BODW Summit: How Communities Can Leverage the Minds of Art and Design To Create More Meaningful Places

Art-Zoo Inflatable Park (1st edition) at @ iLight Marina Bay, Singapore, 2017. Image courtesy of BLACK.
Art-Zoo Inflatable Park (1st edition) at @ iLight Marina Bay, Singapore, 2017. Image courtesy of BLACK.
Rediscovering Landscape, installation view, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong. Photo by Tugo Cheng Photography. Image courtesy of AaaM Architects.
Project House by One Bite Design Studio. Image courtesy of One Bite Design Studio.
Project House by One Bite Design Studio. Image courtesy of One Bite Design Studio.
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Creative placemaking can turn a seemingly non-descript venue into a place of inspiration and wonder, and a panel session at the annual Business of Design Week in Hong Kong revealed interesting insights on the dynamic and community-driven nature of such projects.


TEXT: Jacqueline Kot
IMAGES: Courtesy of AaaM Architects, BLACK, and One Bite Design Studio


The space can be a vast courtyard or a vacant shopfront on a quiet street. And while people walk by such spaces all the time without giving it a second thought, these spaces can be the ideal canvas for a creative placemaking project, one that can transform the place and make visitors forget what the original venue was like.

Creative placemaking uses art and design in a space to drive a key message to inspire or inform the public. The aim can range from initiatives to brighten up a neighbourhood for the residents; a large-scale project to get people excited and inspired about an issue; or an installation to enhance the space and allow the surrounding community to take more ownership of it. At the annual Business of Design Week (BODW) in Hong Kong, which was held recently via a hybrid live format, the topic took centre stage in a panel discussion titled “Creative Placemaking in Asia”. Featuring Sarah Mui from One Bite Design Studio, Kevin Siu from AaaM Architects, and Jackson Tan from BLACK, the panelists shared insights and examples of their own projects.


Art-Zoo Inflatable Park (1st edition) at @ iLight Marina Bay, Singapore, 2017. Image courtesy of BLACK.
Art-Zoo Inflatable Park (1st edition) at @ iLight Marina Bay, Singapore, 2017. Image courtesy of BLACK.


“Creative placemaking represents surprises to people. It is an approach to bring new ideas to peoples’ interaction with a space,” says Mui, Co-founder and Design Director of One Bite Design Studio, a multidisciplinary design practice based in Hong Kong.

“For most of the visitors, the place where the creative placemaking project is at is not a usual place for them to get tasks done, they won’t usually go there to run errands,” says Tan, Co-founder and Creative Director of BLACK, a creative agency based in Singapore. “It is interesting that we can, through a design of a space, attract someone to commit time to the space.”

Bringing an element of surprise and wonder to the space is a key part of the brief but for a creative placemaking endeavour to be embraced by people, the design team must also have a strong understanding of the community and be willing to implement necessary changes along the way. Through sharing their projects, Mui, Siu and Tan elaborated on the creative, civic and changeable elements of a placemaking project.


A Place to Inspire

Whether it is a zoo of inflatable animals or a set of movable sculptures, a creative placemaking project is there to inspire, to change preconceived notions about something, and to bring alive a space.

Tan grew up in Singapore and as a child, he loved watching Sesame Street on television, going to the zoo, and playing at the animal-themed playground near his home. Tan credits the three activities as fuel for his imagination and creativity and in 2017, he and his team at BLACK turned his favourite things into a large-scale creative placemaking project called Art-Zoo. Featuring a large children’s playground made of larger-than-life inflatable animals, based on both real animals and imaginary creatures starting from letters A to Z, Tan and his team created a fun-filled world for children. Art-Zoo started in Singapore and became a touring pop-up that went to Greater China, Taiwan and the Middle East.

“It was based on elements that resonate with me very strongly and which I always wanted to create in real life, and I felt that many people would desire to visit a space like that. When we opened Art-Zoo, many parents said they felt they were reliving their childhood by visiting it, which was great,” says Tan. “We wanted Art-Zoo to be both a physical space and a space for your imagination.”


Rediscovering Landscape, installation view, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong. Photo by Tugo Cheng Photography. Image courtesy of AaaM Architects.


