In Hong Kong, Beau Architects strips back a tenement house to unveil art gallery Kiang Malingue

Remove and Reuse

stark concrete walls

“We had this thing in front of us for one year while we were working on the drawings,” said architect Gilles Vanderstocken, brandishing a thermos-sized cylinder of concrete. It’s a coring sample from the structural frame of the building at 10 Sik On Street in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district, a modest residential building that he and his wife and partner Charlotte Lafont-Hugo have converted into a permanent home for the art gallery Kiang Malingue. It brings together the two specialties of their studio Beau Architects: adaptive reuse and exhibition spaces.

exterior stairs
The facade was painted in a silvery galvanized paint inspired by the street posts below (XU Liang Leon)

exterior of art gallery
The gallery is located in a former tenement building, a typology known in Hong Kong as tong lau (XU Liang Leon)

As the story goes, Vanderstocken and Lafont-Hugo relocated to Hong Kong from Brussels 12 years ago—”the Year of the Dragon,” Lafont-Hugo noted—and started Beau two years later, when gallerists Edouard Malingue and Lorraine Kiang commissioned the architects’ inaugural project: a different incarnation of the gallery. This most recent one is the eighth project Beau has done with the duo.

stark concrete walls
The building has been stripped down to expose bare concrete and original slabs (XU Liang Leon)

The 4,300-square-foot (400-square-meter) building at 10 Sik On Street was previously a tong lau, a Chinese tenement building commonly found in Hong Kong. “It was a very typical tenement building,” explained Lafont-Hugo. “There was a school at the ground floor and five apartments above, each with three rooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom.”

Given the low floor-to-floor heights of the ‘60s building, the architects opened up the space by removing most of the third and fifth floor plates to create a stack of double-height galleries that are roughly cubic in volume. The ground floor holds another gallery with the original ceiling height. A kitchen, street-facing balcony, and rear terrace are on the first floor.

stark concrete walls
Gallery walls throughout are inlaid with Shanghai plaster panels (XU Liang Leon)

stark concrete walls
Removing the third and fifth floor plates created double-height spaces (XU Liang Leon)

“If the spatial logic was obvious from the first site visit—that we have to demolish two floors to create double height spaces—then the material treatment was not obvious at all,” said Lafont-Hugo. “The construction process influenced a lot of the material decisions.”

“Some people joke that we are architects who remove more than we add,” Vanderstocken quipped. “If you see us on site, we come with our little tools and we’re removing layers [to see what’s underneath].” Indeed, the space has largely been stripped down to bare concrete, exposing the raw edges of original slabs in the double-height spaces. Gallery walls throughout are inlaid with Shanghai plaster panels, a regional terrazzo that Beau discovered underneath the layers of plaster. “The original material from the ‘60s was very beautiful, so we [decided to give] the traditional technique a contemporary twist, inspired by what we found there,” added Vanderstocken

small dining space
On the ground floor, a kitchen, street-facing balcony, and rear terrace bring in the outdoors (XU Liang Leon)

The architects also found inspiration in what they found on the street. The facade, which has a stucco texture like its neighbors, is painted with the same silvery galvanized paint that is used to protect street posts. “We like to look at what is around and bring a very contextual approach,” added Lafont-Hugo.

outdoor patio space
The concrete and stone textures continue onto the terrace (XU Liang Leon)

Beau’s process- and material-driven approach has at times confounded contractors—as was the case when the architects insisted on keeping a one-square-meter portion of the facade as a trace of the original building—but suits Malingue and Kiang who have encouraged a spirit of experimentation. “Through these iterations, every time we tested something a bit different,” said Vanderstocken. “The gallery in Central [was about] the idea of the white cube and revealing the ‘backstage’ of an art gallery.”

stark concrete walls
The gallery’s material palette is inspired by what the architects found on the site or by scraping back layers (XU Liang Leon)

For a 2016 project in Shanghai, the architects and gallerists were, as Lafont-Hugo noted, “interested in site-specificity; when artists somehow take space as a medium. We designed this gallery [as] more of a system than a [static] space, to challenge the artists to play with the space.”

In some ways, the Wan Chai space is a reaction to the Shanghai one. Responding to a very different site and brief back in Hong Kong, Beau’s concept for the gallery at 10 Sik On Street is a “vertical journey.” “The epiphany moment was when we sketched a section showing that the stairs were literally one of the spaces,” noted Vanderstocken. The stair became as important as the gallery itself,and, according to Lafont-Hugo, “every landing is kind of different.”

stairs in the art gallery
The stairs became an important part of the project’s ”vertical journey” (XU Liang Leon)

stairs in the gallery
Circular cut-outs are inspired by the coring and help with ventilation (XU Liang Leon)

Meanwhile, the concrete core sample that Vanderstocken keeps on his desk is a testament to achieving a thoughtful adaptive reuse project in a region where that remains rare. “This coring inspired [not only] the color of the Shanghai plaster but also the [electrical and mechanical systems],” said Lafont-Hugo. Climate control being paramount for an art gallery, they used the same coring technique to create circular openings for the otherwise concealed ventilation system. “We used the same machine to drill these round holes everywhere,” shared Vanderstocken. “They’re just cut through the slab, so you see the slab layers—you see all of these things that were under our very eyes for a long time when we were doing the structural research.”

stark concrete walls
The construction process influenced the material decisions (XU Liang Leon)

Amid the anecdotes, he reflects on adaptive reuse in general: “It’s a very thin line to find a balance between how much you preserve, how much you celebrate, how much you transform. I think we’ve achieved a very good balance in this project.”