Revitalization by CHAT + Assemble

Full transcript of an interview for artscape

Nan Fung Textile Limited factory that led the textile industry in Hong Kong in mid-20th century is now rejuvenating itself to a unique form of art centre, Centre for Heritage Arts and Textile (CHAT). CHAT is planned to be open in March 2019 and would be a collection of participatory arts which would engage every individuals visiting to learn and experience arts and design. Mizuki Takahashi, who curated at many reputable museums such as Mito Arts Foundation, is now local in Hong Kong to manage CHAT. Workshop design is being developed by Assemble who is a collective of millennial with all ranges of talent and knowledge that creates idiosyncratic works with the community. With their eccentric approach in arts, design and architecture, they’ve won the Turner Prize in 2015. Workshop by Assemble was held for test before the grand opening of CHAT in July. Prior to the workshop, the interview was led by Yasuhiro Kaneda, Director of Hong Kong based structural engineering firm, yasuhirokaneda STRUCTURE and had some interesting conversation with Matthew Leung from Assemble and Mizuki Takahashi from CHAT. 




































































































































Yasuhiro Kaneda (YK onwards): To start of with, could I know what CHAT is about and how it was established?


Mizuki Takahashi (MT onwards): CHAT is housed at now-inactive Nan Fung Textile Limited factory and is scheduled to hold a grand opening in March 2019. There are galleries telling stories about textile industry in Hong Kong including cultures, technologies and design. It also accommodates laboratories for retired technicians to teach textile manufacturing processes to the visitors.


The factory was built in 1961 and was one of the factories that pioneered the textile business in Hong Kong. After the economic reform in China, textile factories moved to mainland China and Southeast Asian countries and the last textile factory in Hong Kong closed down recently in 2016. When you think about a textile museum, you would probably imagine a gallery space filled with rare and prestigious textile made for the royal families and for the high-end brands, however, textiles produced in Hong Kong was more so cotton which is utilized to produce inexpensive products such as jeans, towel and bed linen. Cotton is eminent as the oldest commodities in the world and various aspects relating to textile industry can be discussed ranging from its environmental impact to its industrial slavery. At CHAT, we aim to teach as many individuals about textile industry and history behind through galleries, workshops and other learning programs.


Galleries at CHAT had to be interactive and workshop-like, rather than just an ubiquitous gallery space. So, we’ve invited Assemble to work with us for the gallery design. Our aim was to involve the community and to create one whole art centre with the locals by using local materials, workforces and traditions, just like what Assemble has done for Granby Street Project; therefore it was destined for us to work with Assemble. We also thought it would be interesting to see how Matthew, who has a family background of Hong Kong, would interpret Hong Kong history, culture and architecture,

YK: Now let me ask Matthew Leung from Assemble who is the project leader of this project. Assemble not only focus on architecture but the combination of various skills and knowledge; it creates the unique form of Assemble. I understand great amount of projects are running but how do you decide on whose in charge of the projects?


Matthew Leung (ML onwards): So to start of with, we’re now a group of 16 people full time running our projects. In the beginning, there were about 20 and that’s when we were working just for fun. Lots of them went back to work or university so it contracted to about 6-7 people. Then, gradually people came back and joined. There’s not much change in the core group.


Because our structure changed over the years, we have a very complicated system. We’ve always tried to maintain a flat hierarchy as it is a collective structure. But as our works changed and as our relationships with projects changed, we’ve worked freelance before and now we’re pretty much full time working on our salary basis. We’ve, over the time, developed quite a complicated ways of managing it so then we can try and stay the same, so that no one is a boss. We actually have our HR department which is managed by two people which rotates every six months and that’s how we do all of our management so not everyone is working for it for the whole time. So, obviously if people are interested in the project, we’ll take it on to the people who are interested even if they’re not available at the time, so we can do work that the collective as a whole find interest in. But generally, we don’t have any kind of hard and fast rules and usually we would have conversations about all the projects every Thursday. Over times, we decide who works for it so there’s usually at least two people even if the project is tiny.


YK: Did your work style spontaneously emerge after graduating or was it a strategy working as Assemble?


