French industrial studio Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec brings its signature touch to the most democratic of all designs: urban space
Based in Paris, industrial design firm Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec has, for the last 20 years, created some of the world's most familiar products, including Vitra's Joyn office system and products for Alessi, Samsung and Hay. The studio is now applying its signature creativity to urban planning and public spaces, bringing nature and organic forms to the urban environment. Fourteen of its best models – for instance, the rounded, floating garden of Clouds for shade in sunny locations; the public realm-on demand steel architecture of Kiosk; and the constructed, peaceful urban river of Stream – are now touring the globe in the Urban Daydreaming installation, currently exhibiting at the Hong Kong Design Institute. Perspective chats with Ronan Bouroullec about the firm's latest projects.What made you try your hand at urban planning?
For me, if something didn't grow out of the ground, it is designed. Design is something you share with people, it's something that tries to find solutions that make life easier or better. Walking in public spaces is no different, and after 20 years the public realm is simply a different canvas, or arena, to work with.
What aspect of the 14 projects for Urban Daydreaming makes them ideal for urban spaces?
I think that a lot of these proposals could be applied in different contexts, but we didn't design them with any particular city in mind. In the Urban Daydreaming exhibition, we proposed a new vision with a new message. We want to show a new, poetic view where nature is interacting with the city. This is our first time in Asia and we selected proposals to exhibit… those that would provoke the Hong Kong audience's thinking, to explore concepts of urban play in their own pace, and to ponder the needs and joy of urban environments by reintroducing elements of nature.
Design is something you share with people, it's something that tries to find solutions that make life easier or better
Each installation uses materials particular to that project, and takes into consideration the differentiation in the landscape and the idea of comfort in that space. Some projects will work in, say, Ireland and not Hong Kong, and some work in both, but we do need to be able to adapt the forms. Each piece needs to be able to work in steel, stone, aluminium and wood.
Where else would something like Stream or Long Fountain work? They demand a lot of space.
I think they would work almost anywhere. I'm a designer, so I try to find solutions that work in Europe as well as China. Clouds works in Miami because of the design district it's in, but the city always needs shade. The coloured glass creates a stained-glass type of cloud patterning on the pavement and vegetation improves air quality. Fireplaces is more compact, and the idea is to have a fireplace where anyone can build a fire and enjoy it. It was realised in Denmark and it's quite charming to do something like that in a public space. But these could be installed anywhere.
I think the success of this exhibition and the realisation of projects probably explains the need to find solutions to integrate nature in new ways. By bringing nature into the proposals, we are inviting people to daydream and see a more enjoyable, joyful, romantic experience.
Why is the public realm important to a liveable city?
It has always been an issue; a part of what makes a city pleasant to live in. Recently I was in Sicily, in Syracuse. What a beautiful city, and it's from the 15th century! You see it in the quality of the stonework on the streets, the proportions, the fountains, lots of public space and elderly people getting out and having a chat. One of the points of public realm is how we live together, how we share space with each other. We are in a period where we're more and more individual, more and more artificial in the way we live. We need to find solutions to stay out and stay connected. Little changes can have an impact on how we feel.Do you think we're talking about public realm because we're so urbanised?
Everyone's home is getting smaller, so yes, to a degree the need for better public realm comes from that. A good space isn't just what happens between two buildings or the technical passage from one point to another – and it's not just for children. A beautiful city is more than that. There are all sorts of pressures around us in our small apartments, but you step outside and things are quite different. I grew up in the countryside, so I need that relation to nature, and I think that has a place in the city.
Urban Daydreaming continues at Hong Kong Design Institute through February 17.