New Modesty: In Conversation with Studio MLKK

With its core values of collaboration, mindfulness, peace and balance, Hong Kong architecture and design firm MLKK emphasises craftsmanship and sustainability in every project

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Architecture firm MLKK’s small studio can be found in To Kwa Wan, on Hong Kong’s Kowloon Peninsula, an unpretentious neighbourhood packed tight with raw, monumental industrial buildings and lively garages that spill out on the streets. Even as other parts of the city wrestle with gentrification, there’s no sign of it here, and despite its proximity to Central, there’s no subway station either. 

Inside, the studio is stacked with bespoke material samples, architectural models and musical instruments. Over green tea served in small Japanese ceramics, four architects share their thoughts on architecture and the importance of self-reflection in the design world. The studio’s Chinese name of 和 reflects the core values that the members of MLKK imbue in all projects, namely collaboration, mindfulness, peace and balance. Each term captures a noble quality, but in the context of a city like Hong Kong, the question of authenticity arises. Is theirs an honest approach, or are they just another company using sustainability as a selling point, much like McDonald’s painting walls bottle-green in an attempt to appear more eco-friendly?

‘It really depends on the project, but we always look for strong references to the location, culture, heritage, crafts and materials,’ says Kwanho Li, one of the studio’s four founders. ‘We do a lot of material research and maintain a very close relationship with our contractors, which is crucial, though not always easy, given the newer approach to manufacturing based on reference images.’ After establishing MLKK in 2016, their first commission saw them prioritise using a fast-disappearing local craft in the commercial context of a shopping mall. Working with a handful of remaining craft masters, it took over a hundred mock-up pieces to develop a genuine pebble wash, a humble material widely used in Hong Kong and southern China’s public spaces in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Aesop, IFC. Courtesy of Aesop

Aesop, IFC. Courtesy of Aesop

This technique, applied to the compact retail space of Australian hair and skincare brand Aesop in Hong Kong’s Harbour City, created a distinctive contrast to the loud and extravagant aesthetics of other spaces in the mall. However, the pebble wash centrepiece — produced in-situ — seems to exist beyond its sculptural form. ‘It’s about demonstrating the making process behind it and confidence in the craftsmanship,’ says Mavis Yip, another of the studio’s founders.

An inevitable assumption is that a process-based, craft-oriented approach is only possible if aligned with the client’s beliefs and values. Perhaps in the end, the responsibility for the outcome doesn’t lie entirely on the designer’s shoulders but is equally shared by creator and project developer. When a requirement from mall management is that consumers need to be constantly entertained and surprised by fresh design, objectives tend to shift. This common phenomenon in Hong Kong’s retail industry means that the standard lifespan of a retail store is only two to three years, which means waste from unnecessary construction becomes a sustainability concern. In response to this, third founder Kian Yam Hiu Lan explains that they ‘tried to develop a more socially responsible and sustainable approach, for example through the diligent application of reusable materials.’ 

For Aesop’s store in the IFC in Central, the team chose another sustainable material, this time cork. Unlike in timber logging, cork can be harvested without destroying the tree. When a cork oak reaches maturity, the bark is harvested and later processed into cork. It can be recycled and remoulded into different forms thanks to its soft, resilient and durable nature, providing endless possibilities and theoretically meeting the requirements for an environmentally conscious approach. ‘We try to create beyond our lives and generation,’ Yip exlpains. ‘Design shouldn’t be considered a one-season trend. It impacts the future directly, so we try our best to be conscious and responsible about it.’ Construction of Aesop’s IFC store was completed in 2017, so given the turnover cycle, the store will soon provide the opportunity to assess the success of this sustainability solution.

It’s time to ask what ‘modesty’ actually means in the context of contemporary architecture. MLKK’s fourth founder Lans Ng believes that ‘it’s to work with elements just enough to subtly resonate with people and remain authentic.’ Perhaps this is ‘new modesty’ then, with its impact outliving designers, celebrating heritage and preserving nature.

Text & Images / Natasza Minasiewicz

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Issue 22
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The Korea Issue

Introducing issue 22, Design Anthology’s annual edition dedicated to exploring a single country’s design scene. This year, we've focused on Korea’s vibrant and eclectic creative community.

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