Architectural Storytellers: How LAAB Makes Building Fun

LAAB Directors Otto Ng (left) and Yip Chun Hang (right) at their studio. Photography by Henry TC. Image courtesy of LAAB.
Chestnut at LAAB Studio. Photography by Catherine Cheng. Image courtesy of LAAB.
Garden Restroom along the Avenue of Stars. Photography by New World Development. Image courtesy of LAAB.
Harbour Kiosk at the Avenue of Stars. Photography by Otto Ng. Image courtesy of LAAB.
f22 foto space at The Peninsula Arcade in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui district. Photography by Otto Ng. Image courtesy of LAAB.
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By applying the same approach to each of its diverse projects, Hong Kong-based LAAB produces wildly different architectural projects, from public toilets to art installations, with innovation as a common thread.

TEXT: Christina Ko
IMAGES: Courtesy of LAAB

LAAB Directors Otto Ng (left) and Yip Chun Hang (right) at their studio. Photography by Henry TC. Image courtesy of LAAB.

 

You can tell a lot about a man by seeing where and how he lives—and while you can tell a lot about Hong Kong-based architecture and design studio LAAB from the designs the firm has created for a variety of clients, to learn the most about its DNA, one must visit its office, which is situated in a secluded lane in the hip area of Sheung Wan.

Clad head-to-toe in white, with floor-to-ceiling windows, it is occasionally mistaken for a coffee shop, or so Design Director Otto Ng says, having fielded a few explorers who’ve meandered down this path. They would have probably enjoyed a studio visit instead, which would have comprised popping into the materials workshop, the pottery studio, and of course the cat room, which houses the three strays adopted from a site visit in Yuen Long. Ipê, Chestnut and Walnut, who are named after the wood samples whose hue most closely matches their respective fur, don’t just have their own room—they have an Instagram account (@CatLAAB) and soon their own custom-designed furniture.

 

Chestnut at LAAB Studio. Photography by Catherine Cheng. Image courtesy of LAAB.

 

In short, it’s a firm that understands the way in which life and design are inextricably intertwined, and that—despite being known for its innovative, boundary-breaking approach—doesn’t take itself too seriously in doing so. While many studios choose to excel in a single niche, LAAB has somehow managed to buck this mode and make innovation its calling card. The firm, which was is run by Ng and Architecture Director Yip Chun Hang, first came to fame via YouTube, having designed a modular smart home in a shoebox flat in Lan Kwai Fong (complete with a built-in ceiling “catwalk” for felines) that transformed to fit a variety of functions. The duo naturally believed that the million hits the video received would translate into more similar compact residential projects—but in the ensuing years, they have, instead, worked on public architecture, museums, boutiques, art installations and more.

“In fact, it got us a lot of shopping mall projects,” laughs Ng. Though, their latest major mall project is a little bit more than just a retail space. LAAB’s involvement in K11 MUSEA extended from in-mall green spaces to its central Opera Theatre, from the public restroom outside along the Avenue of Stars to the snack kiosks and bus stops. First to launch was the Garden Restroom, incorporating elements such as curvilinear timber-finned walls, natural air and light and even an ambient nature soundtrack, representing such a departure from the typical smell-you-later affair that senior government officials requested personal tours, in hopes of getting inspiration for the next generation of Hong Kong public toilets.

 

Garden Restroom along the Avenue of Stars. Photography by New World Development. Image courtesy of LAAB.

 

The team was also highly inspired by the city itself, but looked beyond the easily accessible tropes such as neon signage or cha chan teng tiles. For the Harbour Kiosk snack stands‑“Hong Kong’s first kinetic, transformable public architecture,” Ng notes‑they took cues from wet-market stalls that are compact by night and then spill out at dawn, unfolding into vibrant shopfronts brimming with fresh produce. The kiosks thus open and close literally using robotic arms that fold inwards, and are also able to execute a wave effect—“it’s an action-movie moment,” notes Yip, an homage to the kiosk’s location, “because it’s situated on the Avenue of Stars.”

 

Harbour Kiosk at the Avenue of Stars. Photography by Otto Ng. Image courtesy of LAAB.

 

Inside K11 MUSEA, an Instagram hotspot  is the Opera Theatre, a central public area that includes stunning architectural features, including a hanging orb forged of branches that almost spirals to the ground floor. “It’s bold and aggressive and ambitious,” states Ng, “because we built a whole organic floating structure with more than 500 members that are non-identical, so each member curves and they intersect, bifurcate and join together. The construction is very difficult even if it were on the ground, but it’s 33 metres above ground, so people hung from the ceiling while they installed it, we needed ‘spidermen.’ We tried different construction methods and actually failed. But the client had confidence in us and continued the experimentation process [and] in the end [we] delivered it.”

As mixed-use projects in the same vein as this become more and more common, LAAB’s value as an architecture and design firm that thinks on its feet is increasingly apparent. “Our offices are more like a clubhouse, our shopping malls are like museums, and our museums and galleries are more like social spaces. The typologies are getting more blurred, but in the end, it’s all about human interaction, about the story behind it,” says Ng.

LAAB had designed f22 foto space a few years back with a progressive concept, juxtaposing the typical all-white gallery floor with another level all in black. The two storeys are connected by an “aperture staircase” that takes obvious reference from the camera’s interior. For a new f22 retail-museum concept situated in Peninsula Arcade, displaying and selling vintage Leicas, the team departed from its usual aesthetic to incorporate a classical design language for the first time. “The hotel launched in 1928, the same year that Leica sold its first camera,” says Ng. “So we looked at what happened in that era, the revolution of design, and we tried to bring all these elements back, finding furniture from that era, and making everything consistent to that story.”

 

f22 foto space at The Peninsula Arcade in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui district. Photography by Otto Ng. Image courtesy of LAAB.

 

The story is always of paramount importance—in fact, the first thing that happens upon receipt of the client brief is that the team gathers to redefine the instructions and create the driving narrative that will steer the conversation surrounding the project for its duration. “We don’t just have to sell it to the client,” says Yip. “We have to sell the project to our colleagues, to keep their passion alive.” That’s why, besides clients with more generous budgets, LAAB isn’t afraid to take on occasional left-field engagements, such as a government-funded dog rescue centre in Yuen Long. “It’s where the government has taken back the land and started to build projects,” says Yip. “And there are a lot of stray dogs there since people have moved away, so we are creating a temporary dog shelter. Because of the budget, we need to think about how to maximise the shelters—it’s a very Hong Kong thing, compact spaces, even for dogs.” The team is concurrently working on a variety of other sites, from an iconic boutique hotel project to a host of co-working spaces, parks, art installations and exhibition retail. “Shifting project types keeps our minds very fresh,” notes Yip—another unique strategy that the company employs is eschewing the typical team structure, so colleagues are mixed and matched constantly to keep their thinking nimble, an approach they find outweighs the inconveniences of differing timelines.

“It might take the team more time to find synergies but it produces more unexpected surprising results. Between typologies there are relevancies and it’s interesting to have dialogue between projects as well,” Ng explains.

And, Ng teases, there are also proprietary products on the horizon. “We are focusing on things that we have trouble buying. Things that we are always a bit annoyed about, because we can’t find nice ones, but we need them for every project. So… [all I can tell you for now is] we are not designing chairs,” he says, refusing to let the cat out of the bag just yet. Although, speaking of which, the trio of cats will need furniture—and that, too, is being developed, but that’s a separate story. Beyond that, we’ll just have to wait and see Ng and his team are cooking up.

 

 

 
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