Joyce Wang's Hong Kong basement took the highest award for interiors at the World Architecture Festival 2014 in Singapore. The subterranean restaurant Mott 32 received the World Interior of the Year award. The project was featured in the milestone Jul/Aug issue Frame #100:
‘I had to do the project when I saw the building. There was no natural light at all, and the layout was angular and strange. It was daunting, but a challenge.’ Hong Kong-based designer Joyce Wang is talking about the bank-basement location of restaurant Mott 32, which she visited for the first time in October 2013 and completed as an intricately detailed, cinematically coherent space in March 2014.
For Wang, the site’s unique history was a major advantage. Measuring 7000 m2, the basement of the Standard Chartered Bank was off the map. ‘It was a bit of a local secret,’ she says. ‘In Hong Kong, everything is very dense and compact, so everyone knows where everything is. But not this place – no one had heard of it. Access is through the bank, and it was not clearly visible.’
Besides a lack of light, access proved to be a key challenge. An absence of spatial coherence was another. While the octagonal columns, each with a triangular notch cut into it, gave the space character, the layout was awkward. Wang’s first step was ‘to try to rationalize the space and establish different viewing concepts. We determined the main focus as you come downstairs and accordingly carved up the space into a big main dining area and five private rooms.’
Having decided on the spatial organization, Wang fleshed out the concept. The client, Maximal Concepts, impressed by Ammo (Frame 89, p. 093), wanted a similarly memorable space with a Hong Kong feel, able to compete with other upscale Chinese restaurants but edgy enough to hold its own with a younger crowd. The client suggested New York’s Mott Street heritage as a theme, recalling the emigrants from Hong Kong who had established the city’s first Chinese convenience store there in 1851.
Around this basic idea, which introduced an element of New York industrial style to the mix, Wang wove a story in which the founders of the Mott Street store had left behind their family heirlooms in the bank basement – a narrative that forms a backdrop for the security guards who would play mah jong and relax here. To this imagined life she added a graphic history of Hong Kong, including its past as a fishing port (evoked by a chain chandelier and rope lighting), its long spell as an outpost of the British Empire (as illustrated by the 10 Downing Street dining room), and its mainland Chinese roots (a mural depicts Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the ROC).
Wang layered all these allusions and more into a host of handcrafted details that are beautifully realized and slightly surreal. Like Ammo, Mott 32 expresses what she calls ‘the DNA of what makes a good film: lots of visual clues for people to pick up’. Supplied with Wang’s cast of illusory characters, diners experience the space as a riddle to be solved. Walls lined with calligraphy brushes hint at traditional Chinese art in the Tangerine Room, with its vault of glowing copper tiles. The Mah Jong Room has an abacus light, a reference to the restaurant’s monetary origins. Brick tiles in 10 Downing Street create patterns borrowed from the traditional Chinese architecture of Shanghai.
Two mock skylights deal with the lack of daylight. They were designed to be ‘romantic-looking’, but it was only later, Wang says, that she recognized their ‘unintentional’ resemblance to a pagoda. During the day, bright lighting mimics daylight pouring through the skylight; at night, the lights are dimmed or turned off, but reflections on the glass suggest a night sky outside. ‘People are fooled,’ says Wang.
The skylights, like all the parts of Wang’s puzzle, were worked out as mock-ups and assembled in their final versions on the premises. ‘We weren’t allowed to use the lift because of security at the bank, so we had to bring everything down the stairs,’ says Wang. ‘This meant we had to piece every element and item of furniture together on site.’
Every detail was designed by Wang and made by artisans within a period of six months. ‘Contractors here make a start even before they have the drawings,’ she says. ‘Once they begin, they work rapidly. We had the prototype of the skylight in just one week. We had to spend a lot of time with our contractors – not least because they didn’t want to leave raw surfaces. I had to keep stopping them from finishing things off.’
Unfinished elements were crucial to the rawness she was after. Rustic wood and rope, industrial chain and graffiti-covered concrete balance more luxurious materials like hand-embroidered silk (used on the curved wall of the main dining room) and marble – cherry-coloured for the bar and ‘watermelon’ for the bank of banquettes that forms the centrepiece of the main space. The floor and sinks are 1950s-style coin-set terrazzo.
The mix of materials juxtaposes the opulent and the edgy, resulting in a space where, as Wang says, ‘I wanted my mum and my sister to be equally comfortable. It had to be cross-generational – impressive enough for my mum and raw enough for my sister.’ The furniture has this hybrid DNA, too, a blend of ‘Chinese-style’ vintage items sourced in London and New York and custom pieces that modernize Chinese archetypes.
It’s a stylistic fusion that reflects Wang’s move from the USA, where she started her career, to Hong Kong, where she now presides over an office of ten. ‘There is more appetite for risk with patrons here,’ she explains. ‘The speed of everything means the cycle of learning is quicker. And they will accept a young designer like me [Wang is in her early 30s] with out-there ideas. It comes down to that – there’s just more room to play.’
Photos Edmon Leong
This project first debuted in Frame #100 and the 16th issue of Frame's iPad app.