Saturday, June 6, 2009

The changing face of Singapore

ARCHITECTURE in Singapore has evolved at a remarkable pace. It was not too long ago that buildings here, especially homes, were characterised by a pastiche of styles with the classical pediment a favourite roof ornament. Today, the stylish home is more likely to have a flat roof with all ornament stripped to the structural bone. This aesthetic is well represented in Singapore Houses, a new book by Robert Powell with photographs by Albert Lim, and featuring the work of some of Singapore’s best known architects.

One of them, Mok Wei Wei of W Architects, has been described as the ‘de facto leader of the next generation of Singapore architects’ and his design for a sprawling home in Cornwall Gardens epitomises this evolution of Singapore architecture.

The floor plan of the house is simple – essentially an asymmetric H-shape, with two parallel wings running from east to west, linked at the first-storey by a large living room and at the second-storey level by an equally large family room.

The play of architectural forms is also simple and comprises a combination of glass, concrete and timber boxes. The articulation of these forms, however, is not simple and every surface seems to have been lovingly detailed. Describing the use of concrete in particular, Mr Mok says: ‘The off-form concrete used in Cornwall Gardens House is impregnated with white pigments. We wanted the house to be polished and sophisticated, yet have a quality of naturalness.’

Studying the design a little more closely reveals that decorative elements, although spare, have also been incorporated. The round columns on the entrance facing facade, for instance, are not needed structurally. The architect explains that these are a continuation of the colonnade on the western facade which do support the sun-shading fins and roof and were extended to form a ‘continuous rhythm’. ‘Originally, we had designed for slender steel columns inlaid with timber.
However, for a greater sense of grandeur, the client requested that it be changed to a bigger timber profile,’ explained Mr Mok.

Apart from its size, the Cornwall Gardens House, like all the houses in Singapore Houses, are in fact extremely understated. Noting that Singapore architecture has changed ‘dramatically over the last 25 years’, Mr Powell adds: ‘The most remarkable change in this time has been in the sheer quality of finishes and the simple elegance of many of the recent houses. Also the inventiveness of Singapore architects and their clients’ exploring new ideas on how to live in the 21st century.’

Of the overall design of the Cornwall Gardens House, Mr Powell notes that the circular columns and vertical timber sunscreens of the verandah also ‘bear a slight resemblance to the facade of the 1993 Reuter House designed by William Lim Associates, the predecessor of W Architects.

The comparison is telling because the Reuter House appears in Mr Powell’s first book on Singapore houses called, The New Singapore House (2001). In the book, he notes that some had referenced the design to Chinese temples, colonial buildings and even kampung houses. Mr Powell said that the house (whose project architect was Lim Jin Geok), ‘goes a long way towards successfully fusing a universal language of architecture with local/vernacular traditions and creating a regional modern architecture’.

On his own evolution, Mr Mok reveals that having graduated in 1982 and joining one of the key proponents of ‘Post-modernist’ architecture – William Lim Associates – two well-known buildings he designed in the 1980s, Tampines North Community Centre and Church of our Savior in Queenstown, were ‘unabashedly post-modern’ in expression.

However, in the early 90s, he began to take a different path from William Lim Associates, ‘designing in a language that is modernist in essence but layered with elements of local conditions and personal cultural perception’.

It is an approach that typifies contemporary architecture here today.

Chan Soo Khian of SCDA Architects is another of Singapore’s leading architects featured in Singapore Houses whose designs are equally simple in plan, yet ’stands out for its precision and clarity of form’. Describing the experience of arrival to the Harbour View House, Mr Powell says: ‘Entry to the house is expertly choreographed through a series of spaces in the inimitable style that is the hallmark of Chan Soo Khian’s architecture.’ Mr Chan has designed more than 50 houses in Singapore and the designs, ‘are about the human experience and takes into consideration the tropical condition’.

‘Architecture is about appropriating ideas and integrating the nuances of place, climate and culture. This involves observing architecture both past and present and overlaying them with your own intuition and understanding of the composition and experience of spaces,’ he adds.

The works of 20 architectural practices are featured in Singapore Houses. Several, like WOHA Architects, are also winners of international design awards. And Mr Powell adds that all also show a good grasp of the ‘principles of designing with climate’. ‘They are concerned with orientation in relation to the sun path and to wind. Overhanging eaves are part of the vocabulary that most architects draw upon, as are high ceilings, louvred walls and the use of the ’skin’ of the building as a permeable filter’.

Even though the houses share the same ‘vocabulary’, Mr Powell believes each is also very different.

‘What is obvious when one studies the houses in detail is that there is enormous variety, in the form and materiality of the houses,’ says Mr Powell, adding that, ‘there are deep underlying differences in approach to design to the areas to which (the architects) attach importance and the way they interact with their clients’. Of the designs that do differ in architectural ‘vocabulary’, those by Chan Sau Yan Associates and Linghao Architects stand out the most.

Explaining the design for 2Q Bishopsgate which uses 20cm thick fairface cast in situ concrete construction for the floors, walls and roofs, veteran architect Chan Sau Yan explains that the intention was to express the design as ‘continuous folded planes to achieve the naive iconic house silhouette’. This was in response to the clients’ initial request for a ‘barn-like clapboard house’. ‘Superficially, the house in Bishopsgate does not fit with the typical image of the tropical house,’ concedes Mr Chan.

There is also a perceptible streak of rebellion in Linghao Architects design for the Breamar Drive House when Mr Ling says: ‘We conceptualised the house in the simplest and almost banal manner, with the idea of different materials relating to the different atmospheres for entertaining, dining, sleeping and so on.’

While this does not shed much light on why the attic bedroom was clad in corrugated steel, it does at least suggest that the Singapore house is continuing to evolve.

Source: Business Times, 6 Jun 2009

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