ML: No, it was no way strategic. Our first project, we didn’t do because we thought we’ll have a practice but we did it because we thought it would be fun. Then, we did our second one because we thought it would be fun and we got a grant and we had to decide whether to do another project to be paid for it so it really worked more like that. Three quarters of the group studied architecture and quarter that didn’t, and they were the ones who were there for the first project because they had different skills or they just wanted to be involved. Also, there are couples of additional in recent years where one of them studied accountancy and another studied fashion. They came in as office managers which was quite different. So, I think there’s diversity of interest within the group which means that working of different projects is not necessarily a strategic thing but it’s just a reflection of different kinds of interests within the group. That’s the condition of how we started working because we kind of jump from project to project, we have a space as a workshop where there’s different tenants in and that’s kind of shaping the way that we’re able to make products for different projects or work with the people. So probably it’s less strategic, we do talk about things in strategic ways, but they don’t always go in that direction, so I think it’s a result of just being a bit open minded about the direction of growth or the direction of practice might take. We’re aware that as we get slightly older, we’ll probably have different needs and different opinions about which way we want to go. For instance, we already have Assemble Design, Granby Workshop, Sugarhouse Studios and Assemble Construction. We might potentially have Assemble Press. We’re trying just to do the projects because we’re interested in, not necessarily because that’s we’re meant to do.


YK: About the time when Assemble was formed in 2010, the recession hit and in 2011, for instance, large earthquake hit the east part of Japan so some areas did not function economically, material prices rose and many projects were affected. Many young architects at that time started to work on refurbishment projects which weren’t so common before. I can somehow relate your projects from projects young architects in Japan are working on. But were there similar kind of contemporaries in the UK as well?


ML: It’s hard to say if you’re not writing a history of young architects in London or in the UK, but there are interesting practices whether it grew out of the fact that most of us graduated during recession. So, it’s hard to say but it’s possible to construct that way but if we all got really good jobs if we graduated in 2009, then maybe we would’ve not started Assemble. One of my tutors always used to say all the best practices come out of financial crisis or recessions but in a way you can choose to believe that or choose different narrative. There are people who are trained as architects who aren’t necessarily practicing architecture and I don't know whether that’s because it’s people we know or that’s actually what happens as a result of less conventional architectural projects being available, it’s hard to say which one it is. But there’s lots of interesting things happening amongst our kind of generation.

YK: Having heard that your family comes from Hong Kong, could I ask how you felt when this project was offered?


ML: I was actually born in the UK but I do visit Hong Kong quite a lot to see my family. By all means I am somewhat an outsider as well as like a child. So, in some way, working on this project was an opportunity for me to see Hong Kong through a very different cultural lens as a professional rather than just being a tourist.


We came back to Hong Kong couple of years ago for Make A Difference forum and I remember although I had cousins living here, by meeting contemporaries who are interested in similar things, I saw Hong Kong in really different way and it was quite exciting.


YK: How did yourself and Anthony research about this project?


ML: I guess there’s numbers of different elements within this project. One of them is, much broader context which it sits in, the historical and cultural side of the textile industry within Hong Kong, which in a way we’re not the best place to research because I can’t read Chinese and Anthony definitely does not. So in some ways we rely on some of those materials that were collected by MILL6 and CHAT. Another broader context is textiles in general. We actually have another project in the office that’s potentially textile-based so there’s information sharing across those projects looking at both the process and culturally/historically how it works, not necessarily confined to Hong Kong. And then I guess the visit in December was really useful as the way to really get the whistle-stop tour of all of the different side of interests. Usually we would have slightly more intimate relationship with the people who are working which isn’t necessarily possible in this particular context since we live halfway across the world. The workshop is in a way to accelerate that a bit. You get few intense weeks, which is really useful for us as well to have the soft opening as a way to take few risks and to see if couple of our ideas work. Even the collaborators like Yukihiro Taguchi would probably have quite different aesthetics and approaches so I think it would be an interesting time when that three weeks is over to recollect and have other people feed into this idea of what a textile foundation is. It’s not just new to us but there’s nothing similar in the whole of Hong Kong so it would be new to Hong Kong in that sense.

YK: What’s unique for you about the project?

ML: Firstly, it’s really interesting that it’s in a retained building and a site of production, which for us was exciting because you don’t tend think of Hong Kong as a place where things are made, which isn’t true if you go to Kowloon or where ever, there’s smaller shops. So I thought what seems like a great opportunity is to bring that to the table a bit more so you make a clearer link between the things you get which you usually buy like the products and the processes involved, so in a way, the history and heritage isn’t completely separate from the things you see. I think we’re more interested generally in the connection between the processes and the things you see at the end so that felt like an exciting thing about the context because you’re literally in the building where miles of cotton thread are found so in a way the building is like an access that can bank at to all of that. 

