UBER: Travelling through Hong Kong with Gottfried Semper.
Magazine Contact #28
The lift doors have barely opened, the silvery shining glass wall has barely broken into view, and you are plunged into a dim, welcoming greenish-grey realm. Only the writing on the wall – four large, contoured block letters U, B, E and R made from fire regulation-compliant bent fluorescent tubes – gives you a clear indication that you haven’t landed in a swimming pool or some kind of underwater wellness temple, but in the new Hong Kong headquarters of the mobile driving service provider Uber, on the last floor of one of the office tower blocks which only came into being this year, but are highly coveted because of the spectacular view right in the pulsating business district of Causeway Bay.
“Before, Uber had several smaller offices in Hong Kong which were scattered across the entire city,” says Lorène Faure. “With this head office, which currently houses 80 employees together in one location for the first time, the necessary steps for expansion should be set.” Up until today, there was no uniform, legally regulated solution for driving service providers and car rental services on call in Hong Kong. In the new premises, the globally active platform, which has 30,000 registered drivers alone in Hong Kong, wants to work out the necessary plans for legalisation. And this endeavour is anything but easy. Only last year, Uber failed in its entry to the market in mainland China. As was reported in the Hong Kong Economic Journal a few months ago, the Californian company is speculating at regular intervals about whether to give up on the special administrative zone entirely.
“As you can imagine, the Uber project wasn’t just a classic office design, but also an attempt to conceal the security measures applied here with regard to break-in protection, data security and confidentiality when handling highly sensitive information in the best way possible, and to design in such a way that an open, flexible and friendly working environment with interpersonal interaction is still possible,” says Faure. “Not an easy task!” Born in Paris, and having studied architecture with Sir Peter Cook, Faure is the head of Bean Buro, founded in 2013, along with her partner, Kenny Kinugasa-Tsui. The interdisciplinary architecture and design office specialises in furniture, product design and interior design.
“The elements which helped us to allow the safety aspects fade into the visual background are very diverse and sometimes playful. Again and again, we cited various Hong Kong traditions and brought these back to life in numerous shapes and materials. And as far as the spatial base concept is concerned, we followed the teachings of the German architect and art theorist Gottfried Semper.” She refers to Semper’s concept of “structure and filling” as well as the idea he coined of “material enclosure as a barrier to the room”.
According to this theory, the room structure appears in harder materials; the inner space on the other hand in consciously lighter materials which are soft to the touch.
The theory is already manifest at the reception: While the room is decorated in traditional green and grey mosaic tiles, handmade in Hong Kong, the reception desk is presented with soft, beige upholstered leather. It’s not without reason that the material chosen here is to remind people of the interior of a brand-new BMW or Mercedes, according to Bean Buro. “Again and again,” says architect Lorène Faure, “you find analogies of mobility and automotive aesthetics in the Uber office, but also of the Hong Kong location and the often very old traditions which are typical here.”
As well as the tiles on the wall, the upholstered fabrics and the deep maritime colours which are taken from the Hong Kong waterfront, you can also find many small details from history and from the Feng Shui school of thought which will provoke a smile: light woods, curved shapes, charming lamp cages above the temporary break tables in front of the window façade which are created to capture light instead of birds. “The stylised birdcages,” explains Faure’s partner, Kenny Kinugasa-Tsui, “are a reference to the Hong Kong of the 19th century, when it was the custom to walk through the city with your own bird or to bring the cage to a tea ceremony or to a dim sum meal with others. We felt very inspired by this story.”
In the fullness of the beautiful, anecdote-rich and often soulful interior details, the hard structure which the new Uber office is based on is lost from view – completely within the sense of Gottfried Semper. The communicative cornerstone of the office is the communal spaces such as the cafeteria with tea kitchen and small tables, the counter designed to allow people to have their break time alone in front of the window with a view of the Happy Valley racecourse and the large windowed conference room with 20-metre-long conference table and an in-situ wall design from Hong Kong graffiti artist Bao Ho. The black, white and blue motives show scenes from urban everyday life, sprinkled with Chinese mythical beings and zodiac animals such as cats, rabbits, dragons.
The approximately 900 square metre office is completed with medium and small meeting rooms, tiled phone booths, comfortably upholstered me-places and diverse, informal we-places which are scattered around the whole office layout. The workplaces themselves are kept compact and mainly clustered into groups of six or eight desks, where employees sit opposite each other to allow communication. In an analogy to the Uber DNA, which is based on the idea of the sharing economy, sharing is also part of the basis of the office: All workplaces for the 80 employees who currently work there – if necessary, the office can be extended to accommodate up to 120 employees – are designed as shared desks for activity-based working.
“The office plays with references from the city, from the history of the area and from the world of the sharing economy,” say both Bean bosses at the end of the discussion. “But in the end, the shape is a variable which can be changed and has the task of conveying the culture and the values of the company. The constant in all this, however, is the hospitality and comfort that we recognise from the hotel industry.” In 2017, Bean Buro developed the co-working space The Work Project in collaboration with leading hoteliers. Since then, ideas from this collaboration influence each individual office project. The appeal is unmistakable.
All photos: © Courtesy of Bean Buro