Asia offering fresh territory for ambitious

A Hong Kong apartment block was a start for KPDO, writes Stephen Crafti.

A Hong Kong apartment block was a start for KPDO, writes Stephen Crafti.

Increasingly, Melbourne architects are exploring opportunities overseas, particularly in Asia. One practice, Kerry Phelan Design Office, or KPDO, has recently established an office in Hong Kong. "If you want a practice to grow, you need to engage with our Asian neighbours," says architect Stephen Javens, who has been working in China since 2004.

"But this is our first office outside Australia," he adds.

The Hong Kong office was opened after a commission by developer Four Walls to rework a 1930s art deco-style low-rise building into eight luxury apartments. In Kennedy Town, approaching Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour, this low-rise building could have easily been demolished like many of its early 20th-century neighbours.

"In Hong Kong there's constant renewal of the urban fabric, irrespective of the quality of some of these buildings," says interior designer Kerry Phelan, a director of KPDO.

Fortunately, Four Walls' brief to KPDO didn't specify a completely new building. Their request was to convert the dilapidated building, with its Hollywood-style facade, into luxury apartments, each occupying a floor. "Originally there were four apartments on each level [each approximately 30 square metres], with mechanical and metal workshops at ground level," Phelan says. While 120 square metres [now the size of each apartment] is generous by Melbourne standards, in Hong Kong this amount of space is a rarity.

While the base building offered some great art-deco embellishments, such as cast terrazzo handrails and raw coffered concrete ceilings, the ribbon-style windows wrapping around the building had increasingly been reduced in width, with every ad-hoc refurbishment. "One of the first tasks was to reinstate the original 1930s dimensions, but updated with double glazing and micro-aluminium," says Javens, who also rerendered the spandrels. The point of entry, originally tiled, will also feature tiled exterior walls. "Hong Kong has a history of tiling the exterior of buildings. We've sourced these beautiful textured glazed tiles from Japan," says Phelan, who anticipates the refurbishment will be complete by September this year.

Understanding how people live in Hong Kong was paramount for KPDO. With many eating out and socialising in bars and cafes, the kitchens in these apartments will be smaller than those in Australia. About 2½ by 1.3 metres, these kitchens are enclosed and a distance from living areas.

"Some of these differences, such as kitchen design, are specified in building regulations. It can be partially attributed to the way they cook, often with a wok," Javens says.

Phelan was also mindful of creating a tranquil environment. Each apartment features stained-oak parquetry floors and soft chalky-finish stucco walls. And corridors are wider than normal (1½ metres) and designed to maximise sight lines over Victoria Harbour.

Unlike most apartments in Australia, this development doesn't feature balconies. The only open space is a generous rooftop garden, connected to the penthouse.

But there are quality finishes and impeccable detailing, something appreciated by Hong Kong residents. "It's an important project for us, being our first in Hong Kong. But it might also sway other developers that there's merit in some of these art deco buildings that's difficult to replace," Phelan says.

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