast of the United States, we found ourselves well-positioned to bring critical ideas and building practices to Asia, particularly China. The rapid urbanization of China has really started only recently in the past couple of decades, and the market, clientele, and professional discipline are all comparatively less mature than in Europe or the States. Yet China’s development is incredibly progressive, and simultaneously moving at an accelerated rate and larger scale. It is hungry for innovation like no other place. This means that as a relatively young firm, we are in a position to make a larger impact on the city.

Do you see differences in lifestyle between Shanghai and Hong Kong?
Lifestyles between these two cities are utterly different, and in fact, we can add Singapore, where we are originally from, to this particular form of geo-cultural imagination. Comparing Shanghai and Hong Kong’s different brands of creativity, it seems Hong Kong is being shackled by its need for cultural and political authenticity, while Shanghai is freer in exploring its unique 21st century modernity. Truth be told, these contradictions and generalizations are useless for those inventing a mode of practice in these cities. We look upon Chinese culture not as a monolithic, ossified, historical thing. Rather, we try to argue that culture is dynamic in the everyday, from the ways end-users appropriate public places, the inhabitation of domestic spaces, to the developmental strategies by governments and clients. In fact, the city as an informal product of “culture,” with all its contradictions, raptures, even strangeness, becomes the critical starting point of our work.

How important is a continuity between architecture and interior within your work?
Even though it may not always be possible, we try to maintain design control throughout the different scales, from master planning and architecture, to landscape, interiors and furniture. Perhaps we are influenced by the modern masters and the idea of “Gesamtkunstwerk”. In any case, we believe that design has to deal with the total environment. You cannot really split up the environment. All architects who adopt this approach tend to be harder to typecast. Commercial and governmental clients who have engaged us have all invariably begun to grapple with the necessity for innovation, rather than maintaining the status quo.

You also engage in projects that focus on sustainability. How relevant is this topic in China today?
It is absolutely crucial. China has been struggling with the issues for some time now, where unabated and accelerated growth competes with the need to create a more sustainable future. Yet what we find is that designers, clients, and governments often pay lip service to sustainability, and that matrices, policies, and codes do not result in truly sustainable projects. In our designs, we try to engage passive technologies, rather than adding, veneer-like, hi-tech solutions that are prone to wear and tear. In fact, these passive technologies often drive the formal, material, or spatial considerations of the project. As practitioners and academics in equal measure, there is a responsibility for us to address this topic in a more thorough way.


H. Koon Wee, Eunice Seng and Darren Zhou are principals of SKEW Collaborative, an architecture and research practice that started in 1999 in New York City and is currently based in Shanghai and Hong Kong. SKEW seeks to create architecture that is elegant and relevant, but more critically, architecture that can increase awareness about our cities and natural environment. The principals have taught in the U.S. and are currently teaching at the University of Hong Kong in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Their work has been featured internationally, including the 2004 Venice Biennale.

Source: Koelnmesse, reprint free of charge.