Hong Kong architectural designer Barrie Ho reflects on 20 years of pushing the boundaries – and looks forward to the next 20
The Central offices of BARRIE HO Architecture Interiors (BHA) are a reflection of the studio's founder and director. Stepping out of the lift, visitors are enveloped by sleek, black surfaces and low lighting. There's no reception desk: it's a concierge. And when Barrie Ho steps into the boardroom, it's no surprise he's in black, too. Though he nearly disappears into his background, he commands the space.
BHA is approaching its 20+ anniversary, and Ho is marking the occasion with a pair of retrospectives
Established in 1999, not long after Ho graduated from the University of Hong Kong in 1996, BHA is approaching its 20+ anniversary, and Ho is marking the occasion with a pair of retrospectives, and by realising some long-simmering ambitions while staying committed to his design principles. "Twenty years ago, there were not many international architects in Hong Kong. Everything that surrounded me at the time complied with the rules – and I like to break the rules," says Ho. "I wanted to do something controversial, or provocative in the straight-up-and-down jungle of Hong Kong."
Ho considers himself fortunate to have apprenticed with pioneering Hong Kong architect Dr Tao Ho (who designed the Hong Kong Arts Centre and the HKSAR flag's Bauhinia emblem), who taught him the importance of creative control. "He had a strong influence on me. He had a wide spectrum in his portfolio and that's still a strong influence on me," he says. "At the time, he gave me great insight about ownership of originality and creativity. It's very important for creative practitioners to maintain ownership of their work."
Ho saw his first design completed in 2004, a private residence, and since then he's left an imprint on Hong Kong's offices (industrial conversion Genesis), hotels (The Mercer boutique hotel), shopping malls (Home Square) and public and institutional spaces. The sculptural Conference Lodge at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and the multi-phase Creative Entrepreneurship Dream Factory in Qian Hai and Inno- Accelerator cum Academy for Xiantao Big Data Valley project in Chongqing, a Sino-US collaboration, are a handful of standouts that also demonstrate Ho's dedication to building connective spaces that stoke creativity and encourage innovation.
After that first 3,000sqf private residence, Ho's most recent completed project is a 3,000,000sqf (28ha) E-Sports Stadium in Chongqing, with capacity for business incubation, training and hotel development. He's come a long way, but the same can't always be said for Hong Kong architecture. "If I had to say something about the design mentality over the past two decades, I would say that 20 years ago we had a huge opportunity for design development and creativity, and the government had a commission and a commitment to develop Hong Kong as a design hub," he recalls. "At the same time, we had an open-door policy with mainland China and special economic zones, and they needed design talent there. Today, leaders in [China] will accept and respect originality much better than those in Hong Kong. There's been a paradigm shift in the acceptance of creativity. Hong Kong is conservative; in China, anything new, special and innovative tends to be accepted."
A great deal of that lack of creative freedom stems from policy restraints, antiquated building codes and simple economics, but Ho also points to a business environment that has dismissed creative training and cultivation. Development companies are often willing to innovate, but local talent has been marginalised, he says. "Developers are wise investors and they have vision. They will invest in Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron," he adds. "Why do they prefer to go to a Calatrava instead of a local brand? The difference is clear. In the last half-century, we've done nothing to promote local design talent or fully explore that talent." It's easy to apportion blame, but the time when every new structure gets the 'starchitect' treatment is also the time for change. "Now that people understand architecture isn't a building exercise and that you have to have innovation, it's slowly creeping forward. We're at a crossroads," he adds.
THE HERE AND NOW
It could be argued that Ho is in a transition period. He's accomplished enough to be the subject of nearly a dozen local and international installations, including several at Milan's Salone del Mobile, in London with the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2017 and the Venice Biennale in 2018. International shows are an opportunity to show off what he, and Hong Kong, can do, as well as share the stage with industry giants such as Will Alsop and Peter Cook (as he did at the World Architecture Festival in Singapore), and Herzog & de Meuron in Milan. It was Ho who introduced Zaha Hadid's first sculptural work to Hong Kong. As chief curator at Shatin's City Arts Square in 2008, a BHA project, Ho exhibited 19 sculptures by 19 world-renowned designers to as a way to recognise Hong Kong's contribution – in the equestrian events – to the Olympic Games in Beijing.
Travelling also reminds Ho of the fact that the SAR's design scene remains deeply rooted in commerce, regardless of creeping progress. For owners and developers, the cost of land demands maximising gross floor area and generating revenue rather than innovating or architectural flourish. But it can be done. "We have to be logical and persuasive about how [design] can bring about better returns," Ho says.
So far, Ho has avoided falling into the interiors trap, designing them only for his own buildings. He empathises with how effortless it is for architects to swing into interiors; currently there's greater opportunity for creativity. The danger, however, is stagnation. "You only have to do one interior job and you're forever an interior designer. There's no way out."
"The greater the power, the greater the responsibility," says Ho, dropping one of his frequent pop culture references in discussing what's in store for 2019. Chances are strong that he will continue to expand his TATOOINE project, a private Star Wars collection and museum Ho's been building ever since his father gave him an action figure as a kid. Aside from a desire to break the rules, Ho is committed to giving something back to the community, and says his next 20 years will be different from the last. "I wouldn't be satisfied to sit behind the drawing board all my life drawing provocative schemes. I'd like to get out of the office and create something related to life experience and attitudes. I want to entertain friends and strangers. I'd like to share my experiences and I need a platform for that."
Ho is planning two exhibitions to mark BHA's milestone, one a retrospective at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, and Re-exploring Incubation Architecture in Seoul. At the same time, he hopes to return to furniture design with Barrie Ho Collections and re-envisioning his contemporary Ming chair. The goal is to invite professionals from 10 different disciplines to put their mark on the successful series first released in 2007.
Priority, however, is being placed on the forthcoming CRIT ROOM, named for the pre-release critiques that designers experience during school. It will be a fluid art space and restaurant in Sheung Wan, which Ho selected for its vibrant, artistic street life. In addition to gallery space, Ho says the space will "provide a platform for up-and-coming chefs. I asked my kitchen consultant to design for every kind of kitchen so everything is possible. So it's art plus wine plus food without specifying what kind of food." If it works, he plans on more spaces like it, and diving more deeply into the sharing concept. "I want to bring the incubation concept to Hong Kong. Young artists lack space to show off their work."
Though Ho is dabbling in multiple arenas, in future he will still be best known as the man who designed some of Hong Kong and mainland China's most heavily trafficked buildings. When asked for a personal highlight, his answer is characteristically mischievous: "My highlight will be my next commission, though I value the wide spectrum of work I've completed. My legacy will be defined by other people."