For Beau Architects, Design is Trust

10 years ago, Edouard Malingue and Lorraine Kiang were looking for someone to design a new art gallery in Central. Their previous space had been shaped by OMA, the renowned firm co-founded by Rem Koolhaas, but for this new one they decided to take a risk on an unknown upstart studio. So unknown, in fact, that it didn’t yet exist. 

“One day they just called us and asked if we would be interested in doing the next gallery,” says Gilles Vanderstocken, who runs Beau Architects with his wife and partner, Charlotte Lafont-Hugo. Today, Beau is sought after for its work in the cultural sphere. But its first project was a scramble. “We didn’t even have a company. We had to go, pay the HK$500 [registration fee] and choose a name, in just a couple of days,” says Vanderstocken.

The call from Kiang and Malingue didn’t come totally out of the blue. Vanderstocken and Lafont-Hugo had moved to Hong Kong two years earlier from Brussels, where Lafont-Hugo had recently finished her studies in architecture and Vanderstocken had been working as an architect and urban planner. They had been looking for a change of scenery when Vanderstocken was offered a position in the Hong Kong office of VS-A, a global façade consultancy. Lafont-Hugo had a family connection to Hong Kong — her aunt, uncle and cousins had lived here from the 1950s to the 80s — and she remembered thinking it seemed like an exciting place to be. Vanderstocken, for his part, liked the prospect of living in a global metropolis. “I was happy to go to a big city,” he says. Before Brussels, he had studied in Liège and worked in Luxembourg. “Every time I made a decision to move in my life I made a shift in scale. It was a big change.”

After they arrived, the couple quickly immersed themselves in Hong Kong’s cultural scene, becoming co-curators of the 2013 edition of design festival Detour. Around that time, Malingue and Kiang were looking for an architect who could design a thin steel structure to support a neon installation by one of their artists, and one of their contacts at OMA recommended Vanderstocken. “We became friends and kept in touch,” says Malingue. “We knew he wanted to start his own practice with Charlotte, so when we decided to leave our gallery space and move to a new location, we reached out and said, ‘Why wouldn’t we be your first project?’”

Vanderstocken and Lafont-Hugo quickly laid the groundwork for their new studio, working with a Brussels graphic design agency, Kidnap Your Designer, to come up with a logo and a name. (Vanderstocken explains that Beau, which means “beautiful” in French, is an ironic nod and critical view of “the most superficial notion [that] architecture is unfortunately too often reduced.”) Then came the big challenge: designing an art gallery. Something the architects had never done before.

“This is crazy if you think about it,” says Lafont-Hugo. “Edouard and Lorraine trusted us with something so important. And we had no reference! We came up with the first proposal and the first model, a 1:50 model, so it was already kind of big. They looked at us and said, ‘Let us explain how an art gallery works, because you guys have no idea.’”

The rejection was swift. “We all laughed about it,” says Malingue. But the discussion that followed was very productive. “The second proposal was approved as quickly as the first one was rejected. They understood what we were after.”

What it came down to was the flow and experience of visitors through the gallery space. Both the gallerists and architects wanted to challenge the convention of the white cube; they just needed to figure out the details. “In a typical white cube you stand in the space, look around 360 degrees and you’re done,” says Malingue. “We have a programme that is strong on its aesthetics and it makes a strong first impression. We also like to spend time with collectors so it’s important they feel like they can spend time lingering in the space.” 

Beau came up with a kind of zig-zagging layout — “a kind of stretched M,” says Malingue — that allowed for a more engaging visitor experience as well as creating plenty of opportunities for the gallerists to speak to their clients. “We did many shows in a space where no walls were being moved but they always looked different,” says Malingue. 

The gallery opened in 2014 in Central. It thrust Beau to the forefront of Hong Kong’s creative scene. In the years that followed, they designed nearly two dozen exhibitions, including M+ show on the Sigg Collection, helped produce installations for artists like João Vasco Paiva and Nadim Abbas, designed new galleries for Kiang Malingue in Tin Wan and Shanghai, and worked on interior spaces for new institutions like CHAT and Tai Kwun. Most recently, Beau has designed two of Hong Kong’s most important new art spaces, both in Wan Chai: PHD Group’s rooftop-clubhouse-turned-gallery, which opened last year, and Kiang Malingue’s latest gallery which opened this summer on a back lane near Star Street, replacing the now-closed Central gallery that Beau had designed a decade earlier. 

Vanderstocken says he and Lafont-Hugo are both interested in art, but they never set out to do so much work in the art world. “There was no grand scheme,” he says. “It’s more of a happy accident.” That explains a lot of what has made Beau such a pillar of the cultural scene in Hong Kong. Some architectural studios start out with ideological intent, a desire to translate theory into practice. Beau’s approach is more fluid, based on openness and curiosity, and especially the flow of ideas that comes from the kind of close relationship where everyone feels comfortable enough to lay all their cards on the table. 

Asked about his personal relationship with Beau, Edouard Malingue offers a gustatory illustration: “I cannot drink a lot and I cannot eat a lot of cheese, but when I’m with Gilles [and Charlotte] I can drink a lot of wine and eat a lot of cheese and my digestion is impeccable,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of dinners that are very fun.”

“What we instil is trust,” says Lafont-Hugo. “A good project starts with a deep discussion first, but it’s also about instilling trust. It means that if something is not appropriate, they’ll tell us, ‘No, we don’t want to do that.’”

