Hong Kong’s star architect Betty Ng on shaking up the design world…

Founding her own design firm, COLLECTIVE, was a steep learning curve for youthful top architect Betty Ng. Now she aims even higher by teaching tomorrow’s talent…

You are one of Hong Kong’s leading architects, yet you’re only in your late 30s. How did your relationship with design begin?
Like many Asian kids, I was a strong science student and was studying to become a doctor, particularly a surgeon, but life had other plans. A schoolmate went to university to study architecture and that got me fascinated. I was hooked and thought it was a really interesting field and decided to switch my career choice.

You founded your own architecture studio, COLLECTIVE, with former colleagues from OMA and Herzog & de Meuron. Tell us about the work you’ve done in Hong Kong.
COLLECTIVE is headquartered in Hong Kong, but in the past six years we have done a diverse amount of work internationally – Honolulu, Helsinki, New York – and we are currently finishing assignments in Vancouver and Pasadena. In Hong Kong, our credits include designing the exhibition “Things, Spaces, Interactions” at M+ and all four Kapok lifestyle stores, among other projects. On a bigger scale, we are thrilled to be working with New World Development on their twin tower and commercial podium project in Cheung Sha Wan. As a young firm, these are phenomenal opportunities. COLLECTIVE was born only six years ago and we already have a MIPIM Asia ‘Best Futura Project’ Award [in 2021, for the King Lam Street commercial development] – that’s incredibly special!

How has your education shaped your career?
I was born and raised in Hong Kong, went to Diocesan Girls’ School, then to Cornell for my Bachelor’s in architecture, and later to Harvard for my Master’s. Furthering my education in the West was a completely eye-opening, explosive exposure. It instilled a lot of confidence and taught me about handling failure.

My work has taken me around the world – Rome, Madrid, Los Angeles, New York, Rotterdam, Hong Kong, Beijing – and that opened new avenues of self-exploration, courage and self-reliance. I want the same for our firm – take root in Hong Kong, then grow all over. COLLECTIVE has a presence in San Francisco and Madrid, and I want it to keep evolving, adapting and expanding.

Also Read: January Cover Star – Helena Pong on creating a wholesome learning environment for children

Challenging conventional structures of design, architect Betty Ng are shaking things up interview gafencu (3)

You’ve worked at cutting-edge global design firms and established your own company, which is already breaking the mould. Which accomplishment are you most proud of?
As a Design Director at OMA, I worked closely with the legendary architect Rem Koolhaas on various high-profile projects like the Axel Springer Campus in Berlin. Working on the concept masterplan for the West Kowloon Cultural District was also a big opportunity, but I don’t think I have reached the stage where I can say I have accomplished this or that. The word ‘accomplishment’ has a certain finality to it; it signifies the end, in my opinion. I don’t think I have accomplished much yet and I still have a very long way to go, but I do think our firm is on the right trajectory – our vision and mission plans will guide us to do a lot of good work, not just in Hong Kong but hopefully, all over the world.

What is it like being a woman on the top in a very male-dominated industry?
There is no denying that architecture is a male-dominated industry, but things are changing. In addition to leading my firm, I also teach at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and over half of my students are female. The lack of women in the industry is not indicative of their interest in the sector, but more on the limited female representation in top positions. I hope to change that narrative.

Personally, I don’t think too much about whether I am female or male – I am an architect. I focus on the designs I create. In return, fortunately, I am surrounded by people who see me for what I bring to the table rather than my gender. I hope to inspire the younger generation and remind them that in 2022, disrupting the state of play is certainly possible.

Tell us about the challenges you encountered while setting up COLLECTIVE.
There were a lot of hurdles, but grasping the business spectrum of running a firm was the biggest lesson. At one point, I even considered doing an MBA to understand organisational structure and skills, but a lot of my mentors suggested running a practice in the real world – managing exposure, making mistakes and learning from them is the best MBA you can do. In the last six years, I’ve failed several times, picked up and started again, learnt immensely and I’m very happy with the progress now; I’ve acquired a skill, not only in design but also in running a successful company.

Challenging conventional structures of design, architect Betty Ng are shaking things up interview gafencu (5)

What are your resolutions for 2022?
One thing which is dear to me is nurturing young talent. As well as teaching at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, I’m on the jury of the DFA Hong Kong Young Talent Design Awards, and it’s been a very rewarding experience.
Secondly, I want our company to have a more solid, robust foundation. Not to be arrogant, but in terms of design capability, my three business partners – Chi-Yan Chan, Juan Minguez and Katja Lam – have ensured we are right there, but in the coming year we want to develop our business efficiency.

What is the secret to a timeless design?
Every time I start creating something it’s always tabula rasa, starting from zero. There is no cookie-cutter approach; both as a firm and as individuals, we believe in balancing the clarity, function and aesthetic of a space. Every opportunity is a chance to do ground-breaking work, be experimental and move away from default. That is real timelessness – to keep changing, moving and inventing with time.

Challenging conventional structures of design, architect Betty Ng are shaking things up interview gafencu (4)

How important is sustainability to you personally in the design process?
This is a very tricky question because the most sustainable thing would be to not build anything. To me, sustainability is more than greenwashing – we’ve designed Penicillin, the world’s first completely sustainable bar, and we believe in cultural and heritage sustainability. We worked with a local neon sign maker to create new neon lights – the continuation of culture is sustainability as well. Reuse and recycle are important concepts. We’ve developed a special line of tables from fallen trees in typhoons, and it was redesigned to becomes a long-lasting product. The idea is to maintain your spaces – if your design is long lasting, then you are not going to be wasteful in reinventing and refurbishing.

Who inspires you?
Rem Koolhaas is perhaps one of the most important architects of the century, and it was incredibly enriching to be his Design Director. His buildings can be found all over the world, yet there is no easy way to define Koolhaas or his style. That unique ability to deal with hope and contradictions in an ever more complex world is what shaped me as an architect.

In the current day, it’s my partners at COLLECTIVE. We all have individual strengths and weaknesses, but together we are a force to be reckoned with. Never believe anyone when they say you can run your own firm! Architecture is not a one-man job – there’s never really just one person, one brain behind a knock-out design, it’s at least a hundred! I’m grateful to have stellar partners and a brilliant team.

Also Read: Hong Kong socialite Helen Ma talks about beauty, life and her latest venture

Interview By: Nikita Mishra; Photographer: Jack Law; Art Direction & Styling: Jhoshwa Ledesma; Hair and Make Up: Owen Ko