That was another usual afternoon. A street cleaner was explaining the ideas of an installation art piece to passersby at the waterfront – why it used plastic bottles as the building materials, how insufficient Hongkongers’ awareness of environmental protection is, and how important plastic bottle recycling is. He paid much effort into sharing, making sure the message was presented well. A man listening attentively responded with a smile and told him he was the designer of the work. This little incident was still in Arnold’s head till today.
Telling strangers about the ideas behind the architecture design, and creating good-looking and functional installation art are what ARTA Architects Limited (ARTA) would like to do always – making “down-to-earth” art designs. This will not only enrich Hong Kong’s cityscape but also foster the development of an inclusive community. Today, the co-founders of ARTA Arnold Wong and Tat Wong sat down and shared with us their design ideas and the way of managing their business.
|ARTA, which was established in 2021, is a rather young enterprise. It focuses on architecture, interior design, art installations and community design projects. In a short period of time, it has gained recognition from big names like Nan Fung Group and the Harbour Office of the Development Bureau. The two co-founders are registered architects, and have 8 to 10 years of work experience. They have won different open competitions before setting up ARTA. ARTA is a name combining “Art” and “Architecture”. In essence, art is relatively abstract and subjective whilst architecture focuses on functionality. The co-founders would like to combine the two and create architectural pieces that put emphasis on the interactions with the general public. They strive to reflect the importance of environmental and social sustainability in their works. Although they did not deliberately adopt the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, “Sustainable cities and communities”, “Industry, innovation and infrastructure” and “Responsible consumption and production” are at the heart of the company’s operation model.
In recent years, differing mindsets across generations have become a heated topic in Hong Kong. The older and younger generations walked further apart from each other because of differences in political views, work and education. Arnold and Tat believe that listening to the voices of different people, and thinking about how we can merge their ideas into the designs is inevitable in driving innovation. Other enterprises may value the opinions of the upstream value chain partners more, such as vendors or investors, but ARTA inclines to design pieces that best connect to the community from the user’s point of view.
One explicit example was ARTA’s participation in the “Via North Point” project which was organised by Hong Kong Arts Centre in 2021. The only requirement of the competition was that the art installation must include elements that could show the characteristics of the North Point community. During preparation, Arnold and Tat took part in a workshop arranged by the organiser where they learnt that the residents of North Point were mainly seniors. They then decided to forge closer bonds between young and old with music and sound effects – that was when they started creating “The Symphony of North Point”.
They came up with the idea of making talk tubes. When designing the art piece, Tat remembered the team had co-organised a workshop with an NGO called North Point Happy Teens Club (Hong Kong Christian Service), collecting the views from teenagers towards the different proposals. He recalled what happened, “At first not everyone was really into it. Even when we made some jokes, no one bothered. But when we talked more, we got closer. They later went right in front of the metal device and really studied it – they really worked hard.” After the workshop, they made a tiny prototype and let the band at North Point Happy Teens Club try it out. The trial eventually lasted three hours. The city was struck by a typhoon that night, and rain was pouring into the pier. Everyone got wet but the band did not want to leave and was still playing. That was a night full of memories – Arnold and Tat agreed the interaction was unforgettable. It demonstrated how sound and music could connect everyone.
People can feel free to touch and even sit on ARTA’s art pieces, which is the complete opposite of the rules set by the authorities in local parks or other public areas. In fact, this sound device did not only connect people from that neighbourhood. Some people showed their sentiment by commenting about it online. Arnold once saw a runner complaining about how this art piece blocked the 10m-wide pedestrian path, but many more expressed their sad feelings while the work was due to be removed. Hong Kong Art Centre even helped ARTA to extend the exhibition period from 2 months to 10 months at North Point Waterfront Promenade, and in June 2022, ARTA got the green light to relocate the art piece to Wan Chai Waterfront Promenade to keep it exhibited for another year.
