The Essence of Making: An Interview with Designer/Architect Paul Mok

ANTE – Thanks, Paul, for speaking with us today! Your practice spans Architecture, Design and Art; yet, you’ve noted in past interviews that you work across different disciplines in order to best translate a “concept” into reality. Can you explain more about this philosophy of working to adapt concepts into the real world, and how that has manifested both in artistic projects and commercial projects with clients? 

Paul Mok – There are two tricky terms here: concept and disciplines“Concept” is tricky because it usually means a “clear idea”, and that is precisely what I have gradually walked away from in the past few years as a designer. I was trained to derive iterations of design from a clear concept very early on in my career. However, the more I worked in the design field, the more I have come to realize that concepts are too often just alibis to rhetorically justify certain irrational, personal design decisions. I find the irrationality productive and even necessary, but not the alibis. 

To unlearn anything would be a years-long process. I started rejecting my acquired design method, subconsciously at first, then consciously, gradually replacing the void that used to be the “concept” with collections of seemingly unrelated elements – short writings, aimless strokes on paper, gestural forms made of clay and a few other projects – some art installations, some small commercial projects, and some academic works – have been delivered through this process. So, in a way, the concept I am adopting now is precisely the lack of it [the lack of any defined concept]. It is not about bringing a concept into reality. It is about letting reality – a specific set of circumstances – be translated into and – more importantly – addressed through the design process. And because of that, I am skeptical of the confinements implied by the notion of “disciplines”. Architecture, design and art are different only in a practical, circumstantial sense, I think, not in the essence. 

New York-based Hong Kong architect/designer/artist Paul Mok
Installation image at Gallery GAIA: “The Story of Mundane” a solo exhibition by Paul Mok

 

ANTE –  The value of the projects you’ve worked on is not only respected by clients and your peers, it is also shown by the awards they have received. In 2014, you worked on a project that won the AIA’s Honor Award for Interior – just as you entered Harvard for your Master’s degree in Architecture. Can you tell us about this project? Can you also discuss how this experience informed the beginning of your studies at Harvard?

PM – That [project] was a dining hall renovation that I worked on during my two years as a designer at Index Architecture Ltd.: a small architectural office in Hong Kong led by an AIA architect. We were given an existing space with lots of pipes and ducts that were to remain along the walls, and we proposed to conceal them with some curved panels made of weaved synthetic rattan. We also embedded lighting fixtures and storage spaces within those panels. The project won the AIA International Regional Award, I think, because we managed to resolve almost all the given site conditions and programing requirements with a minimal, singular design gesture. That was one of the last projects I worked on in the office before moving on to grad-school. 

In those 2 years of practicing in Hong Kong, I was working full-time in the architecture office and, on the side, working on a house renovation as a personal project, along with a monastery renovation and an idea competition (with Dennis Chau and Florence Lam, which we won third place) all at the same time. My “normal” work day would begin at 9am and end at around 3-4am. I thought the more I worked, the clearer my vision as a designer would be. I recently saw an interview with [recently deceased artist] Ulay in which he described how he tattooed and cut his own skin off as an art project but after all that effort, he said, “it still didn’t deliver the answer”. That was how I felt by the end of the second year practicing in Hong Kong.

Entering grad school gave me the time and space that I didn’t know I needed to explore the more abstract, essential, and fundamental side of design. Instead of what and how to design, I needed to know why I design. 

 

ANTE -Your professionalism and dedication to your studies has earned you multiple scholarships and Dean’s List mentions, both during your architecture studies at the University of Hong Kong, which honored you with a prestigious study abroad exchange semester at Princeton University, and during your Master’s in Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Can you talk to us a bit about your dedication to your academic development: what were some of your favorite classes and how have they translated to success as a professional architectural designer?

PM – I was drawn to both the theoretical and the making aspects of design education very early on. At the Harvard GSD, I took an option studio with Ken Smith, a New York-based landscape architect. It was one of the first studios in which I explored a design process driven primarily by the making process. I rhetorically titled the project “Project Noctambulism”, hinting on the idea of taking actions subconsciously. In the same semester, I worked on the Komorebi Pavilion with Professor Mark Mulligan, Japanese engineer Jun Sato, and a team of schoolmates at the GSD. It was a plexiglass pavilion that was weaved together in a somewhat ad-hoc manner. 

Both experiences had a significant impact in reinforcing my confidence in the essence of making, which later became a method to address abstract issues, and gradually becoming a core design philosophy.

Project Noctambulism, material study (below) and final outcome (above,) Images courtesy Paul Mok

Komorebi Pavilion, material study (below) and Komorebi Pavilion (above,) Images courtesy of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Images courtesy Paul Mok.

ANTE – Can you walk us through your Harvard Graduate thesis project and the concept of “play” both as it relates to your studies and your professional projects?

PM – I titled the thesis “To Play”. In developmental psychology, “playing” could mean negotiating the perception of reality through the act of creating. 

I began the thesis by asking “how is reality perceived?” I soon came across a demolished social housing, and I found it a perfect architectural anchor point – social housing is the most objective architectural typology, but its demolition made it a highly subjective event. 

Through a series of drawings, architecture models and conversations, I reacted to a found Youtube video of the housing recorded by a former tenant of the housing who went back to record it before its eventual demolition. The final outcome was an absurd speculative proposal for a student-housing in LA based on the idiosyncratic personality I deduced from the 12-minute video. Looking back, it wasn’t a thesis that set out to resolve a specific problem, but it demonstrates a crucial self-awareness as a designer that opened up the design process to intuition, personal realities, subconsciousness, and the notion of craftsmanship. And it was from a very similar process that I have designed the installations <A Fountain Head> and <You Killed A Kiwi – A Situation Comedy For Those With Wounded Egoes>, and the two displays – <Gross Grows> and <Out Of Thick Air> – that I made for lifestyle brand WORM NY.

Above and below, alternate images from Thesis: To Play, Images courtesy Paul Mok.
“A Fountain Head”, Image courtesy Paul Mok.
You Killed a Kiwi – A Situation Comedy For Those With Wounded Egos, Image courtesy Paul Mok.
“Out of Thick Air”, Image courtesy Paul Mok
“Gross Grows”, Image courtesy of Paul Mok

 

ANTE – Since graduating Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2018, you have worked as a designer at nARCHITECTS PLLC in New York: this experience comes after you have worked at both Michael Maltzan Architecture in LA, and PARA Project in New York. Can you walk us through some of the key projects you have contributed to during each of these roles in your career?

PM – At Michael Maltzan Architecture, I worked on the schematic design of a student dormitory for Art Center College of Design. At PARA Project, I worked on the schematic design of an artist studio extension in New York.

I have been working as a designer at nARCHITECTS for almost 2 years now. The first project I worked on was a 5-story warehouse renovation project commissioned by the EDC. We were tasked to convert the 200,000-square-feet existing building into a new Made-In-NY campus for the garment industry in New York. I worked through the Schematic Design phase, the Design Development phase, as well as producing the final construction documents. Currently, I am working on the renovation of Ciszek Hall – a dormitory for the Jesuit men-in-formation in the Bronx. 

 

ANTE – Can you walk us through a few recent projects that have demonstrated your achievement and engagement as a leading architect/designer in your field? 

PM – Aside from all the professional and conceptual projects I previously mentioned, I have been working on a school design with Joe Qiu, my former classmate at the GSD, since 2015. It is a primary school design that pioneers small-class-teaching in rural China. 

The decades-long implementation of one-child policy and rigorous rural-urban migration have led to a significant reduction of students in rural China. Small-class-teaching, as an alternative model of child education, implies a reduction in teacher-student ratio and increasing opportunity of group activities among students.

In terms of layout, we proposed to break down the typical teacher office into smaller “satellite” offices, and pair one with every two classrooms to form the primary module for space planning. We further proposed to reduce classroom sizes from 45 students per class (typical in the city, as recommended by the codes) to 36. The additional floor areas are given to the semi-outdoor “pocket” spaces, distributed along the corridors, where inter-class activities could take place.

The project is near completion and was scheduled to open in September 2020. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the opening date will very likely be delayed.

Erdu Primary School, Image courtesy Paul Mok

ANTE – How has building your architectural career in the US contributed to growth in your professional practice?

PM – It’s been almost six years since I moved to the States. So far I find the US – and particularly New York City – a productive context for both my professional and conceptual practice.

I have worked with quite a few collaborators and designers here. When I first moved to the city, for example, I met Isabella Bhoan, the founder of ILF Landscape. Coming from similar professional backgrounds, we saw how each of our specific interests could lead to meaningful collaboration. We worked together on the project Outside In – a speculative design proposal for Château de la Mothe-Chandeniers – before she relocated her practice to London in the end of 2019. 

It is also a city where I could find the audience to have productive conversations about my conceptual interests. I have exhibited my works periodically in various venues. The most recent exhibition – The Study on Mundane – is currently on display at Gallery GAIA.

Above and below, Views: “Outside In”, Images courtesy Paul Mok

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