How Two Unusual Hong Kong Architects Are Helping a School Rethink the Way Kids Learn

Elva Tang hasn’t had a normal life – and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Born in Hong Kong, Tang went on to study architecture in the United States and move to Europe to be with her husband, Claude Bøjer Godefroy, who now works with her at the Hong Kong office of Danish architecture firm Henning Larsen Architects, where Tang is managing director and Claude Bøjer Godefroy is creative director.

Godefroy hasn’t had much of an ordinary life either. Born in Copenhagen to a Danish father and a French mother, his childhood was split between France and Denmark. He met Tang in 2002, when they both found themselves working in the same architecture office in Hong Kong.

“My impression of Hong Kong was very mixed,” he says. “I took a lot of photographs and I was fascinated by the cinematic quality of the city. I spent a lot of time walking around.” But he was shocked by the poor quality of the city’s public spaces. “ I was both fascinated and sad, because I was conscious that it could be better,” he says. “I didn’t last long. I lasted six months and went back to Paris.”

Tang, meanwhile, returned to California to finish her studies. But they decided they wanted to be together, even if they were separated by half the world. After graduation and a brief stint in New York, Tang finally moved to Europe to be with Godefroy. “Architecture became the core of our relationship,” she says. “We are trying to stay with each other but keep our cultural roots. It’s a process.”

“If there’s one profession that really allows travel around the world, to connect all the dots in your life it’s architecture,” says Godefroy.

Tang and Godefroy are sitting at a large conference table in Henning Larsen’s harbourfront office, a large open space flooded with daylight. The walls are plastered with technical drawings. The couple explains how they came to architecture from very different places. Both of Godefroy’s parents were painters, so he wanted a creative profession, “but with more connection to society – and the economy,” he says. Tang, by contrast, didn’t have any artistic background. “My family was really working-class,” she says. “My dad was a carpenter who worked on Boeing airplane components.” She ended up studying architecture because she liked the way architects juggled so many duties at once. “It’s about balancing different disciplines,” she says.

Tang says her parents didn’t place many expectations on her, so it was her own drive that motivated her to apply to some of the world’s top architecture schools for graduate school. She opted for the University of California at Berkeley, which offered to cover part of the cost of her studies. Her older brother, a doctor, helped her pay the rest.

“I was from a poor family but I still applied to very good schools in America,” she says. She was dedicated to leaving Hong Kong. “[Moving overseas] was the most important step in my life. The best one,” she says.

And yet she is back. After their brief encounter here in 2002, Tang and Godefroy returned to Hong Kong together in 2008, when they won a competition to design an opera house in Foshan. They moved here permanently about three years ago in preparation for a bid to design a new campus in Tseung Kwan O for the French International School, a non-profit international academy funded by both the French government and the local French and non French families. (Full disclosure: the husband of Zolima CityMag founder Nicole Andrianjaka de Surville is the chairman of the school’s board.)

2exterior1a copyTang says the city has “changed a lot, yet it hasn’t changed. My kindergarten is gone, my primary school is gone, my secondary school is also gone. I went to Chinese University’s architecture school and they demolished the old building and built a new one. It’s all been redeveloped. But my family is still here.”

The school project is taking both Tang and Godefroy back to their school days. Godefroy says his experience in Paris was defined by the rigidity of the French school system. When he was 16, he spent a short time at the high school in the Danish town of Hjørring, where his dad was a teacher. It was a world of difference.

“I discovered how cool school can be,” he says. “After a month there I was supposed to go back to France and I did. I lasted 15 days. It was like a nightmare. So I told my mother that it was time I moved in with my father. What I saw in Denmark was this very different attitude towards school which is more focused on the wellbeing of kids than on them becoming geniuses.”

“It’s the development of a person instead of development only of knowledge,” adds Tang. She experienced something similar to Godefroy’s early days, with an intense focus on studying and nothing else. Even worse, these were boom years in Hong Kong and her classes were packed. “There were 44 kids in a class,” she says. “It was so crowded they had to divide it into morning school and afternoon school. It was two different schools [in the same space] – even the headmasters were different.”

The new French International School campus will be big — it will house 1,050 students from kindergarten to middle school — but it won’t be crowded. That’s because Tang and Godefroy have designed a large amount of common space for shared learning environments. “Hong Kong people live in a fast-paced city. The city lacks communal spaces that belongs to people – a chance to slow down,” says Tang. “When we design in Hong Kong, we consider it very important to be generous when designing spaces. That was one of our our objectives when designing the French School.

3Villa Interior copyThe school asked Tang and Godefroy to design a space called the Villa, where five classes occupy an open floor plate. “They will be able to bring out the children from the classrooms – that’s really an essential element,” says Godefroy. “The school should adapt to the children and not vice-versa, so we’ve created a rich and playful experience for them. The perspective has always been from the children’s point of view.”

Tang and Godefroy mean that literally: they’ve enlisted their eight-year-old son Camille as an unofficial consultant on the project. (His role may not even be that unofficial: when they made the bid for the school’s design, they half-jokingly added his name to the credit list.) “Some of the more playful parts of the project are influenced by his opinion,” says Godefroy. “The whole ground floor is filled up with what we call play stations, these boring structures that can be transformed into tools of play – something you can use to play football, or sit down and play chess.”

It’s rare for architects to have such personal investment in a project. “We’re making the school for our kid,” says Tang. “It’s a responsibility.” Despite Godefroy’s own experience about the French school system, they decided to enrol Camille in the French International School because he had already started studying in French when they lived in Paris.

In a way, it goes back to those dots that need connecting. Growing up restless in Hong Kong, Tang knew she would never lead a conventional life. Nor would Godefroy, with parents from two different countries.

“When we got together we understood that we would never have one job in one city, a mortgage, a house, a retirement plan,” says Tang. “If that happened, neither of us would be happy. I’m from Hong Kong so I’m very adaptable and I love to travel, and Claude is from two countries and was always going between the two. I think these elements together are what has made us able to draw all the dots together and still do something sensible. It’s not a one-time exercise. It’s lifelong.”

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