PLACEMAKER WEEK ASEAN SERIES: Sarah Mui on GUTS, spatial justice and inclusivity

Award-winning architect Sarah Mui helms One Bite Design Studio as co-founder and design director. The team has years of experience in placemaking, and utilising their concept of GUTS (Generative Utilisation and Transformation of Spaces).

We talk with Sarah about lessons we can learn from Hong Kong on the use of public spaces and inclusivity. You can learn more of her work in Placemaker Week ASEAN. Tickets are still available, for those keen to attend.

Could you tell us more about the thinking behind GUTS?

We had the idea of GUTS when we started our Project House initiative. During the first trial, people found it tough to imagine what they could do in a 700 sqft shop. We started collecting case studies around the world demonstrating the impact of pop-ups and tactical placemaking. After our 4th trial, we thought it would be the right time to start advocating the idea to a broader audience.

As placemakers, we intend to trigger organic evolution of placemaking ideas. We believe GUTS is a platform to let people see how the world and the city are creating positive changes through new perspectives. We want to celebrate the success and value of trial-and-error in each placemaking story and placemaker.

How do you differentiate between an underutilised source of land, and perhaps a space where emptiness serves a function?

I like how the question is phrased. ‘A space where emptiness serves a function’ is an accurate statement. A vibrant space does not mean it needs to be full and packed.

In different occasions and contexts, we would want to leave empty space for unplanned and unexpected activities to happen organically. But first, the space needs to be publicly accessible. People should be the ones who create the ‘place’.

If an empty space is offering a comfortable provision for the above to happen, I will not call it an underutilised source of land. Informality is essential, to me, for building a public space with diversity.

What are global examples of spatial justice that are applicable in Southeast Asia?

Inclusivity is the key in spatial justice. Take Hong Kong as an example — we are undergoing a double-ageing symptom. The built environment and the population are ageing in parallel. As our city planning was not proactively responding to this in the last twenty years, our urban spaces have become segmented.

In a public space, people were defined by their zone of activities. There were no interactions possible and sharing encouraged. Elderly people were not supposed to be in a children’s zone. A disabled child could not enjoy the play space near their home. Public spaces have become ‘property’, owned by a particular type of people.

Things are changing, there are playgrounds which are age-friendly and for all. However, can this be extended to other public spaces as well? How can design foster equal opportunity to use the space among different needs?

There is a fascinating and famous case in Hong Kong where the household helpers used to gather on the ground floor of the HSBC headquarter building during weekends. They transformed the public space symbolising the privileged financial sector into a community hub. I will see this as a good example where different people, regardless of their backgrounds and social status, can enjoy the same public space freely and without boundaries.

Your organisation is rethinking the definition of ‘public space’. Why is that, and what conclusions have you drawn?

My team is based in Hong Kong, one of the densest cities in the world. We do not have the luxury of public space in our urban realm. In old districts, we have very narrow streets and heavy foot traffic. Our traditional definition of ‘public space’ cannot be realised in Hong Kong directly as a social window for the community.

We have a different ‘life between buildings’. However, our community is in need of social life. This is where we started rethinking ‘public space’. While walking on busy streets and strolling along vacant shop spaces resulting from high rent, we wondered why we could not redefine ‘public space’ under our city’s context.

Are there issues raised in conversations regarding the climate crisis that placemakers in Southeast Asia should keep in mind?

Climate crisis creates extreme weather and more natural disasters. This affect how global citizens can enjoy the public space. The temperature is getting higher, there are more thunderstorms and typhoons, etc. All these will create repulsion for people to stay outdoors.

We should grow the need of and attachment to public space together with building environmental resilience. Connecting people to make our places not only better, but greener. Start with one space and transform placemaking to city-making.

Sarah Mui is one of the speakers at the inaugural Placemaker Week ASEAN, 4–8 Nov 2019. She will focus on making better use of semi-public ground floor spaces for community development.