'Most people who end up working in Hong Kong never really intended to.' So says Paul Archer of Tonkin Architects, who did just that. In 1994, after working with Tom Mellor and Partners in Lancashire, he set off to walk in the Himalayas and then made his way down to Malaysia, bound ultimately for the us. He hit Hong Kong at the cusp of its six-month on-off construction cycle, worked briefly with a firm that specialised in recladding skyscrapers and then, after an impromptu interview, joined fellow countryman Michael Tonkin's small practice, Tonkin Design.
In Hong Kong projects tend to be either mammoth or miniature in scale, with few middling-sized schemes bridging the gap. Tonkin Design seems to have broken free from this polarisation, having both worked on large offices and secured commissions for private houses at the top end of the market.
Archer is interesting about the Hong Kong construction scene. He says that planning controls are less restrictive; there are only about 15 listed buildings in the province and even these are not sacrosanct. Building regulations are rumoured to be based on adapted 1965 uk regulations which still include instructions such as: 'Two versions of plans to be submitted on linen.' Although the regulations are applied rigidly and new buildings are inspected, the inspector does not call twice.
In this laissez-faire environment, and given the proverbial effect of travel on the mind, the architect's imagination is free to devise Xanadu- like designs for adventurous clients - a bathroom window that could be an image from a Magritte canvas, or pulsating sexual imagery in a gay bar. Ideas that might have withered in the prevailing orthodoxy of the home market reach fruition in some of the interiors designed by Tonkin Architects, yet Archer stresses that there are, in 90 per cent of Tonkin's work, severe budget constraints which drive the design team to 'make more with less' - cash, that is.
Tonkin Design's Club 97 launched the Lan Kwai Fong area of Hong Kong, and the owner is now trying to repeat that success in a new cafe-bar called Q in the redevelopment area of Quarry Bay. The site comprised six flooded car-maintenance workshops beneath a 1950s residential block. Transformed into a luxurious dining haunt, 'an open stage with the street as audience and the customers as actors in a play of illusion and light', Q flows and glows within its concrete frame. The suspended ceiling, like an upside- down contour map of China's paddy fields (made of lightweight carved mdf), guides visitors through interconnected dining and drinking spaces, its curves repeated in the route of a continuous snaking bar. ('People look up when they enter the space,' says Archer. 'They do not look for floor signage.') Walls are mirror-finished or acid-etched glass, back lit by curving neon tubes. These concealed neons are programmed to shift the lighting scheme from sunrise to sunset in 20-minute cycles appropriate to the season. Waiters appear and disappear into the kitchen, their comings and goings screened behind a retained lightwell, clad in dark brown terrazzo. Pendant blob lamps were designed in the architect's office, all hands contributing to the amoebic form of the fibre-glass fitting.
Club Tong Zhi, a karaoke bar and one of the cheapest schemes undertaken by Tonkin, combines 1950s domestic busyness - remember that Formica table- top with its pearlised trim? - with an atavistic colour scheme of browns, yellows and oranges: a blend of domesticity, jungle canopy and graphic sophistication. 'As the lights dim the karaoke lounge becomes a dance club, transferring us from living room to jungle.' The patterning obliterates all sense of the underlying structure - this is wallpaper as architecture.
Flex is a small gay bar close to Lan Kwai Fong. Here the sexual imagery is rife. The tight, semi-underground space is entered through a narrow tunnel, its ceiling pierced and penetrated by angled recesses and columns terminating in tv screens. The skyscrapers outside are parodied by tapering columns that deliberately constrict circulation in the entrance tunnel, by tv monitor holders that dangle from the ceiling of the back 'Light' bar and by the glowing translucent fibreglass towers erected in a small rear courtyard. Finishes are in dark visceral colours - mauve, gut blue, tumescent purple.
On the basis of its success in Hong Kong, Tonkin Design has recently set up a London office, Tonkin Architects. As well as working on a concept for a bar in Bristol owned by Ushers Brewery, it is also entering competitions and last year was shortlisted for the Concept House Competition at the 'Ideal Homes' exhibition.
Archer finds the creative climate of Hong Kong infectiously energetic, but he says that 'there are things you can do there that you can't do here, and vice versa'. It will be interesting to see how the bravura of Tonkin's eastern schemes translates into mainstream uk architecture.