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20 Designers and brands that define our tomorrow: Cheungvogl 

Cheungvogl was named one of “20 designers and brands that define our tomorrow” alongside OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture, led by Rem Koolhaas), Snøhetta and Olafur Eliasson by Frame Magazine.

Frame Magazine, 116, 20th Anniversary Edition, Frame Publishers, May/June 2017.




In conversation with Evan Jehl for Frame Magazine, Chui Lai Cheung and Christoph Vogl, founding partners of Cheungvogl, describe how their work overcomes traditional categorizations by re- interpreting definitions and typologies to create contemporary socially relevant architecture.

Chui Lai Cheung and Christoph Vogl of Hong Kong-based firm Cheungvogl take ‘social relevance’ as a guiding principle in their design of physical retail. Their approach is the product of a sensitivity to dialectical materialism and technological futurism. For physical spaces to retain their relevance in a world where the functions they host are increasingly supplanted by digital media, design must be viewed as a means of actively communicating with its users rather than as a static container or scaffolding. It must become more fluid in its adaptability to different contexts. Cheung and Vogl elaborate on these ideas in a conversation about how they see future projects and the field as a whole.


Even Jehl: The Au Pont Rouge restoration is an ambitious example of the efforts retailers make to keep physical retail spaces relevant in the digital age, both mirroring the comfort and convenience of online shopping and going beyond the online shopping experience to offer immersive social and cultural experiences. You have also in the past created more conventional retail concepts that are driven more heavily by aesthetic ingenuity, such as the Aesop stores. Do you see yourself working on any new retail concepts in the near future?

Christoph Vogl: Au Pont Rouge enabled us to manifest our idea of social and cultural relevance in a “retail experiment”. As our fundamental design philosophy derives from the social and cultural implications on the usage and qualities of physical space, especially in the digital age, we could employ robotic automated technologies to re-inform and enhance the spatial experience and to re-create the social and cultural meaning of the historic structure and the urban context.
It is the conceptual response to adapt to changing customer behaviours and the role of the department store in a time where online stores affect not only the traditional retail model, but also the urban context and what defines inner cities, in which retail has always been the catalyst for central urban activity and public life. By applying postmodern technologies, we are able to revert the process - instead of trying to keep up with changing communal patterns influenced by advancing technologies we are able to create an ambiguous hybrid platform to influence public activity, while creating a socially, culturally and economically relevant precedence. This conceptual and associative plurality is one of the main focuses to create social catalysts. Currently, we are working on different retail projects, where these theoretical explorations enable us to implement new approaches to overcome predefined thinking patterns and re-inform coherent spatial qualities.

Chui Lai Cheung: The responsibility of reviving Au Pont Rouge not only as a commercially successful and significant retail project, but also as a cultural landmark to Saint Petersburg, especially as the role of the classical department store has to be re-interpreted in general, moves our approach to create essential projects through architectural re-programming into a particular focal point. This project does not only have to answer the questions a normal retail project is confronted with, but also has to perform holistically and substantially on many different levels. The multi-faceted concept demonstrates how architecture is not only limited to spatial, aesthetic or programmatic approach in isolated solitude, especially in a time where social, cultural and economic complexity is increasingly rising and changing. The meaning of a project becomes more valid the more it relates, embraces and communicates all these different aspects. The sum of all these facets configures social relevance and therefore the success or failure of a project.
In our strategy for Aesop, the aesthetical design language with a clear focus on craftsmanship, materiality, detail, haptics, etc. forms a strong identity, moving the brand from being a niche brand to a stronger global presence. We developed and implemented the design guideline for the brand in the course of creating over a dozen flagship and concept stores as case studies, forming a starting point for the re-branding of Aesop’s store concept in Asia and its information of store concepts in Europe and the Americas. The creation of aesthetic and functional integrity forms the guiding principle to inform the brand’s future expansion.  Nevertheless, the underlying strategy of the store concepts and design guidelines for Aesop is deeply related to the investigations of interactions and communication. We have described our design approach for retail projects and the translation of brand essentials and values into architectural design as “branding by operation”.

Even Jehl: In projects such as your Aesop store in Cityplaza, the display was a direct affirmation of storage, conveying both an industrial ruggedness and honesty. Are traditional typologies of retail and workspaces outmoded, or can they be recontextualized to generate new meanings, as this project seems to do?

