Unique Design Minds: Eskyiu

Eric Schuldenfrei & Marisa Yiu: Eskyiu

Even at a young age Eric Schuldenfrei felt an intense desire to build things. Aside from playing with Lego – “it’s the ultimate cliche so you can’t write that” – he and his three siblings would dig up every bed sheet they could find in the house – “we were a big family so it wasn’t that hard” – and, with the help of fans, books and clothespins, use them to construct rooms within rooms. There was also a time when the would-be architect was obsessed with building the ‘tallest structure possible’. “We had very limited resources, so it was quite an engineering feat,” says the US-born and bred Schuldenfrei with a grin.

Marisa Yiu’s first architectural memory is closely tied to her childhood sport, tennis. “I represented Hong Kong as a junior tennis player, and while travelling for tournaments, I’d drop into people’s houses. I was struck by the way that people from different countries and cultures live and interact with their surroundings.” A visit to France’s Futuroscope theme park also left its mark on a young Yiu – “it sounds completely absurd but it was all about how people experience space and architecture in the future.”

Disparate as the duo’s beginnings might seem, the mix of technical dexterity and cultural sensitivity, and awareness to both material and space would come to define ESKYIU, which they founded in New York in 2005.

The couple met at New York City, where they were both getting their degrees in architecture. Their first project together was Chinatown Work (2006), an installation piece that arose out of Yiu’s research into the global garment industry. “There used to be around 500 garment factories in that region of Lower Manhattan, but that number eventually dropped to 100 after 9/11,” says Yiu.

They made a map of Lower Manhattan depicting Chinatown and stitched it onto Linea Vert fabric, and then marked it with places relevant to the local garment industry. The fabric was then laid into a 3-form eco-resin, a material that can be delaminated and taken apart to form other panels. The public installation was exhibited at the HSBC facade on Canal Street. “We want to use architecture as a tool to engage with society, and to think about the building environment as it constantly changes,” Yiu adds.

As a coming home of sorts, Yiu returned to Hong Kong – “I followed Marisa,” Schuldenfrei adds jokingly – in 2007. ESKYIU operates as a think tank, where design and architectural skills are leveraged for installation projects that provoke discussion about topical issues that confront modern society, including sustainable design.

“One thing about Hong Kong is that everything is over-engineered. A column is usually 10 times thicker than it needs to be,” says Schuldenfrei. “Sustainability may simply mean building while keeping in mind that we aren’t the only species to make use of our natural resources.” Schuldenfrei blames the lack of innovation on the city’s rigid building codes. “There needs to be more trust in architects. The building codes should be written in a more open-ended way, so that the same goal can be achieved with different methods.”

Commissioned by Swire Properties for Art Basel 2015, ESKYIU’s Ephemera lounge was inspired by cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, who wrote about iron-and-glass covered arcades built in the early 18th century,  and the various implications they had on urban dwellers, and the flaneur (‘stroller’ in French). Part design, part art installation, Ephemera was comprised of bands of plywood that were bent to form 52 archways under which visitors could gather, mingle and lounge.

“I was more interested in the kind of public events that could happen underneath this structure, whereas Eric was obsessed with the layers of plywood,” Yiu explains.

In Industrial Forest, currently on show at Spring Workshop, visitors can navigate their way through a throng of filaments whose tips emit a reddish-orange glow when pollution levels are high, and turn blue when skies are clear. An experimental soundtrack accompanies the piece. “A lot of our projects incorporate sound, an element that architects often overlook or don’t place as much importance on as they do other senses,” says Yiu.

Are they interested in building buildings at all? Schuldenfrei gives a hearty laugh. “It’s not that we don’t want to build, but unlike in the States and Europe, where an architectural firm usually gets its foot in the door by building a house, there’s very few commissions on a studio scale in Hong Kong.”

Yiu adds, “I think we’re waiting for the perfect project to come our way.”And what would that be? “A public park – that would be my dream project. I’d really like to apply what we’ve learnt from our temporary projects to something more permanent.”

Is there any one thing they would change about Hong Kong?

“The city has a huge amount of nature but most of it is absent in our built-in environment, which mostly consists of concrete,” notes Schuldenfrei. “A green facade could lessen the load on air conditioning and bring down stress levels. After all, the great thing about Hong Kong is that it could be left in situ for 365 days a year, unlike in New York, where it’d be dead half the year.”

“Although we’re critical of it, Hong Kong is an amazing laboratory. There is this amazing energy pulsating out of it!” Yiu adds.

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