by Devanshi ShahNov 03, 2023
Gary Chang grew up in densely packed Hong Kong where he shared a tiny 340-square-foot apartment with his parents, three younger sisters, and a total stranger, a subletter. He claims that it was that particular experience that influenced his decision to become an architect. Chang was the only person in the apartment who did not live in a bedroom. Only when everyone else went to sleep in one of their three designated bedrooms, he would convert the family’s living quarters into a “bedroom” of his own, but just for one night at a time. Even as a child Chang perpetually tried to reinvent the apartment, both in his mind and in his sketches. In one of those drawings, dating back to when he was 16, he connected his and the neighbour’s apartment by a two-meter-long bridge spanning the lightwell gap between them. Imagining his apartment doubling its size and moving into his own space with a door was the ultimate dream.
That dream came true in 1988, a year after he graduated from university. His parents, finally, saved enough money to purchase a bigger apartment elsewhere and moved out of their rental unit leaving the whole place to Chang. More so, his mother convinced him to buy their old apartment to take advantage of the then-just-introduced low-interest down payment loan program. For the next seven years, he worked as a designer at Palmer and Turner, one of the most prominent architectural practices in Hong Kong. He started his own company, Edge in 1994 with a partner, working initially on projects for his uncle. In 1998 each partner went solo. Chang’s practice operates under the name Edge Design Institute to emphasise its research-based approach.
The architect’s most distinguished projects include Suitcase House at the Commune by the Great Wall near Beijing (2002), the renovation of Gary’s own apartment called Domestic Transformer (2007), MoMA Design Store in Hong Kong (2019), many intricately planned hotels, apartments, store and spa interiors throughout Asia, and design products; he also designed interiors for a private jet and yacht. Chang’s widely publicised experiment, Domestic Transformer, was recently reproduced at a one-to-one scale at Hong Kong’s new Herzog & de Meuron-designed M+ museum where it is the highlight of a current exhibition, Hong Kong: Here and Beyond. In the interview that follows, Gary Chang shared with me the circumstances of growing up in his parents’ apartment and using it to this day as a testing laboratory, his experience at the university where he first studied mathematics, being against all categories and boundaries, celebrating diversity and hybridity, and what makes his city unlike any other.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: I understand that it was the tiny 340-square-foot apartment where you lived with your parents, three younger sisters, and a total stranger that led to your interest in becoming an architect. Could you talk about your memories of living in Hong Kong during your childhood and was your situation unusual or typical?Gary Chang: I did not live in the apartment from birth. We moved here in 1976 when I was 14. It was a rental unit in a very large building of 18 stories. With 23 apartments per floor, there were a total of more than 400 units, a community of at least 2,000 residents; it is a village in its own right. The apartment is on the seventh floor and my grandparents also lived in the building, on the 16th floor. So, it felt like a village and it was quite typical—living in such tight conditions and close to other relatives. In fact, that situation was so typical that we didn’t think our apartment was small. [Laughs.]
Also, what was typical then was working extra hard to make ends meet. My father worked in Chinatown restaurants in the US. He stayed there for seven years when I was a teenager. And, in general, people were working from home after their working hours. For example, my mother assembled plastic flowers and toys and the whole family helped her instead of going out with friends. I hated those toys! [Laughs.] And, imagine, some families even had to rent their precious space to small businesses. My friend’s family rented out a room to a dentist! So, a typical residential building, in reality, is a hybrid and functions as a true mixed-use complex.
VB: As you shared with me, the young single woman who lived in your apartment was there because her own family’s apartment was too small. So, her parents rented a small room for her, right?
GC: Yes, the demand for housing was much greater than the supply. And the young woman you are referring to actually alternated her time with her brother; we never knew which one of them would stay. [Laughs.] The Hong Kong housing authority was responsible for building, allocation, and managing public housing. But shortly after the Pacific War when Hong Kong enjoyed economic growth, it attracted many immigrants causing over-congestion. That directly led to the infamous 1953 Shek Kip Mei fire, which destroyed a shanty town in that neighbourhood, leaving tens of thousands of people homeless. Throughout the 1950s and into the late 70s there was an ongoing urgent need for more housing. A couple of years before my family moved into our apartment the government initiated a 10-year housing policy to provide adequate accommodations, as many still lived in squatter settlements along the hills. Now all of them are gone.
My parents moved out of our rental apartment in 1988, a year after I graduated from the University. By then they were able to buy another apartment in the city. And my mother convinced me to buy our old apartment because just one year before that new low-interest down payment loans were introduced to encourage people to purchase apartments. I am very happy that I listened to her because the price went up ten times since then. [Laughs.] I still live here.
