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Spawton Architecture: paying homage to Hong Kong heritage

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Hans Maes, project architect at the Sai Wan architect firm, says he strives to incorporate ‘old Hong Kong’ into his new designs

Blink and you’ll miss it. Hong Kong’s old buildings are disappearing by the day. We live in a city that constantly moves forward and tends to pull down ageing structures to make way for new developments instead of working with the heritage that’s already there. Well, Sai Wan-based Spawton Architecture is on a crusade to ‘do what it can’ when it comes to retaining Hong Kong’s cultural heritage in its designs. Project architect Hans Maes says that it’s ‘hugely important’ to pay homage to the past so that the future looks brighter.

SEE ALSO: Archaeologist Richard Lee: Hong Kong is a ‘city in a heritage identity crisis’

Spawton Architecture, based in Po Tuck Street, has been going since 2013 and the team has worked on a plethora of projects across Hong Kong and on the Mainland. From Viola restaurant in Sai Ying Pun and Tribute hotel in Yau Ma Tei to Cityplaza mall in Taikoo and Taikoo Li mall in Chengdu, it’s upheld an ethos of using elements from Hong Kong’s past in its interior designs, be that installing neon or using materials inspired by old HK buildings. It’s something the three-strong team are proud of and successful at carrying out.

“Some projects in Hong Kong,” says Maes, “just use the existing structure of a building and put up a curtain wall – but we don’t do that. We’re based in Hong Kong and we respect its history. It’s a history that’s disappearing all around us. In the Yau Ma Tei hotel, for instance, we put in a neon sculpture. A lot of neon is disappearing in the streets but we worked with a local neon producer in Kwai Chung in the New Territories to produce a ‘neon shoreline’ that actually shows a historical timeline. It’s clever, it’s eye-catching, it nods to Hong Kong’s cultural history and it also helps a local neon firm. All this is important to us.”

“Hong Kong has such a rich history, so we integrate this into our work. More people are starting to appreciate this wealth of culture, whether they’re from Hong Kong or not. It’s a unique city.”

Spawton was founded by Brit Alex Jones. He came to Hong Kong eight years ago to work with a London-based architect company on projects in Admiralty’s Pacific Place and in some local hotels. He liked it here so much, though, he stayed once the contract had finished and started Spawton – which is his middle name – in 2013. He toured Sai Wan and fell in love with Po Tuck Street, so based the firm there, taking on Maes a year later and a third member of staff soon after. Jones says the rent was ‘pretty cheap’ in Po Tuck in 2013 but ‘a lot has changed since then’, not least, he adds, the new variety of businesses in the area thanks to the HKU MTR station opening.

Maes, an avid photographer, was born and raised in Antwerp, Belgium, but he studied in Brussels, graduating with a degree in architecture in 1999. He then headed for Asia and lived in Singapore from 2002, working for Kerry Hill Architects, specialising in mainly hotel and resort projects. In 2005, he came to Hong Kong and worked for RMJM Architecture and Masterplanning, a Scottish firm, for a year. After a stint in Thailand, he then returned to Belgium in 2008, however it wasn’t long before he ‘couldn’t resist the call to return to Hong Kong’. “I had to come back because I missed Hong Kong,” he says, “but it had become more difficult to return then. Basically, in just a few years, there were many more Western architects who had moved to HK due to the economic crisis. I also found that a lot more Hongkongers who’d been trained overseas had come back home. They could also speak Cantonese and Mandarin and had excellent local knowledge. So there was, all of a sudden, massive competition in the architecture industry.”

Maes says he ‘finally found a good match’ when a mutual friend introduced him to Jones, who wanted help on a big project he’d agreed to do for a city hotel. “It was good timing,” says Maes. “and so I started work with Alex in 2014. The project was refurbishing an existing office building into a hotel called Tribute Yau Ma Tei. From that project, it’s all been up for us!”

Other projects the team has done include a raft of interiors at Taikoo Li mall in Chengdu on the Mainland for Swire, as well as some heritage buildings in Hong Kong. “At the moment,” says Maes, “we’re helping to transform a big industrial building near Kai Tak in Kowloon into a commercial building. A lot of old industrial buildings in that area are being turned into offices but we try to do much more than that. Plus, many old industrial buildings in Hong Kong are just torn down. But often the existing building is good so we try to keep some of the qualities that are already there and incorporate them into the modern design. This help keeps the industrial heritage alive.”

Maes says that a lot of new local developments make Hong Kong ‘feel really generic, like a Chinese Dubai’ but Spawton tries to find ‘a connection with the local culture’. “It’s important, we feel,” he says. “Take the work we did at Viola bar in Sai Ying Pun. We used neon again and created some striking interiors for that project, responding to the local character. This was fun to do and important too.”

“Hong Kong has such a rich history,” continues Maes, “so we integrate this into our work. More and more people all the time, we find, are starting to appreciate this wealth of culture, whether they’re from Hong Kong or not. It’s a unique city. Look at a lot of the old buildings and compare them to new developments. Yes, they’re older and crumbling but actually, back then, such as the buildings made in the 1950s or 60s, they were architecturally very interesting. Public spaces were less cramped and had quality designs. We like to study these and use old elements for new designs.”

Maes says the future is bright for Spawton as more clients may start to become interested in ‘creating a local identity’ when it comes to architectural design. “There’s not one type of client in Hong Kong,” he says. “And there’s certainly a conservativeness here. This isn’t inherent in places like, say, Singapore, where you can see they are ahead in terms of design. There’s more experimentation. But, in Hong Kong, a lot of clients just want to appeal to the lowest common denominator and try to sell as much as they can by not offending anyone. There’s little risk. That’s fine but we try to change that ethos in small ways and use local heritage and culture elements to make developments a little different. We feel the tide will change. Okay, compared to big architect firms, we do more boutique projects at the moment but, when it comes to creating bespoke and more interesting designs in Hong Kong, we believe that every little helps.”

Spawton is at 21 Po Tuck Street. Call the team on 6127 1690 or visit spawton.com.

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