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Wharf gives young 'starchitects' a lift

No matter what the profession, securing overseas experience is always a big advantage for one's career. But in architecture, where art, fresh inspiration and the knowledge of the most up-to-date practices and technologies are equally important, widening one's horizon is a rare gift.

That is why the one-year overseas internship initiative sponsored by Wharf and awarded to two fresh graduates of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) School of Architecture's master's of architecture programme is not only pioneering but also perfectly timed.

Professor Ho Puay-peng, director of the School of Architecture, hopes that the positive effects will go beyond benefiting the two interns only.

"The students will learn about what constitutes excellent design, and how the [creative] process can be managed to achieve this. They will then feed this information back to the school at CUHK, [which may lead us to] adjust our curriculum," he says.

The philosophy behind the sponsorship is that Wharf, which has a business focus on real estate development, would like to extend its mission of "Building for Tomorrow" to the development of architecture and architects in Hong Kong.

"Architecture is a statement of a city. Architects, as key contributors, create not only beautiful buildings but also sustainable ones for the betterment of society," says Doreen Lee, executive director of Wharf.

Kenneth Wong and Lau Hing-ching were chosen from a shortlisted group of 10 students, in a rigorous process overseen by a panel headed by Wharf chairman Peter Woo.

The panel was interested in the research the students had done for their master's degree capstone project, namely, how they interpreted the research, incorporated it into their design, if it was innovative and how they presented their projects to a wider audience.

Wong's winning entry, "Urban Biotope", focuses on the regeneration of the Kai Tak River - the old Kai Tak Nullah - with a wetland that cleans the water and connects the landscape with urban architecture to create a clear flow of pleasant and healthy urban public space. "The river is a catalyst to make the city more energetic. I use [it] to connect the old districts of the city with the new," Wong explains.

His dream came true when he secured an internship at his first choice, global `starchitects' Herzog and de Meuron, in Basel.

Lau was also very excited about the opportunity to intern for a year - with Christian Kerez in Zurich - because he had studied Kerez's works for an entire semester. "He inspired my thesis," he says, noting that it was probably his passion and enthusiasm for the opportunity to intern with Kerez that made him win.

Lau is still a bit uncertain how much of his experience he will be able to apply on his return to Hong Kong. "Western architects' working style is different. It's more theoretical, they look more at the beauty of the building, and spend much more time on the design," he says.

"In Hong Kong, it is more about efficiency, time and cost. It's more commercial," he adds.

Wharf set up the programme in 2011 to mark its 125th year in business. It will provide Wong and Lau with return flights to Switzerland, and living expenses of up to HK$350,000 each.