“And it goes the other way around,” adds Vanderstocken. 

“There is this possibility to say ‘no’ without hurting someone,” continues Lafont-Hugo. “There is an understanding that we’re all in the same boat to make a good project. Sometimes we argue and we convince each other.”

Lafont-Hugo says that’s true even with more corporate clients like Henderson Land, for whom they designed an office tower, 39 King’s Road. “Even with the developers we’ll go for a drink or dinner to discuss,” she says. But it works especially well on a smaller scale, as with Malingue and Kiang, or PHD Group founders Ysabelle Cheung and Willem Molesworth. “We become easily attached, it’s true,” says Lafont-Hugo. Even a cursory glance at Beau’s portfolio reveals a remarkable number of recurring clients. 

“But with Edouard and Lorraine, and Willem and Ysabelle, we have a lot in common,” says Vanderstocken. “They’re couples working together. It’s a dynamic. And it’s important to be in the same mood. You cannot be the person who wants to experiment if the other wants to be conservative. it’s important to have a parallel mindset – it’s like resonance. One person amplifies it and it grows bigger. Afterwards you can always refine it and go a little bit more here, a little more there. but the general direction is understood form the very start.”

Molesworth and Cheung first worked with Beau on Unscheduled, a local art fair that was launched after the 2020 edition of Art Basel Hong Kong was cancelled due to the pandemic. Molesworth remembers being impressed by their design for the first edition of the fair, at Tai Kwun. And he was especially struck by the following year’s edition which took place in a vacant retail space that had formerly housed Topshop. Beau came up with a system of PVC curtains to separate each of the exhibitors. 

“It proved very controversial,” says Molesworth. “It was this kind of semi-permeable space. [Some galleries] didn’t like the fact that people had to push through the curtains to move through the space, that there was no fixed path for people to follow. I was on Beau’s side. I thought there was something really boundary-pushing and challenging in the design that advanced the conversation.”

The controversy brought the two couples together. “Unscheduled was a bonding experience where the two of us were beaten up by a bunch of galleries and tried to defend ourselves,” says Molesworth, laughing. And it meant Beau was top of mind when Cheung and Molesworth gained access to the long-abandoned clubhouse that Cheung’s grandfather, a property developer, had built for himself on the roof of his building on Morrison Hill Road. 

“When we first showed them, I think Gilles was like, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’” says Molesworth. “They were almost nerding out about the space and its oddities. They were immediately trying to figure out how it was built. Because it’s so odd. I’m not trying to exaggerate or make the gallery seem cool or anything like that. It’s just such a strange space.”

Molesworth, who was previously the director of de Sarthe Gallery, says Beau convinced him and Cheung to embrace the weirdness and subvert the idea of what a gallery should be. “I originally thought we’d have white walls. And we have no white walls. It’s all raw concrete,” he says. He also thought they would need to remove the cube that occupies the centre of the clubhouse to make room for a more spacious gallery. 

“They said, ‘Why not keep it?’ I was like, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ I’ve worked in galleries for a decade before starting PHD and the impression you want to give when people enter your gallery is a big, massive, open space. ‘Oh my god, these people are so rich.’ And beau asked ‘Why? Why do you want to do that?’ And they were right. Why disturb the history and integrity of the space, what it was, just to serve this knee-jerk ‘best practices’ function?”

The result is a space that works well for Cheung and Molesworth — they’ve had a number of well-received shows there, with a current exhibition by artistic duo Zheng Mahler — with a look and feel unlike any other gallery in Hong Kong. 

“They really understand set and setting,” says Molesworth. “They have an understanding of context that a lot of people don’t. That’s really remarkable given that they’re imports, they’re not originally from Hong Kong. But they really have an appreciation for what the city is and I think that as they create spaces to showcase art, the spaces they’re creating are an acknowledgement of what it was and its adaptation. They’re not totally recreating something from scratch. They’re stripping things down, highlighting the original context and letting it be. That kind of raw acceptance of what something is is really important here in Hong Kong and within the wider international art scene right now. We need to stop pretending and trying to be something we’re not and just be what we are.”

Lafont-Hugo is quick to note that Beau isn’t applying a formula: their approach is to determine what works best for the space. In PHD’s case, that meant leaving it raw. “But we’re always open to contradiction,” she says. What remains from Beau’s experience of creating their first Kiang Malingue space in 2014 “was being able to provide different typologies for art spaces. Art spaces are not just industrial space, found space or white cube – you can do anything.”

And being able to “do anything” goes back to the idea of trust. Not just trust between Beau and its clients, but between Lafont-Hugo and Vanderstocken. “Yes, we work kind of non-stop. It’s true there are no boundaries with us,” she says. 

“It’s not like on the weekend we take the computer and do some CAD,” adds Vanderstocken, referring to digital design software. “Maybe on the weekend, it’s more theoretical – ‘I’m reading an article, you should take a look.’ We keep exchanging things. We always have a question in mind, somehow, somewhere, and we need to find a solution. We’ll go for a long walk around Hong Kong and all of a sudden, the question is there.”

“The trust instilled between us allows us to go a little further,” says Lafont-Hugo. “We understand each other very well. We trust each other. We know that the other will, whatever they will do, will do it for good.”

All architectural photos are by Xu Liang Leon , courtesy of Beau Architects. Portraits are by Onn Sek for Zolima CityMag.

Corrections: An earlier version of this story stated that an architectural model was 1:250 scale. It was in fact 1:50 scale.

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