Firm name: LAAB
Location: Hong Kong
Year founded: 2013
Firm leadership: Otto Ng and Yip Chun Hang
Education: Ng: B.A., University of Hong Kong (HKU); M.Arch., MIT; Yip: B.Arch., University of California, Berkeley; M.Arch., HKU
Ng: Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, Foster + Partners, MIT SENSEable City Lab, currently an assistant professor at HKU; Yip: Aedas; Ronald Lu & Partners; AD+RG; currently teaching at HKU School of Professional and Continuing Education
How founders met: At HKU
Firm size: A team of 35 designers, engineers, makers, and sociologists
We focus on spatial innovations that cultivate communities and sustain environments. Our designs explore the relationships among people, nature, and culture. Whether it is a space for home, work, play, learning, or leisure, we place interactive experiences at the heart of our design process. Cats, plants, and discarded wood receive the same level of care as human needs.
We designed our own residences when we first started. This prepared us to work on Small Home Smart Home, where we pushed the boundary of a transformable house that is only 309 square feet. We adopted the “form follows time” design philosophy and engaged time as a critical design element. With bespoke mechanisms and smart systems, we crammed everything that the couple wanted: an American-size kitchen, a bathtub, a home cinema, a small gym, cat-friendly spaces, and a lot of storage. The video of the project went viral, with more than 1 million views on LAAB’s YouTube channel.
We know we are supposed to name an architecture project, but our favorite project is actually LAAB itself. Our studio comprises people from diverse backgrounds: architecture, interiors, product design, engineering, and even sociology. When you have a diverse team, it forces everyone to step out their comfort zones and ask questions that were once taken for granted. It pushes us to think critically and be mindful of the strengths and limitations of our own disciplines.
Our diversity has enabled us to finish projects of different scales and natures. For example, in T-Cafe, we transformed salvaged fender woods from a demolished pier into furniture. The furniture not only gave the discarded fender wood a second life, but also preserved the collective memory of Hong Kong people. This is not possible without our makers who are so dedicated to traditional craftsmanship as well as innovative about making methods.
Having our own engineers has allowed us to work on challenging designs that utilize mechanical movement and digital craftsmanship. In F22 Foto Space, for example—a gallery in Hong Kong that focuses on contemporary photography art—we used two special architectural features, a mechanical revolving door and a 3D printed circular staircase to offer a cinematic space that immerses visitors in the world of photography.
Second favorite project:
A series of urban interventions in the Victoria Dockside, a new cultural district in Hong Kong. Urban nature is an important concept throughout the project, and each design explores the relationship among people, nature, and culture in their own ways.
The first of the series was Garden Restroom at Salisbury Garden—a public toilet design that brings the experience of the public garden into its interior. The project has been recognized by several international awards including an architectural design award by AIA International Region.
We also designed Harbour Kiosk, a food kiosk with a kinetic façade. Because it is in the Avenue of Stars, we wanted to design something cinematic. We took inspiration from local market stalls and developed a kinetic system that allows the kiosk to open and close automatically. There is also a secondary motion where the timber fins move gently throughout the day, as if it is breathing with sea waves.
Finally, Salisbury Treescape is a series of tree-like canopies for the metro station and bus stops that collectively form a continuous streetscape together with the spider-trees.
These three public projects form part of the landscape designed by James Corner Field Operation. Our other architectural experiments at Victoria Dockside are due to open in the fall this year. We cannot wait to see them opening to the public soon.
Origin of firm name:
LAAB stands for “A Laboratory for Architecture and Art.” When we first started LAAB six years ago, art and architecture were very separate fields in Hong Kong. People tended to understand architecture as only high-rise buildings, and art as paintings displayed in the museum. Our vision for LAAB is to bring art and architecture together, as our work often lies at the intersection between the two. LAAB also builds on the English word “lab,” which evokes the drive for experimentation and innovation. The Chinese translation of “lab” rhymes with the Chinese characters for the word “realization.” By using LAAB, we hope to convey our experimental spirit as well as our pragmatism to bring innovative, cutting-edge design to life.
When you decided to become an architect:
Yip: Freshman year, when I had to choose between civil engineering and architecture. Ng: I used to do graphic design and software programming as hobbies. I picked architecture over computer science because architects look much cooler.
Memorable architecture school disaster:
Yip: Overslept and missed a final project presentation. Ng: First studio session at MIT—we were asked to team up and submit a giant model next morning when we didn’t even know each others name.
Biggest career leap:
When we established LAAB six years ago
Advice for your younger self:
Yip: Dreams never eat you, you will eat dreams. Ng: Whatever you see now was once imagined.
The best advice you have ever gotten:
Yip: Life is simple, but we like to complicate it. Ng: There is no harm in trying.
Yip: Design without passion. Ng: Design without people.
Special item in your studio space:
Yip: My Tokyobike. Ng: Coffee machine—our colleagues have become experts in making latte art.
Design tool of choice:
Yip: Marker and tracing paper. Ng: A simple phrase that tells a story.
A tool you would love to invent:
Time travel machine
Favorite destination for architecture:
Yip: Kyoto, Japan; Ng: Setouchi islands in Japan
Favorite place to get inspired:
Yip: The bathroom; Ng: Project sites
Biggest challenge in running a successful practice:
People are always harder than design.
Today architects should be discussing:
Most urgent policy change:
Universal suffrage in Hong Kong
Modern-day architecture hero:
Ng: Herzog & de Meuron, for their explorative process models exhibited at Tate Modern, which transformed the way I saw architecture in my freshman year. Nader Tehrani, Meejin Yoon, Carlo Ratti, my teachers who disrupted the way I think about architecture. Heatherwick, Snøhetta, Nendo, for their sense of humor, careful observation, and their obsession in making, which empower me to design fearlessly.