Siu, Co-founder and Director of Hong Kong-based AaaM Architects, worked on a series of installations for Hong Kong Museum of Art (HKMoA) that sought to change how people view and interact with outdoor artworks. Siu and his team designed three installations featuring a series of large-scale, curvy metal sculptures that are divided into three “chapters” titled Immersion; To engage, to compose; and Transcendence, which were launched in November 2019 and will remain accessible through April 2021.

The first chapter was based on Hong Kong’s large mountains, while the second chapter depicts the more approachable rocks or smaller hills surrounding the mountains, with the sculptures featuring seats and set on platforms that can be turned around. The third chapter features more abstract pieces based on the north-south axis of the Kowloon peninsula, designed so it will cast different shadows throughout the day. “The concept is based on the landscape of Hong Kong and how it is built around its coastline,” says Siu.

The sculptures were also designed to encourage interaction. “Normally, outdoor public art pieces are static. We wanted to combine an art experience with the function of urban furniture in a way,” Siu explains. “You can manipulate the sculptures and play hide and seek with it. It is an art sculpture but if it is movable then you, as a member of the public, can change the composition of the art piece.”


Serving the Community

At its core, a creative placemaking project is a civic venture, so it is important to know the community and the people that the project will be serving well.

The research and groundwork that is needed in the beginning is one of Mui’s favourite parts of any creative placemaking project. “I really enjoy it when we talk to people from other disciplines about the community. You talk to the social workers, sociologists and shopkeepers about the neighbourhood and discover lots of stories about the place and its history,” she says.

One Bite Design Studio started Project House in 2017, a community-empowering initiative that repurposes empty shopfronts into temporary event spaces. Two pilot events were held since in Sham Shui Po and Wanchai. The initiative came about as local NGOs found it difficult to secure use of ground level spaces, yet events above street level often resulted in less public attention and accessibility.

One Bite Design Studio was fortunate enough to have a shopfront for use in 2017. Mui recalls, “We called over 40 community groups in Sham Shui Po and asked if they would be interested in collaborating with us for temporary activation events at the shop and we got 23 organisations, ranging from social enterprises to start-ups, to work with us.”

Together with their collaborators, One Bite Design Studio hosted events at the space, which helped invigorate the area and made it easier for the NGOs to do outreach. “People were attracted to the space and it got them to head to the street, even if they avoided it in the past.”

In light of COVID-19, Project House was transformed into an online initiative called Food House in April 2020, providing heavily subsidised meals to low-income groups. A pleasant surprise that emerged from Project House and Food House was the number of landlords who were willing to donate their space to the initiative. “A lot of the landlords actually called us to offer their vacant shop space and a lot of them even subsidised or sponsored our bills for the utilities as well, which was very encouraging, especially for Hong Kong,” says Mui.


Project House by One Bite Design Studio. Image courtesy of One Bite Design Studio.
Project House by One Bite Design Studio. Image courtesy of One Bite Design Studio.


Adapting to Changes

Another important element for a creative placemaking project is flexibility, as certain projects, particularly ones that are more interactive, need to adapt according to how people are reacting to it.

In the duration of Art-Zoo, BLACK’s whimsical playground in Singapore, Tan and his team had to implement changes to better accommodate the families with young children—by allocating more areas for baby strollers, and adding more seats for the parents as they supervised their kids. “At the start, you have to really understand the community and understand what are the key points,” says Tan. “The other thing is to leave room for constant refinement and other alterations. You need to adjust and adapt along the way.”

AaaM Architects’ Siu is a big believer in doing comprehensive research in the beginning, building up data that you can use if you need to make adjustments accordingly. “With any project, it is always a race with time as we try to balance the design methodology with the operation process and to better manage it, we do more intensive research in the beginning,” says Siu. “We test the limits of the project and the needs of the people at the start. Then when we do have design iterations later on, we have a pool of data that we can turn to, to support us in nailing a precise solution.”

One of the measures of success for a creative placemaking project is the amount of people it can reach out to, which means the design team has to be aware of how it is perceived in the public. Tan explains that the creative placemaking projects that do well are ones that are able to sustain and adapt its function along the way. “The adaptability and the openness to change according to feedback from the community is important,” he says.

After all, to get its message across to the community, a creative placemaking project needs to be attuned to the behaviour and preferences of the people visiting it. Without visitors to inspire, a placemaking project is merely an installation. As Mui sums up in one sentence: “Architecture creates the space but only people can enliven it.”


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