A retrospective into the significance of architecture and design

Cup & saucer (Triple row) from Buddha Hands series
Album cover for Anita Mui: Leap the Stage
Furniture with Drawers
Bramah pendant light
My First Sony (TCM-4500) & Cassette-recorder (TCM-4040)
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Southeast Asia design – melding east and west influences

Architecture is about more than function. Its elements reflect attitudes and aspirations of its era and culture and offer an understanding of how people see themselves. Not confined within territorial borders, elements of design engage in cross-border discourse, evolving from new interactions as we do. In Southeast Asia, design has commonly been seen as melding influences from east and west. When various regions in Asia broke away from their ties to modern colonialism, this global discourse skyrocketed. The development of new materials and techniques has broadened the scope further as technological advancements and cosmopolitan influences stimulated postcolonial urban and economic reconstruction.

Kowloon Walled City

The uptick in urban population densities has encouraged large-scale efficiency in design. Take the Kowloon Walled City, for example. Long perceived as chaotic, its structure had a hidden logic that highlighted the strengths and potential of unplanned environments. Design elements were added organically to meet community needs.

Sony Walkman

In the postwar era, prosperity also led to the marketing of new product types, as well as innovations in consumer goods and export industries. The growth of domestic markets across Asia and increased global consumption led to the worldwide success of these products. Industry focus varied according to specific conditions and available resources. Hong Kong’s far-reaching networks and nimble manufacturers made it a centre of trade and production of plastic goods, garments, and toys. Japan led as a manufacturing and design powerhouse through its engineering and branding of cars, furniture, and consumer electronics. Among consumers, mobility was a growing interest. In the late 1970s, Sony cofounder Ibuka Masaru wanted a portable listening device for aeroplane use. In response, the company’s engineer Kuroki Yasuo modified the Sony Pressman handheld recorder to make a playing-only, high-quality music device with headphones. This became the Walkman portable cassette player model TPS-L2. Comprised of plastic and electronic parts, the design and tech allowed for a personal and immersive listening experience. The device was a huge hit, and personal portable listening devices have been a staple in modern culture since. In 1988, Sony expanded its demographic target to the new young consumer. Its My First Sony series sparked children’s curiosity about sound and electronics; its primary colours guided play, and the devices were fitted with features and sound quality typically found in Sony products geared towards adults. In this hyper-consumerist backdrop, buyers formed strong attachments with their objects and brand names.


At the turn of the century, Sony developed a robotic toy dog. Named AIBO, its name merges the English term ‘artificial intelligence robot’ and ‘aibou’, a Japanese word for “friend”. Built with an enclosed camera and sensors that detect touch and sound, AIBO could see and recognise spoken commands. Its tremendous popularity represented the growing assimilation of robotics into daily life in the late 1990s. After Sony ceased production in 2006, funerals were held for “dead” AIBOs before they were sent off to become “organ donors” for others requiring repair.

Cities on the Move: Bangkok

In 1999, Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanjia developed Cities on the Move: Bangkok. The graphic work features Bangkok tuk-tuk driver Kosit, who is transported far into the future to 2542 (Corresponding to 1999 on the Thai calendar). In this imagined universe buildings move and taxis fly. To save his kidnapped lover, the protagonist brings to life the Bank of Asia Tower (or the Robot Building) to fight the evil “Louis XIV Tower”. In 1990s Bangkok, Louis XIV was a popular term for buildings designed in a European neoclassical style associated with new money. Kosit’s triumph expresses a critique of the architecture that arose during Thailand’s boom years of the 1980s and 1990s and a belief in the strength of local architectural forms.

M+ exhibition: Things, Space, Interactions

Design and architecture define the things we use, create the spaces we inhabit, and ultimately inform the way we see and live in the world. Aesthetic elements move across borders and are shaped by transnational exchange. Architecture can be reactionary or aspirational and frequently reflects the cultural pulse of the time and place of its creation. Beyond basic infrastructure and functional furniture, the design elements explored At M+, Hong Kong’s visual culture museum exhibition titled: Things, Space, Interactions pose worthy questions and propose possible solutions for best relating to our surroundings. 

Text and photos by Victoria Mae Martyn