Thursday, September 24, 2009

The new design ascetic

Pared down, simplified and minimal, architects are all reassessing what is really essential in life

WHETHER it is because of the constant talk about the economy, wealth destruction or the periodic stockmarket jitters, homeowners appear to have lost the desire to build ever bigger and flashier homes. Instead, the prevailing design aesthetic seems to be more about ascetism, as more people decide that living in excess is just so last century.

Pared down, simplified and minimal, architects are all reassessing what is really essential in life. Daniel Libeskind, who designed Reflections at Keppel Bay, has perhaps gone a step further by designing a prototype of a house that is prefabricated and can be shipped anywhere in the world. He describes the house as 'a limited artistic edition of a new space, of a new way of living, a total work of art'.

Called the Libeskind Villa, the four-bedroom house is a composition of three simple interlocking volumes that generate a myriad of geometric spaces. And in keeping with volatile oil prices, it offers maximum insulation and durability, cutting-edge technologies and compliance with some of the toughest energy-saving standards across the world. In designing Libeskind Villa, Mr Libeskind reduces the essence of a home to only the most critical elements and the design just stops short of being austere.

And there is no shame in austerity, especially today. Architect Gwen Tan of Formwerkz has even chosen to celebrate it. Describing a house she is designing for a client, she said that one of the biggest constraints was that the site was so tight it could only accommodate a very small house. Fortunately, her client's needs were simple and Ms Tan decided that this should be 'celebrated'.

Eventually, the design of the house evolved such that the architectural forms were reduced to a simple building block or as described by Ms Tan: 'A very basic house form that any three-year-old child could draw.' But the size (and shape) of the house is not a reflection of the spatial quality which is 'very intimate'.

To ensure there is no excess, Ms Tan needs to understand her client very well. 'Architecture is livable art. The client's lifestyle becomes a medium that you paint with and because it's something that the client can associate with, there's added meaning and dimension to the product,' she says.

When the design was finished, the client was instinctively drawn to it. 'I think sometimes the most simple idea can be the most powerful and effective,' says Ms Tan. Simple ideas can also be cheaper, which helps, because for whatever reason, fewer people will be wanting to pay for gold taps and Italian marble these days.

Mink Tan of Mink Architects says that he has noticed that some of his clients have asked for less expensive materials, simpler details and cheaper construction methods.

Of course, it would be false economy to spend millions of dollars on the land and then penny-pinch when it comes to building the house. So one strategy is to use expensive materials where they matter. Mr Tan describes his approach to design simply as having an 'Asian soul wrapped in a modern skin'.

One of the houses he is currently working on is essentially a series of glass pavilions wrapped by continuous folding walls and floors to form one contiguous volume. The glass box is about as simple as you can get if you want to create a space but Mr Tan wraps his in a layer of titanium, 'to signify what I feel is quintessentially Singaporean - an Asian soul clothed in something modern and contemporary'.

It is this pragmatic approach to architecture that is also fast emerging as a 'Singapore style'. Mr Tan describes this style as centred around the modernist 'glass box' but with a more highly developed sense of 'tactility'. