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Para Site Storefront
Lee Tsz Wah Bo

Para Site Storefront

The Office as a Project as Architects

This new street-side presence, for a local non-profit art space, acts as a 'front door' for their main 22/F gallery. The tiny gallery opens up onto the street as much as possible with a slim 3.3m high storefront and large sliding doors, preferring to be seen as almost a continuation of the sidewalk rather than a standalone space. The subtle yet uniquely tiled edge at the sidewalk piques the curiosities of passers-by, calling their gaze upwards.


Spatially, the gallery navigates and turns the potentially awkward limitations of the site into unique opportunities. The small footprint and tall ceilings help create the effect of an oversized vitrine from the street, inviting to both the pedestrian and the tram rider; the varied angles between walls, and from key perspectives (such as along the sidewalk and from the MTR station), form a basis for the subtle aesthetics and geometries.


Taking into account Para Site's legacy rooted in the local Hong Kong arts scene, the facade takes the typical construction and composition of Hong Kong shopfronts as inspiration. Primarily, the purpose of this is to pay respect to (and experiment with) a typical local construction methodology and building type—and to signal the organisations pride in its heritage. The additional benefit of this strategy is that it leverages local know-how to minimize costs.


Finally, and in another attempt to capture the essence of this ever-changing organisation, this unusual storefront acts as a canvas. Neutral colours inspired by Para Site's existing brand image acts only as a starting point; unfussy paint jobs, unpretentious materials and multiple lighting options allow a level of simple flexibility for easy and constant transformation.


What was the brief?
The brief was for a ground floor gallery/project space that would allow this artist-founded non-profit arts organization to once again have a more direct relationship with the public (they are currently housed primarily on the 22nd floor of the same building).
The organization also sought to maximize the height of the space, allowing for more monumental work to be shown, as well as visibility from the sidewalk, allowing the space to act almost as a streetside jewel box.
What were the key challenges?
Spatially, key challenges included the tiny 300sf footprint, the awkward proportions of the space as well as the limited sightlines from the sidewalk, and along the route from the nearest MTR (metro) station.
The existing walls and flooring also varied greatly in dimension and finish and were unsuitable for a 'white box' gallery.
Aesthetically, it was important to develop a palette of materials and a stylistic approach that signaled neither a completely practical, typical storefront, nor the luxurious finish of high-end retail, nor the minimal look of a commercial gallery.
Finally, being a non-profit funded by donations and grants, budget was an important factor (as well as a driver of solutions).
What were the solutions?
Instead of struggling with the small footprint and awkward layout of the existing party walls, we instead chose to accentuate the very tall (nearly 5m) existing ceiling height and to create a space that could be seen as almost an extension of the street. We did this by maximizing both the size of the (3.3m) storefront windows as well as the sliding doors (one of which hides into a pocket, allowing maximum white wall space). The large doors can open up onto the street for openings while the relatively frameless storefront in general acts as a vitrine from farther away - particularly at night.
The interior columns and beams were mostly enclosed by furring walls to allow as much continuous wall space as possible - important in a space this small.
The subtle geometries of the space (the tile pattern, signage, lighting track orientation) all try to negotiate the various existing angles - the tiles and lighting tracks attempt to connect the orientation of the storefront with the interior spaces; the large lightbox sign can be seen from all key perspectives at once (both sidewalk approaches and most importantly on the approach from the nearest MTR Station).
The composition of the facade was based on the typical Hong Kong storefront, which usually includes an outward-facing rolling shutter door, an external air conditioning unit and a backlit, opaque sign enclosure. This origin mirrors Para Site's own heritage and identity as forever entangled with the fate of Hong Kong. This also helps to ground the design in a sort of 'low-brow' aesthetic, which naturally (and ironically) allows the facade to read as something familiar, yet unique, especially when compared to the high-end retail shops and minimalist white boxes that other galleries might aspire to.
On the material and finish of the facade, we wanted to seize the opportunity of Para Site's first brand new shopfront to not just display their brand identity but also to represent their ethos. To this end, we used alluring but unpretentious materials and finishes to encourage the transformation of the facade for every new show. Simple, almost unfinished paint jobs, easily removable, cheaply replaceable and simply modifiable equipment enclosure panels (as well as a separately waterproofed cavity behind) enables the facade itself to participate in the organization's constant transformation.
Of course, all these decisions (the typical storefront composition and simple materials) also helps to maximize the use of existing worker know-how--and helps to minimize costs.
Who are the clients and what's interesting about them?
Para Site is Hong Kong’s leading contemporary art centre and one of the oldest and most active independent art institutions in Asia. It produces exhibitions, publications, discursive, and educational projects aimed at forging a critical understanding of local and international phenomena in art and society.
Founded in early 1996 as an artist run space, Para Site was Hong Kong’s first exhibition-making institution of contemporary art and a crucial self-organised structure within the city’s civil society, during the uncertain period preceding its handover to Mainland China. Throughout the years, Para Site has grown into a contemporary art centre, engaged in a wide array of activities and collaborations with other art institutions, museums, and academic structures in Hong Kong and the international landscape. In early 2015, Para Site moved to greatly increased premises, in North Point/Quarry Bay. Throughout its history, Para Site’s activities have included a range of different formats, among which P/S magazine (1997–2006), a bilingual publication, which was Hong Kong’s first visual arts magazine and a central platform for the development of art writing and of a discursive scene in the city and the Curatorial Training Programme (2007–2010). Since 2012, Para Site has been running an International Art Residency Programme and has been organizing an annual international conference. This is accompanied, starting from 2015, by a new educational format aimed at training young curators and other art professionals. Para Site’s activities are made possible by the generous support of its patrons, and grants from foundations and the Government of the HKSAR.
What building methods were used?
During our design exploration we discovered that cities (and sometimes streets within these cities) often have their own standard details and arrangements of the classic storefront elements - rolling shutter doors, external air conditioning units, signage and equipment screens. The basic construction of this facade was based on the construction of a typical Hong Kong storefront.
Despite variations in material and scale, an arrangement of parts in this way helps place the gallery within a known local building typology -- creating an aesthetic and compositional foundation as rooted in the city as the organization itself. The second, though no less important, outcome of this is the ability to leverage much of the existing local know-how and construction systems in order to minimize costs.
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