Chui Lai Cheung: The traditional “staged” retail experience with over-the-counter consultation and back-of-house operation bound staff is certainly outdated in a time where internet and social media have nurtured educated customers who know brands, products and competitors better than the sales team themselves. In Aesop Cityplaza, we wanted to create a case study of human interaction and consultation focused retail experience. The homogeneous packaging design of Aesop allowed us to combine display and storage in one entity without aesthetical contradiction, while creating an honest, sophisticated yet simple, design language for the brand. However, the social, educational and foremost consultational component is the key factor, which validates the existence of the physical store. The re-definition of display and storage, as well as the elimination of counter hierarchies – there is no front or back to the counter – enables us to put the staff into the responsible role as professional consultants, rather than store keepers or sales personnel. The social component of personal dialogue and interaction is what we see as the distinctive justification of a physical store against the online competitor. The store concept has to follow these values, transport and communicate them in the way that the aesthetical quality informs a consistent environment. The re-interpretation or adaptation of traditional retail models only becomes compatible in the coherency with common relevance and adequate interpretation and quality of the physical space and design. Otherwise online shopping will always be the more successful retail option and experience.

Even Jehl: If you do see yourself working on new retail concepts, will they continue in the same vein as Au Pont Rouge, where the actual 'retail' experience takes a backseat to the social experience, or will your projects continue to draw on both approaches?

Christoph Vogl: The retail sector is almost like looking at society in general through a lens. It is like a model, which reflects changing social and cultural perceptions and communications and especially where information and future technologies directly influence codes and standards. Retail is the field, where you see changing social behaviours and contextual response directly being translated into numbers: the turnover and profits. In our responsibility to create advanced concepts, which are commercially successful by being relevant to customers, we see our work strongly related to the social experience. Creating successful retail models is like creating case studies of social interaction and communication to inform a responsive build environment. Within this model, the actual design language is a communication tool. In our work, we see the meaning of physicality becoming more important than the appearance and aesthetics. Aesthetical aspects become a transporter of information and influencer of action and interaction.

Chui Lai Cheung: The retail sector is highly related to information and communication. The challenge, which emerges for physical retail is the connection between information, communication and social behaviour through information technology. Any sector, which is in any form related to the above, will face similar challenges, the media sector for example. You see how publishers and the entertainment and music industry have changed their entire philosophies to stay relevant in the market and to their customers. Engaging social experience is one facet of social relevance, but it could also be translated into different concepts. The main issue is that we don’t see offline retail being successful, without re-informing itself with a true meaning beyond mere consumption related information and communication. The online world is way more advanced in these aspects for the offline world to compete with it anymore. The true beauty in this challenge is that we are now enabled to rethink the meaning of the physical space in so many aspects and possibly create better architecture.

Christoph Vogl: A general re-thinking in architecture and design is indispensable. The enhancement of our build environment does not only have to be an interpretation of direct indications of technologies. There are far greater possibilities in exploring the indirect implications. Social habits and perceptions are probably the most substantial factors to re-inform and enhance spatial qualities. Retail is one of the sectors, which is first and foremost obviously affected by these changes, but inevitably other fields and typologies will gradually transform. We are currently experiencing two major industrial revolutions transforming our societies: the digital revolution and the interlinkage between information technology and automated processes. These changes will not only affect societies, but subsequently the urban context and architecture. We are probably just at the beginning of a long process of re-interpretation of values and terminologies. This is why we put “social relevance” so much into the centre of our process, in order to apply and introduce new thinking in our architecture. In a way we are “theorist in disguise” as we are not trying to confront and overload the users with too much complexity, but to provide integral and essential solutions.

Even Jehl: One of the main aspects of your vision for Au Pont Rouge was to restore its status as a social and cultural forum and not just the transactional space to which most modern retail concepts are limited. Considering that technology allows us to carry out most everyday tasks – work, shopping, education, etc. – from anywhere, is the social aspect of a physical space crucial to its continued relevance, since that is the one thing that technology cannot fully replicate? If so, how does this guide the design process?

Chui Lai Cheung: The mobile internet is in many ways a simulation and replica of the analog world. It is in many ways the direct translation of the physical world and infrastructure, its market places, public streets and squares, libraries, theatres, parliaments, brothels, private homes and advertisement billboards. Subsequently, there are also many aspects, which information and communication technology have taken out of the physical world and therefore created “free” space. In Au Pont Rouge, we wanted to demonstrate how we could focus on the spatial qualities by creating a hybrid, where technology, online and offline, would handle the entire operation and logistic processes in the background. The spatial quality is indirectly the consequence of applied technology.
As the mobile internet is a replica of the physical world, it is a redundant effort to replicate it back into the real world, which is a common misconception, especially in retail design. Advanced technologies will ultimately help us creating better physical spaces. We should concentrate on the classification between online and offline. The only space, which will never be replicated digitally, is the physical space with all its sensual, cultural and social experiences and qualities.

