“We like to make things difficult for ourselves,” Eric Schuldenfrei says with a laugh, glancing quickly at his wife and business partner, Marisa Yiu. “It always seems to be how we go.”
But if that’s really the case, then Schuldenfrei and Yiu are doing a stellar job of keeping the difficulties to themselves and presenting a polished, sophisticated front to the world outside their Wong Chuk Hang studio. This husband-and-wife team are the brains behind ESKYIU, one of Hong Kong’s most daring (and yet impressively in-demand) architecture firms. Their work does involve designing buildings, but Schuldenfrei and Yiu have also turned ESKYIU into a boundary-crossing practice that produces everything from temporary installations to theories on urban planning, and investigates the social, psychological and cultural impact of architecture along the way.
This multifaceted approach was first revealed in the couple’s co-curation of the Hong Kong & Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture in 2009. For the three-month-long event, Yiu led a team of four co-curators who commissioned Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban to build a temporary pavilion on Victoria Harbour, organised a debate between Rem Koolhaas, Rocco Yim and a team from Norman Foster, and planned countless other events for biennale visitors, who ranged in age from five to 75. Their recent smaller-scale projects have been just as ambitious, with the arched, wooden lounge ESKYIU created for Swire Properties at this year’s Art Basel in Hong Kong surprising visitors with its open layout and interactive screens.
The couple are both keen writers and academics, having previously taught at universities in New York, London and Hong Kong, with Schuldenfrei currently teaching at The University of Hong Kong. They’ve also co-written a book about the 2009 biennale, called Instant Culture: Architecture and Urbanism as a Collective Process, and Schuldenfrei has just published The Films of Charles and Ray Eames. “We believe in how we communicate,” Schuldenfrei admits during a chat in their studio, so perhaps it’s best to let this eloquent couple explain ESKYIU in their own words.
Your work seems to be very multidisciplinary. How would you describe what you do?
MARISA YIU: I think we’re in one sense architects, but we’re not conventional practising architects. We really do believe in what we call engaging the public, so [investigating] how our practice can engage in much deeper questions about what is the audience of today, who do we serve in the public, whatis the role of architecture beyond just building the physical spaces – and that’s where I believe the richness of our practice lies. It’s not seeing architecture as a single discipline, but really using our expertise to reach out and open up the platform of architecture to a larger public.
I know that you both write, but you also teach as well. What do you get from teaching?
ERIC SCHULDENFREI: I did the math one day, and I realised that I was either teaching or actually in school every year since kindergarten, and I’m in my forties now, so it’s been a very long-term commitment towards learning and education. I think an aspect to teaching that I really enjoy is that it’s asking this question of how do you contribute back to society. And I think that’s something that extends back to our design practice too. We always see the things that we do here as extending beyond just the architectural role of the things we design into the social role of how the things that we design have an impact on larger cultural, societal needs.
Some of your work also seems to examine our interaction with the environment.
MY: I would say especially the Industrial Forest project. We were commissioned by Mimi Brown of Spring Workshop and she said, “OK, you guys are in Wong Chuk Hang, I’m opening my non-profit art space here,” and it was a completely open brief and we ended up choosing the outdoor terrace of Spring Workshop. What we wanted to bring back was more of Wong Chuk Hang in terms of its history, so “Wong Chuk Hang” means “yellow bamboo valley”. We wanted to critique or challenge this idea of what the built environment is and to bring back the “Wong Chuk Hang” quality, which is yellow bamboo, into this particular space.
So what we came up with was hundreds and hundreds of very tall, slender aluminium filaments in a yellow-orange colour. They sway and react to the wind. It also survived a typhoon 10 one year. Also, the material produces this clacking sound that sounds like bamboo. But what was brilliant was we wanted to create an artificial garden, so it has everything in the sense of what nature is to us, but everything is manufactured by us. There are many things that have happened along the way, such as we found these insects coming back. They started inhabiting the space and adapting themselves to the space. And there were birds that came in and one summer some of the installation bamboo filaments had cobwebs growing, so it had tricked the spiders and insects and birds to come back to the site.
ES: And not too long ago we also engaged in designing a noise barrier. We discovered in our research with noise barriers that they’re normally made out of Perspex, so that when you drive You can see the light come in and you don’t feel so enclosed. The only problem with Perspex is that when a bird is flying, it basically hits the Perspex and dies, so we kill hundreds of thousands of birds a year by this. So one of the things we started thinking about was, is there a way that instead of killing the birds we could actually invite them back into the habitat instead? So there’s two sides to the project. The first side [of the noise barrier] is something for the birds, but the other side is a special type of moss that faces the traffic.
Nasa has been developing this moss, and there are also other plants that they’ve been looking at, because there are certain types of plants that will digest the CO2 at a much higher rate than others. So perhaps we can not only block out the noise pollution – that’s the idea of a noise barrier – but also block out the real pollution at the same time. There was a government official at the ceremony, because we won a prize for it, and I still vividly remember the government official asking, “Is this possible?” This is still an idea that we’d like to see through, because this still hasn’t been implemented yet, and this is technologically possible.
One of your more recent projects is the pop-up lounge you designed for Swire Properties at Art Basel in Hong Kong this March. How did that design come about?
ES: Everything was made digitally. Even how we envisioned the piece, it started not with a drawing or a sketch, but with a [computer] programme. We didn’t start with the vision of the entire piece, we started with a very simple arch, because we wanted to make it from very thin wood. But the thing with very thin wood is that there’s this problem called gravity [laughs], and that it will want to come down. So what we did was we started with some points just on the ground, then we inserted some physics by programming it, and then it made, we didn’t design it, it made the arch for us based on those physics we described. The whole thing would make itself, essentially, depending on how we coded it.
What are you working on at the moment?
ES: [There’s] a public art project for the MTR.
MY: It’s a really exciting space for the station, it really takes the energy of the masses and allows an interplay with the piece. It’s a hung piece, so it does have really interesting material and visual effects. That will be hopefully launched, I don’t know exactly when, but built in a few years.
ES: It will be something that when you see it from multiple vantage points will have a completely different effect. It’ll be almost completely impossible to capture in a photograph.
MY: [As a studio] we’re still very small and agile but we do hope to do really interesting physical built projects now. It’s moving hopefully past the more research design studio. I really hope we can propel ourselves further.