VB: How was your experience at the University of Hong Kong?
GC: I started there in 1981 but not as an architecture student. I failed my architecture exam, which was oral. I was too shy. [Laughs.] So, in my first year, I studied at the Department of Mathematics. But I was stubborn, so I reapplied the next year. My two favourite books then were Architecture Without Architects by Bernard Rudofsky and The Tao of Architecture by Amos Chang which is about bringing human sensibilities to modern architecture and tying it with Lao Tzu’s philosophy. One of the phrases said, “To remember is to focus.” I liked to read those books to clear my mind.
Already at school, I was quite rebellious. I resented my professors and refused to follow their suggestions. In a way, I wanted to prove to the faculty that they have overlooked my potential by not admitting me the year before. So, I did my own research in my own way. And I became very confident because, in my first year, my projects were quite successful. I was a non-conformist. I wanted to be original, not like the others.
Most other students were strongly influenced by our professors and by the magazines they read. I trusted myself and my senses. I am very sensitive about space and also time. After all, I grew up in an apartment without my own bedroom. It would only take shape when everyone else went to bed; only then I could convert a living room into my bedroom. That’s why I never define space as a rigid sequence of rooms. I don’t believe in that. It is more about various activities—from brushing your teeth to watching a movie, taking a bath, and reading a book. You can do many things in each of the rooms. I don’t like to restrict anyone. Space should be liberating. I am all about redefining conventions in our everyday lives.
VB: When your parents finally moved out of your apartment in 1988, it presented an opportunity for you to buy it and turn it into a living experiment. Could you touch on your preoccupation with inventing smart ways of dealing with extreme conditions of tight space and compact living?
GC: This has to do with trying to see things differently. So many people simply accept and adapt. For example, if there is no air-conditioning, people tend to open doors and windows for cross-ventilation and if electricity is expensive, naturally, you move closer to the window. But I try to reinvent things. I use my apartment as a testing laboratory. Because I typically deal with very tight spaces, I treat a dwelling like a large home appliance. An interior is like a home product to me. And the other interesting thing is that if you consider my home an interior it is very small but if you consider it a product it is very big. And the reason I consider it a product is that if you see my sketches there are many numbers and many details drawn at full scale. I work in millimeters. I am both rational and emotional; it is a perfect combination for an architect.
VB: Your transformation ideas were introduced in your very first built work, the Suitcase House at the Commune by the Great Wall completed in 2002. It was that house that became a precursor for your Domestic Transformer, a conversion of your own apartment in 2007. What are some of the other most unusual projects that you had a chance to design?
GC: One was a private jet and another one was a private yacht. These projects are a good reference for compact space research but in another category, in which budgets are unlimited. These two projects were designed for my most important client who opened immense opportunities for me. We met back in 1998 when I split with my ex-partner, Michael Chan. At that time the Hong Kong government decided to rent out one of its spaces to artists for very low rent to promote creativity. It was a former warehouse of the Government Supplies Department on Oil Street in North Point near the waterfront. Everyone came to check out this instantly iconic art hub. I even organised tours for visitors. We attracted some major developers. This person came within the first week and asked me to design his apartment first. That’s how it all started. That hub was a temporary place that only lasted for about 18 months.
VB: Based on your experience, what country right now welcomes architectural innovation the most?
GC: I would say Belgium, specifically, Antwerp. Recently I spent some time there. People may say, “Belgium is such a small country.” But the same is true about Iceland or Hong Kong. But if you explore these places, they are not small at all and the experience can be quite overwhelming. There is a lot of diversity. Belgium has three official languages and there are several traditions and cultures that are wonderfully intertwined. Again, I don’t like to categorise things. And if I don’t categorise architecture by types and rooms, why would I categorise it by counties? To me all categories and boundaries are irrelevant. And I prefer to think about cities and places, not countries. Politics may be different but architecture is about creativity. All we need are opportunities to express our creativity. My mind is totally open.
VB: What would you say makes Hong Kong special?
GC: Some people here like to talk about an identity crisis. There is a lack of identity, they say. We are Chinese, but not exactly. Our history is a part of Chinese history but it is different. On the other hand, I never believe in purity. To me, such questions as, “Where are you from?” are not that important these days. I like diversity and hybridity. Hong Kong has a history of mixing things together. Diversity leads to creativity. Diversity is the key strategy in architecture and, in general, in improving anything. When you mix ideas and break definitions, things become interesting.