Christoph Vogl: To understand the implications of postmodern technology and the possibilities for the physical space therein, it is worth to investigate the term “Public Domain” as it has won such relevance with the introduction of the internet. The term "data highway" manifested the equality of digital information to physical infrastructure lingually, and puts the digital information in closeness to the transitional public space metaphorically. Indeed, transitional spaces transform with the mobile internet to equally efficient and meaningful spaces.
The transitional space, or circulation area inside a building, is the least use-specific defined space in the build environment and therefore it could develop into the most interesting place within a building. It could host any physical or digital exchange and interaction in any form as it is not designed to one specific need or use, therefore it also does not exclude any form of use. The interpretation of circulation areas translates best into the use of mobile information technology, as it is an in-between space, neither here nor there. The ambiguity of the circulation area holds great potentials to become the central spine of any public, institutional or commercial building, whereas more defined spaces could form silent capsules and retreats around it, designed for specific needs, like private Chatrooms. The former "empty" space in-between two other spaces is now filled with content.
Our office is young and old enough, to know the physical and digital world as being seen as separated entities, as we experience it as the merging hybrid unity that it is today. The great challenge is to re-inform the build environment with these new meanings and transforming social behaviours.

Even Jehl: What is the importance of flexibility of function in a design, where a retail space or a parking garage also serves as an art gallery, or a school campus hosts a mixed-use development, as in your submission for NEW AARCH?

Chui Lai Cheung: In the traditional model, architectural and urban programming follows a categorical approach: use specific areas are proportional defined and allocated and set in relationship to each other. In the digital age, the perception of space by the user has completely shifted and advanced. The specification of space by function seems obsolete to a certain degree when the (digital) activity completely overcomes these predefinitions. The classical categorization of rooms does not describe the flexibility, of how we live and organize our lives anymore. The labelling of areas inside a building or zoning in the urban context does not reflect the perception of space anymore.

Christoph Vogl: The mobile internet has also dissolved the spatial definition of public and private. The classical telephone booth is the perfect symbol of how private communication was once space allocated and defined within the public realm and privacy was granted by closing of the door. Telephone booths have disappeared since not only technological advancement, but also altered social behaviour has redefined the notion of public, private and communication. These changing behaviours have led to a point, where specific spatial definitions are not necessarily described anymore within the classical architectural and urban categories. User activities and consciousness have become ambiguous and overlapping. We see the need for architecture and urban planning to respond to these changes to be socially relevant. Flexibility and ambiguity in our thinking and doing should be reflected in the spaces we inhabit. By combining different aspects and providing flexibilities, we are able to re-prioritise hierarchies and form contemporary and relevant models, where the build environment actually relates to the lives of people.

Even Jehl: Do you see flexibility becoming even more important in the future for design, and why?

Chui Lai Cheung: If you look at successful contemporary museum concepts for example, you will find that the art alone is no longer the sole driver of their success. Art is a social catalyst, surrounded by events and happenings, architectural sensation and integration of community. If you visit the Tate Modern in London, seeing the art might only be one of the reasons why you are drawn to the place. The social activity, the communal experience and the extraordinary architecture and location are equally important. Not only the perception and definition of space by the user has changed, but also the expectation of what a place has to offer in order to be attractive. The specification of uses and definition of spaces and their functions seem outdated in a time where you can handle your business on your smartphone on the train, from your bed or from your holiday destination. Only 20 years ago, you had to physically go to your workplace to access your email. The mobile internet has completely dissolved all these spatial borders and function related definitions and as a result, singular use specified spaces and places will not satisfy people's mind-sets, expectations and demands anymore. Because of these changes, we are only at the beginning to understand how they will influence the perception of the build environment, especially as they are indefinite and in constant flux.

Christoph Vogl: In our work, we overcome predefinitions as the key to move forward and to re-define traditional interpretations and thinking patterns to create truly social relevant architecture to form holistic and sustainable concepts. Future technologies, such as virtual reality, augmented reality, automatization and the further development of smart homes will change the perception of space fundamentally and way beyond our imagination. We have to overcome traditional thinking patterns to create architecture, which accommodates these transformations. At the same time this re-definition of the build environment allows us to develop the qualities of the physical space to an unprecedented extend, relating to the sensations of materiality, haptic, detail, light, etc. The adaption to current and future technologies allows us to build better architecture with better spatial qualities than ever before in history.