YK: The factory was built in 1960s; however, for instance, buildings in Granby were built in the early 20th century. Do you find any significance?

ML: The age might be different but in a way the transformation seems just as radical in a sense. I didn’t know much before I went to research about it but when the textile industry in Lancashire was going down in mid-20th century, there was an agreement, a Lancashire Pact, which was made with Hong Kong to reduce the amount of cotton that it was spinning which was in the 1970s so even though it wasn’t that long ago, the transformation of the position of textile or textile production within Hong Kong has shifted so radically in 20 years where very few garments are made in Hong Kong unless it’s high-end couture. In a way it is a type of disappearing typology building so it doesn’t matter whether it was 50 or 60 years ago since it was built. There are not many buildings like this so it doesn’t matter how old the building is but is still historical in a way that’s used. 

But I think this should reflect the way the building is used. It’s very muscular and its large members have its robustness to it so we were keen that the space we were looking at, the Gallery 1, has some of that character so it’s not necessarily a precious space and it’s not like a gallery or an exhibition where you’re not allowed to touch things because for instance if you walk in here and have to take your shoes off, it would somehow be very jarring so we try to think about the character of the building or how is was originally used before in form of design of the exhibition.

YK: What is it that is different from other museums/galleries in Hong Kong?

MT: Thinking about other organization like Parasite, they’re located in an industrial building but much smaller in scale. On the other hand, Hong Kong Art Centre is built for that purpose but it’s such a shame to see it being driven much more by architects’ ego so I don’t think they’ve designed it well for the user. I think this project is closer to Parasite approach but in a larger scale because having gallery in industrial building just symbolises the situation in Hong Kong where culture mingles with business because business is always attached.

YK: I feel the context is interesting because originally it was a factory and the owner’s granddaughter has inherited the family business. I think that is important in Hong Kong in the future.

MT: I guess one of the disadvantages is the location. You’ll have to walk for about 10 mins from the MTR station and there’s nothing fancy around here. The building is surrounded by similar-looking industrial buildings but they are willing to venture out through this project I could see similar model in New York and London but it’s difficult to see similar model in Hong Kong since it’s initiated by a large property developers so that’s quite interesting.

YK: For your previous projects, you would invite the locals and work on a project with the volunteers and the community. Are you going to have similar approach?


ML: I think for us what was interesting to think is that the gallery space is where you go, not being passive. But somewhere you might go because you can spend time there without having to think of it as a place to just have a singular activity where you just walk around the gallery and it’s over. I think the opportunity is that it’s not necessarily a place where you take your children to be babysat but in some way there is an interaction which is invited. Then, it feels like it might be a place not only for serious cultural adults but it’s a space where you might choose to visit because it’s interesting. The idea of being able to read the exhibition in many levels is not just like a very typical gallery. But that’s also because downstairs, you’ll have different kind of person coming into the commercial space, it might not necessarily be a person who deliberately came, but the interesting thing about this workshop is to invite people to use it but so there’s numbers of different ways which you can use the gallery which doesn’t assume you’ve come to see a white wall space. I think this is the purpose of Gallery One and Gallery Two and Three for contemporary arts. So we thought that was a fun opportunity.


YK: What would the workshop layout look like?


ML: The idea for the layout of the workshop itself is that at the centre, there would be tables which are designed for running workshops in the future. There are more formal spaces in Mill 4 but within Gallery One, placing that in the middle was the idea. There’s going to be our workshop in the summer which would probably be distinguished from the idea of workshop or the space for working within the gallery itself which is the long-term thing. We imagine it would be something that’s more casual than the interaction you would have in this classroom space which would be more formalized and organized class where the workshop space would be a lower-barrier entry workshop. We were close to getting it to the middle and the other aspect to it is that it’s a new foundation so that kind of aesthetic of something that’s workable could be extended to display elements because there’s probably going to be some more editing in the future as well.


YK: So Mizuki, what is the target group for the workshop?


MT: We’re officially saying the productive age group like 20s, 30s, 40s who are having young families.


YK: Do you interact with workers here? Are they going to be working at the workshop?


