Time With: Otto Ng
Architects and designers are typically easily defined: Gehry is the forefather of deconstructivism, Hadid was once dubbed the “Queen of the Curve" and Andao is known for his dedication to simplicity. Otto Ng, however, has no such aspirations.
He had barely doffed his cap and gown from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) when he founded LAAB—so named as it's “a laboratory for art and architecture”—a multidisciplinary architectural practice with more than 30 employees that has, in five years, amassed an enviable roster of clients, from institutional to private, including property bigwigs like Sun Hung Kai and Hysan Development alongside international superbrands such as Hermes and Leica. The projects that LAAB has created tell compelling stories—and continue to do so after completion.
Consider f22 foto space, whose design is inspired by the interior of a camera and features a ceiling that functions like a camera aperture and brass fixtures painted black and specifically designed to degrade to a beautifully rustic worn finish. It also incorporates a built-in video element so that the museum can document its history in a timelapse recording. This kind of lateral thinking is exemplary of Ng's work and has become his and LAAB’s calling card. He tells us more about his vision.
How did LAAB come to be?
We launched LAAB five years ago. We wanted it to be a space where all creative people gather, where we could experiment on different things and where we do things differently from other traditional architectural practices. When I first came back to Hong Kong six years ago after graduating from MIT, I realised that the way that I work and what I have learned, including new technologies and new design theories, are not quite applicable in Hong Kong. There are a lot of interesting things that I’ve seen and experienced at MIT and, for me personally, I really wanted to bring them into practice and to work with different people to realise these ideas. Our agenda in having LAAB is to really create a place where we can experiment. A platform where we can work with different people across different disciplines.
What was a key turning point in your business?
The really pivotal point for us was the Small Home Smart Home project, two or three years ago. The clients are now really good friends of mine but at the time they were walk-ins. We talked about how we could create something transformable and different. They are a couple who live in a [309sqft space] in Central and asked us to design their dream house with a big kitchen, big bathroom, a cinema and a gym. The way that we designed it was to make a home that was transforming, with the concept that form follows time, which means that the form no longer follows one function—the function changes according to the time of day. This project got us a million YouTube views and it really helped clarify what vision we have and what we could achieve. It helped to bring us many different types of projects, including the upcoming Victoria Dockside.
What have you been working on at Victoria Dockside?
We are the design architect for most of the pavilions and some of the most eye-catching features in the project. One of them opened last year, the Garden Restroom, a public restroom in which we tried to bring a garden experience—bring in sunlight and the presence of nature. That’s only the first one. We have many more upcoming. [Also,] there is a tree-like structure on Salisbury Road and that’s going to be a very important transport spot, so we tried to preserve Salisbury Road’s trees. From my childhood memories, that is a very important avenue that really defines Tsim Sha Tsui. We tried to design something in harmony with the trees, using them as a design feature, like a canopy, which is normally not how things are designed in Hong Kong.
See also: Time With: Timothy Yu
Typically, what’s the process for LAAB after receiving a brief?
Every time we receive a brief, we try to redefine it. We ask questions. We try to do it almost like a detective, breaking down all the clues that we have. We create a mindmap and try to think about new questions and then we find the answers to them. What we have here [at LAAB] are really good problem solvers. All our outside contractors and consultants are really good problem solvers. But, more importantly to us, is first we need the questions. We need difficult questions and we need the questions that are important to the project—for example, how we can bring interactiveness to a project.
"We have to be really realistic with ourselves sometimes but we also have to keep being naughty at all times"
How do you stop yourself from going too far on a project?
Deadlines! There are a lot of realistic constraints: technical, budget, time. Time is usually the biggest constraint in Hong Kong. People are so desperate to get things done, so we need excellent project management. Usually we don’t get too much time, so when we get the brief, we look at it, revisit it with questions and try to define our goal for the project. Throughout the project we try to achieve that single goal that we have on the wall but we keep redefining it and [try to] find the true questions for the project. With all the questions, we have to be really realistic with ourselves sometimes but we also have to keep being naughty at all times—try to attack the questions and the answers we already have on the table [to see] if there are things that could be done in a better way.
See also: Time With: Lawrence Hui
Is there a dream project?
Not really. I enjoy what we have here in terms of the diversity of projects and the people that we meet. I always say that if you ask me what the best project we’ve created is—it’s LAAB. How we bring together people of different talents, walks of life and experiences to work well together as a team. We trust each other. We have a good vibe and that is quite fundamental. For a lot of projects, when the client engages us it’s the first time for us to work on these kinds of projects, but they think our perspective is fresh and critical.