Even Jehl: In Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas introduces the concept of 'architectural lobotomy', in which the envelope of a structure becomes completely alienated from whatever multifarious functions and activities it contains, and thus giving no indication as to what sort of human activity it hosts. In Koolhaas’ manifesto, the livelihood and energy of these activities is lost in the homogenous façade of a skyscraper, but perhaps as the flexible spaces such as those your studio has pioneered accommodate more functions, the design instead becomes an entity, a statement in its own right, when not tied to a particular function. Do you see yourself potentially implementing a concept such as this one in your designs? If so, does this freedom open up design to entirely new typologies?

Christoph Vogl: You are absolutely right. Rem Koolhaas compares the relation between building envelope and growing building volume and concludes, that at some point the relatively small portion of surface does not and is not capable of representing the inner life of the building anymore. The main reason for this disconnection is disproportion. If you think this equation further, there might be a wider truth in it than just a mathematical one. Disproportion in any way leads to disconnection.
Since the implementation of the New York skyscrapers, as described by Rem Koolhaas, the disconnection between emotional and rational aspects in architecture has further widened, although the emotional aspects are now expressed in the outer appearance as architecture is widely judged by its aesthetics and formal aspects and therefore becoming increasingly important to developers and architects likewise. Rational aspects, such as developers’ demands and regulatory requirements have instead generalised the inner life of architecture. Again, the reason for this discrepancy is disproportion. 
In our approach to create social relevant architecture, we apply architectural re-programming to re-inform architecture by programme and aspect associative parameters. We disassociate ourselves from use and form specific predefinitions and replace those with interpretations. We try to overcome pre-occupation to inform the content and the physical representation. Therefore the performance, program and appearance of the building are the result of theoretical explorations and avoid the influence of typology related definitions. The flexibility in use and interpretation results from user specific association. In that sense our design approach could be described as a direction towards a new typology or even new typologies, but as it is open for interpretation also as a non-typology. As we are still working to enhance the original brief specific use of each project, we could also call it super-typologies in an act of provocation. We find the true beauty in the openness for interpretation and therefore somewhat standing outside any traditional categorizations. Ultimately, we see traditional typologies, at least in the urban context, being dissolved by future technology developments and resulting social, cultural and economic shifts anyway.

Even Jehl: Do you see a greater emphasis on both reconnecting the public with and making use of nature and the organic, through sometimes highly unconventional interjections such as the Shinjuku Gardens, in future projects? If so, what is the significance of this?

Chui Lai Cheung: Shinjuku Gardens is seminal in the formulation of our approach as it manifests the idea of “social relevant architecture”. The project shows how radical re-thinking could be very pragmatic in terms of cost efficiency and still result in a poetic appearance, which would be related to and embraced by the common public. Technically the green “wall” creates a visual barrier between the car park and the community. At the same time, it does not enclose the building physically, so the car park is still naturally ventilated, avoiding costly mechanical ventilation and smoke extraction. By thinking the concept forward, we concluded that the plantation should be wild growing flowers and grasses, creating an environmental microcosm for local flora and fauna in the densely populated urban context. The natural biotope is maintenance-free. In all these aspects of performance, appearance and acceptance, the integration of the biotope creates the significance of the project.

Christoph Vogl: At the same time, we are sceptical of the current general trend to integrate plantation into and onto buildings. Firstly, a green appearance does not create a sustainable building, especially if the integrated plants are mostly for aesthetical reasons or are directed to the environmentally concerned consciousness. The energetic performance of a building is a technical and engineering result and plantation can only perform within a holistic concept to add to the overall energy balance sheet in a passive strategy. Secondly, we feel the integration of plantation onto building envelopes can often distract from the clarity of the architectural qualities. This issue illustrates our central aim and our commitment to creating social relevant architecture - not to ignore complexity or to find comfort in simple formal answers, just as current political trends try to blend out the complexities of society and economy and avoid reality in apparently simple, but untrue answers. Architecture which is self-justified fails. We have to re-think predefinitions in this changing environment and society and confront all the complex challenges our profession is presented with to find solutions, which improve upon our lives and our build environment. Most of all, architecture must be relevant to society. We don’t develop architecture in a monologue sense – we understand architecture as a dialogue with society.

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