3D scanning adds layers of meaning to the first Chinese chippy

Rather than caricature the British archetype for an unexpected market, Unknown Works scanned and remixed existing chip shops to create a critical composite. The resulting façade acts as a fascinating discussion on how ideas are appropriated in modern China.

Chengdu – Two key examples come to mind when considering the relationship between British architecture and China’s copy culture. The first is Thames Town, a facsimile British town on the outskirts of Shanghai where newlyweds take photographs in front of red telephone boxes and mock-Tudor houses. The second is Meiquan 22nd Century in Chongqing, an unauthorized reproduction of Zaha Hadid’s Wangjing Soho that the architect discovered was likely to be completed even faster than her Beijing original.

What these demonstrate is not only an appetite for consuming Britain’s spatial heritage (both old and new) wholesale, but also a more open attitude to how ideas are sourced and reproduced across borders. (It’s important to note that, rather than simply being disregarded, Western notions of intellectual property are still fairly new to China, and thus not as engrained.) To these two we might now add a third example: a fish and chip shop designed by young London- and Hong Kong-based practice Unknown Works that interrogates how technology might facilitate a more nuanced form of architectural exchange.

There’s an important backstory here. When President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping toured the UK in 2015, one of the most memorable photo ops resulted from his visit to Scott’s Fish and Chip shop in York. Both the eatery and the cuisine more generally received such exposure back home that the restaurant began printing its menus in Mandarin and Cantonese to cater for the influx of Chinese tourists.

Wanting to add an unexpected dining offer to its Taikoo Li shopping district in Chengdu, real estate developer Swire Properties has now sought to capitalize on that interest with the first Scotts outlet (and arguably the first true ‘chippy’) in the country. At just 33 sq-m, the outlet, situated on a busy corner plot, has no real interior but plenty of passing foot traffic. As a result, Unknown Works decided to make the façade the key point of emphasis, using it to create an armature that functionally references the kerbside dining familiar to local consumers on the one hand, while visually recalling the British chip-shop idiom on the other.

It was about having the DNA of that British typology at the core of the space, but doing it by quite literally copying existing examples just as a product from the West might get copied in China

In terms of functionality, the outlet’s frontage swings open in a series of broad panels that project out across the street, the central portion of each pivoting to form an eating surface. These, once supplied with the short plastic stools common to food stalls across the country, form Scotts’ dining room. Inside is a white tiled servery, austere in appearance apart from a series of red neon signs. This is a long way from what the client initially envisaged, according to Theo Games Petrohilos, director and cofounder of Unknown Works. ‘They wanted to infuse this idea of Britishness and of the archetypal chippy and so they were really pushing a particular understanding of that tradition, one that comes with images of Union Jacks and bulldogs.’

The practice wanted to move beyond pastiche, however, avoiding the reproduction of something caricatured. Instead it looked to the contemporary Chinese term shanzhai (a form of counterfeit goods) to explore this unexpected example of Sino-British trade and inspire the design of the restaurant’s main expressive element: the articulated panels. ‘For us it was still really about having the DNA of that British typology at the core of the space, but doing it by quite literally copying existing examples just as a product from the West might get copied in China,’ explains Petrohilos.

 

The team travelled across the UK collecting interior data from chip shops using various 3D technologies, including LIDAR scanning and photogrammetry. This left them with a vast archive of information, from joinery details to wallpaper textures and decorative objects. Unknown Works recombined the elements into a series of reliefs to create a kind of aesthetic distillation of the genre. ‘We wanted to take something that was an overlooked aspect of chip-shop interior, such as a pile of napkins or a salt shaker or the wonky picture frame on the wall and somehow transport it, transform it and elevate it through abstraction’, says Petrohilos.

A specialist contractor – more familiar with fabricating mascots for Disneyland and film sets for Marvel – used the resultant designs to produce moulds in which the alabaster-white Glass Reinforced Plastic façade panels could be formed. In situ, the monotone treatment works to resolve the busyness of the surface, while also preventing any one element from becoming iconographic. It almost feels like a riposte to the red, white and blue of the British flag, and the idea that national characteristics can ever be so easily collapsed into such simple visual signifiers.

We wanted to take overlooked aspects of chip-shop interior, and somehow transport, transform and elevate them through abstraction

The Scotts project builds on other actives Unknown Works has pursued over the border in Hong Kong, where team members have been mapping alleyways and using the scans to inform pop-up public spaces. This method of collecting ‘meticulous spatial data’ and using it as a kind of raw material is something that is increasingly a feature of the practice’s work, unpacking what room for ‘human craft’ remains within such digital processes.

Indeed, though shanzhai products are undoubtedly ‘knock offs’, they also often exhibit technical mastery in terms of both the quality of their imitation and speed to market. Not only that, but increasingly they exhibit their own form of creative interpretation, superseding their branded forebears in aspects of performance and design as demanded by the local market. Scotts succeeds through precisely this form of creative piracy. 

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This piece will be featured in our forthcoming January — February 2020 issue, Frame 132.

Location 8 Middle Shamao St, Shu Yuan Jie, Jinjiang, Chengdu, China, 610000

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