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Critical Practice

Amongst other things, Luo Jingmei speaks with award-winning Skew Collaborative on how academia, research and practice go hand-in-hand.

Critical Practice


October 24th, 2012

Comprising H. Koon Wee, Eunice Seng (who are married) and Darren Zhou, Skew Collaborative have been making their mark in Shanghai with their research-led, innovative architecture practice, which was founded in New York. Wee and Seng are based in Hong Kong doing research and teaching at Hong Kong University, while Zhou heads the commercial side of the practice in Shanghai. This interview continues our ‘On the Shores of Shanghai’ feature in Cubes issue 58.

Darren, how did you come to join the firm?

Darren Zhou (DZ): I met [Eunice and Koon Wee] when they had their first solo exhibition at The Substation in Singapore. We reconnected back in New York when I was in Columbia University doing my undergrad degree in architecture. Koon Wee was practicing in New York and Eunice was in [the same university] doing her PHD. We hit it off, and I started working with them from my first year during the summer, doing installations and these crazy projects. After graduation, they said, “come to China”, and that was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss.

Skew Collaborative

For the Chinese Academy of Sciences IOT Centre (2011) in Jiading, the architects weren’t allowed to remove any of the existing trees

The reconstruction to the ’60s, Soviet-designed low-density office cluster resulted in a series of intimate courtyards

How did the move from New York to Shanghai come about?

H. Koon Wee (HKW): In New York, we did small projects – the normal track as a young architect where you end up doing a lot of rich man’s lofts. That wasn’t altogether rewarding, so we thought of making a jump to a totally different context, a developing city that would be hungrier for ideas – which is the case. I first went to Shanghai with a Yale Travelling Studio, then I met a few people and it became interesting so we decided to move here.

All three of you teach. How is the coursework you do with students relevant to practice?

HKW: We see research and practice as a feedback loop that allows our studio to continue to develop new design methodologies in a steady and systematic way not afforded by commercial projects. Our research veers towards issues that are highly relevant and urgent. The coursework we have developed are tied to our expertise and research areas. For example, I teach courses relating to globalisation and the city. The framework developed for this comes from my research and analyses of specific flows and building types. A number of [these findings] we have engaged actively in our practice, such as issues of efficiency and inefficiency of systems found in industrial complexes that produce [goods] for consumers globally, which we are designing in South and East China.

DZ: Teaching is the fun part, I think, because there are times when you just need to get out of the office and be in touch again with the academic side, to sustain yourself, otherwise [practice] is constantly energy sapping – working and working, dealing with clients and contractors…

Skew Collaborative

Skew Collaborative

The “Inhabitations NYC-SIN” multimedia installation commissioned by “Reconstruction of a City” and the 2004 Arts Festival critiqued the relationship between anthropomorphic and domestic realms

What’s the message in, and methodology of your architecture?

Eunice Seng (ES): Our formative decades as young architects and teachers were developed in an essentially American East Coast educational system, where critical thinking of the liberal arts strand was the foremost approach. The studio’s work methods and directions were direct results of casting a returning gaze to Asia, and projects we had elected to pursue reflect this tendency. Architecture must be a platform suited not just to the effective use of the client and end-users’ resources, but also for intellectual inquiry where one can also be alerted to the problems at hand.

DZ: Our method basically looks at [what we term] architectural ‘artefacts’ (‘systems’, ‘partition walls’, ‘patches’, etc.) as a way of critiquing societies and culture – critiquing not in a bad way, but just exploring what are the kinds of interesting things about the societies that give rise to [them]. Our interest has always been to look at these architectural ‘artefacts’ as a way of studying the city and analyse how we can reconstitute and reform them into meaningful [spaces].

Skew Collaborative

The Fuminglu Apartment (2006) project was an alteration of a 1920s-built apartment in Shanghai

Tell us about some of your projects.

DZ: Fuminglu Apartment (2006) is a good example of what we mean when we say our work is research-driven design. We analysed all the partition systems in the house, which was originally a single-family house that had been subdivided [with typical walls]. We [created] a system that tied up the entire apartment – whether hiding air-con services, storage. It’s a new kind of thinking of the [conventional] partition system.


Xishuidong Retail District (2012)

Skew Collaborative

Skew Collaborative is also designing two bridges for the Xishuidong Retail District, one of which is pictured above

For the Xishuidong Retail District (2012), we convinced the client that the kind of shopping that goes in there shouldn’t be this big box mall. So we broke it up into strips and articulated them in a very architectonic way to engage the pedestrians on a much smaller scale. The materials – terracotta, glass, corrugated metal – somehow index or relate to the industrial past (it used to be an old factory).

Skew Collaborative

Installation for the 2009 Shenzhen Biennale 

For the Shenzhen Biennale (2009), our research was on curtain walls. The main critique was [curtain walls] had become decorative, so we were pitting the qualities of the decorative versus the utilitarian: This is a 14-metre-tall installation made of rented scaffolding; the messy ones were made of bamboo and the rectilinear ones were steel. It’s a statement of the strong form (of the weak material, the bamboo) giving a kind of [decorative] diagonal bracing to the steel (the strong material, but weak form) that has become so overly intense that it becomes a burden [to the structural performance of the installation].

Skew Collaborative

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