MT: Yes, we’re trying to have them participate in other art projects and we’re actively having interviews as well but they’re favouring their old machines and thinking that they would use for the project which I’m not too sure about at the moment so I’ll get back to them afterwards.


YK: Matthew, does Assemble set a target group for each project?


ML: We haven’t got a specific target for our particular workshop. I guess when we originally talked about it, they were suggesting there would be design students, but we would prefer a wider demographic and what we talked about is that it shouldn’t be only university students or who are interested in design because in way, they already understand how things are put together or they can think about design in particular way. So, we were suggesting it would be more of general public thing. But I guess other thing that is interesting about having younger demographics as a target as Mizuki talks about is that it’s almost like a handover of the building because in a way the estate was built for the workers working here and they retired at particular age and in a way it feels like a closing of a chapter and an opening of another so it makes sense to think that if there is a way to tie them together, it’s through the gallery.


YK: I wanted to ask about the material. For your projects, you’ve been using existing materials/techniques and transforming into slightly different form. But textile is key element in this project so how do you think about the material for this certain project?


ML: We were interested in the standard component. In this case, we’re talking about extruding aluminium and that was partly aesthetic choice and partly narrative choice it being an utilitarian more like a workshop material and a practical thing as well so because lots of collection would potentially change in the future, you’re able to edit it. Therefore, we think that part more like an infrastructure or a background. So, the textiles made in the workshop, historical textiles and contemporary textiles are really the material of the project. The rest of the install would be the support for that which isn’t the super-bespoke or difficult to edit. The collection or the character should stay the same but there should be an opportunity to be able to change in the future, so our approach is quite straight-forward in a way.


YK: I believe Assemble has been receiving many offers both in the UK and abroad, however, how do you manage this situation? I understand Assemble tries to go close to the location and interact with the community there but how are you dealing for this project?


ML: We’re still working that out but, in the UK, most of our projects are based in London and few in Liverpool and in Glasgow and each case have been very involving. At Granby, within that project, one of the members from Assemble now lives there and is there permanently. In the case of Glasgow project, we spent quite a lot of time there and trained up to local play workers since the project was an adventure playground. Working abroad it does pay us very different kinds of challenges in terms of methodology and we’re still trying to understand how it can be effective. I think it’s very different in a project like this where we have an institution that invites people from the local pool as well. In a way, we’re one of the resources that institution can pull together so I think it’s quite different from some of the other projects where we’re potentially working with smaller community groups with people who are barely organized. In a way, because we’re talking about institution controlling the security of the building and having the long-term tenure, we’re less instrumental. We’re setting the tone but it’s not so important to be here all the time, but we expose to some of the local community and local culture in a more intense way and going to take that on. But it’s a struggle yet interesting to see.

YK: Mizuki, what do you expect from Assemble through this project?

MT: I found this interesting because Matthew said he is an outsider which I am also one as well. I take this disadvantage as a chance to learn about Hong Kong textile industry, history and people through this project. For me, art centre or art institution should be in an organic form meaning that it should be able to evolve and to adapt to place and time. So, I don’t particularly think we should offer fixed narrative to the public. We are exploring the way to work here and that is why we wanted to have a soft opening in the summer and fix and tune for the grand opening. I wish we can work with Assemble continuously, not only a one-off project.


YK: Do you find any difficulties working in Hong Kong?


MT: The main issue I would say is the collection. With the lack of space in Hong Kong, people do not keep need-nots, so we need to reach out people from textile association, workers or factory owners and ask whether they keep their old documents about these objects. But because either they moved to mainland China or to other Asian country to expand their business or they’re using newer machines, they either do not have a copy in Hong Kong or they disposed the old unneeded documents. It is quite challenging to curate with the limited amount of resources and to attract new audiences with unfamiliar industrial collections.


YK: Are you trying to do some sort of branding for Tseung Wan area to become more of like an arts district?


MT: The factory here produces simple yarn and it can be transformed into anything from a cotton canvas to a sailing mast, which is the key factor that’s driving this project. So, I would like to make this space to accelerate production and creation with imagination so it’s not for money-sake. Since Hong Kong’s art scene is extremely driven by commercial force and people tend to purchase artworks as asset and for investment purposes, I want to create a platform for designers and artists to work together with the workers here to approach arts in a completely different way.