Between the unconventional weekend home on Lantau and the frantic pace of Wanchai, home to the interior architecture studio, Atelier B director Frederic Bourquin has managed to get a good handle on how Hong Kong works and how to make its spaces work better. The Swiss-born designer can be refreshingly honest and he chats with Square Foot.
How did you wind up founding a studio here?
My wife [Atelier B creative director] Catherine and I came here backpacking from Switzerland. We found an amazing lifestyle compromise between the jungle and the crazy city and we enjoyed the life. Before Atelier B Catherine, who’s an architect, found a lot of work; I was working someplace else and got asked to work on a casino and thought, ‘This is a good time to make the jump.’ We did office design, residential by word of mouth and eventually got into commercial work. Now we’re fortunate to get work from everybody and have no rigid guidelines to follow.
How do you approach working here in Hong Kong after being trained in Europe?
Investors don’t really care what they buy but quite a few people buy not knowing what they’re going to end up with. After being here many years I realise a lot of people don’t really know what they want to live in. We’ve done houses for many wealthy clients and in the end they don’t really know if they like it. It’s a bizarre way to work. But the way of living is very different. When a client wants their place “designed” for them that’s great but it can also be very contradictory. Most clients have what they want to achieve in mind, but we work with developers who give us guidelines. They have marketing departments that have an influence. We’ve done show flats, which are a bit of a cheat, as we all know. But overall working this way is really interesting. We all have egos and often this doesn’t “help” the project. It’s a challenge. We work by emotion. We don’t make a lot of money but money is not the focus. What we end up doing is the focus, institutional or private.
Tell us a bit about your work.
We’ve done a lot of high-end residential, private clubs and hotels. I would love to do more hospitality. We just finished a residential clubhouse on Seymour Road. That was nice. It’s a small, very modern tower and they wanted a kind of Parisian courtyard. It really mixed and matched all the different jobs we’ve been dealing with. Do I have a favourite? We take every project very personally and emotionally, as I said. It’s a hard question that’s hard to answer.
Have things changed in the two decades you’ve been here?
Yes, things have changed. Things are far more locally orientated. Before the Handover there was more openness to difference. In terms of architecture it’s very much the same. You’ve got the high-end market that can afford the fake castle in the middle of nowhere and that’s most of what you see on one side. Tradecraft is suffering too. My biggest frustration is not being able to find people here who can, say, build a balustrade. Why can’t we do that now in Hong Kong? The quality of work and respect for craft is vanishing.
But making Hong Kong look like Hong Kong is fine.
Oh, I agree with that, but I don’t know what Hong Kong is. I just got back from Paris, and everywhere you look is inspiring. That’s what we’re missing here — that historical culture that gets demolished to build a high-rise. This is what designers miss most. A place like Paris forces you to be creative because the space speaks by itself. I wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t a lot that was good, but identity is not one of them
Anything you want to take a crack at?
Nah, I’ve done it all! [Laughs] Really? Projects themselves are, in a way, less important than the day-to-day relationships that arise. But in terms of projects, anything that comes at us is great. We’re still very young.