Architecture design may be a fixed frame but the room partitioned by the frame can be filled by creativity – for users to think about how to use it. Like Arnold said,
ARTA has 8 staff members only, but Arnold and Tat believed that being a small company allowed them to take risks and have more flexibility. “Sometimes, we can gamble to have 4 full-time staff to join a competition where we can gain nothing in return if we lose.” Seeing the writer was in surprise, Arnold explained that they rather risked joining some well-known competitions than just digging their heads into daily chores as it may bring them unexpected outcomes and business opportunities. On the other hand, the revenue streams of the company are not limited to the prizes won in competitions but also design projects of different sizes that are commissioned to ARTA by individual, corporate or even government clients. They include architecture design, interior design and also festive art installations. Holistically speaking, these allow them to run the company smoothly.
For some projects, they can get the opportunity in the first attempt. Others are just like stones falling into the river – no feedback at all. However, they found out that these stones may be useful in other ways as time passes. In early 2022, they outcompeted five architecture firms and won the bid for a project of 30,000 m2 Kai Tak Promenade and Landscape Deck. This is a good example showcasing how their effort has finally paid off.
In 2018, prior to ARTA was established, Arnold and two of his senior university friends – Stephen and Keith – who are also architects joined a competition called “GREEN@WAN CHAI” organised by the Environmental Protection Department. They became one of the finalists. Their idea was a mass collection of used wine bottles at bars in Wan Chai which they would recycle to make glass bricks. Sadly this idea did not bring them a win – the judges doubted the recycling effectiveness of the glass bricks. However, they never gave up on this idea. Two years later, they really brought this to life and created an installation art by playing with the colour differences of different glass bricks. The art piece was exhibited at PMQ in Central, and caught the attention of Nan Fung Group. This time, the door to new opportunities was opened. The idea eventually went way even further – it did not only go “live” during the exhibition period but the team thought about different possibilities after it was taken down. By making small tweaks to the piece, the idea can be given a second life or even a third one. The team learnt that if you never give up any chances and keep trying, someday people will recognise your effort.
Of course, trying does not mean you have to rush forward without thinking twice. ARTA has its own way of balancing risks and possibilities. Arnold and Tat told us they would set short-term and long-term goals for the company to stabilise the income. They knew that the profit of big projects would come slower so they also participated in small-scale projects to ensure the flow of operating funds. They emphasised that taking up short-term projects can let the teammates see the achievements sooner and better maintain the morale of the team. Sometimes playing the long game alone is just not enough to support the operation.
[Customer supplier relationship]
ARTA understands that small enterprise lacks the manpower to plan activities for fulfilling social responsibilities. Hence, they would sometimes try to merge these objectives with their projects, “For some projects, we can hardly get any profit but we really hope that they can foster community engagement.” Rome was not built in one day – so is promoting development and succession of culture in the community. From ARTA’s experiences, we know that education and changes are amplified by ripple effects. From one to ten, from ten to hundreds – a simple act can bring much deeper influence than we thought.
Witnessing the vanishing winters in these few years, the team realised how desperate we are under global warming and the importance of environmental protection. They pitched to the Harbour Office of the Development Bureau and suggested building a wave-shaped canopy with environmentally-friendly plastics. This is called “The Harbour Wave”. Hopefully, this can raise awareness among the visitors. They also put a small noticeboard nearby and reminded the citizens that Hong Kong is facing a serious plastic crisis. When they set up the noticeboard, Arnold perhaps did not expect the street cleaner to read about it, and even recite everything written on it and share it with others. Who knows if he also did the same thing on many other days? This is how the message is spread. It is also like what ARTA said, to connect different people with architectural pieces and spread different messages.
As a small enterprise, ARTA seizes the advantages in HR, system and business planning. It builds a people-centric company culture that retains its talents well, and at the same time maintains an open mind to take risks. When people believe in themselves, small enterprises can also path their own road to success, and play a part in helping the environment and society.
ARTA is one of the recipients of the Merit Award in SMEs Sustainability Leadership Recognition Scheme 2021 cohort. The Scheme is part of the Partnership for Sustainability Leadership in Business, which is initiated by the Centre for Civil Society and Governance, The University of Hong Kong, and supported by The Hongkong Bank Foundation.