Operating in both mainland China and Hong Kong, DOMAT confronts social issues such as high-density living, poverty and hygiene
DOMAT has been shortlisted for the AR Emerging Architecture awards 2018
Young architects working in Hong Kong are faced with a dilemma: go overseas or work in the hyper-commercial local market that offers few opportunities for working at a significant scale and often means being confined to domestic alterations and shop interiors. This is not so different from the experience of new practices in developed countries all over the world, but architects in Hong Kong have one advantage: they can cross the straits in search of work.
For DOMAT, a practice led by Anglo/Hong Kongese couple Maggie Ma and Mark Kingsley, this frontier also presents another opportunity: to make more socially engaged architecture than would have been possible at home. A case in point is their Hygiene Station for Cattlefield Village Primary School, completed in 2017 in a small rural settlement in Banka Town, in China’s mountainous region of western Yunnan.
The school here was previously served by poorly appointed lavatory and shower blocks. DOMAT has aggregated these functions, stacking them together in one, significantly more attractive and functional building. Equipped with solar-powered chimneys that suck unpleasant smells from the ground-floor toilets, which in turn are flushed by grey water from the showers upstairs, it is decorated inside and out with colourful tiles that are both appealing and easily cleaned. The idea is to encourage hygienic habits in the young students that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
While the rural areas of China currently offer opportunities for intervention on a grander scale, Kingsley and Ma stress that they are keenly aware of the social and architectural problems back home, too – not least the extreme inequalities of wealth that are expressed in the incredibly restricted and high-density accommodation of the region’s poor.
In an attempt to ameliorate these conditions, they have produced a system of modular furniture that can be adapted to the tiniest of apartments in order to provide study space for children, thereby assisting, it is hoped, the education-led social mobility of their families. Crucially, DOMAT has designed furniture that the tenants can take with them when they move house, rather than building-in improvements that would simply enrich the landlords who could extract higher rents as a result.
DOMAT’s modular furniture
The architects are modest about the potential of this intervention, stating that while it ‘may provide temporary relief … it can never be a permanent fix for the housing issues that Hong Kong is facing’. Nevertheless, this kind of subtle thinking about the social consequences of architecture is certainly an advance on more bombastic ‘solutions to the housing crisis’. It is a mode of working reflected in a more speculative project – Community Living Room in Kowloon. Faced by the perennial problem of how to improve public space and amenities without the displacement associated with gentrification, the architects propose a semi-permanent framework inspired by bamboo scaffolding, which would enfold extant structures and could be added to by local users, who would thereby become its co-authors.
Community Living Room Kowloon
These community-centred approaches reflect the practice’s interest in Samuel Mockbee’s work with Rural Studio: however, they stress that they dream of working beyond the confines of academia, and of a return to the kind of grand housing projects of the 1960s and ’70s, except this time catering to a ‘squeezed middle’, who are ineligible for public housing and yet unable to afford private rents.
Photographs: Courtesy of the architect
This piece is featured in AR November issue on Emerging Architecture and the Netherlands – click here to purchase your copy today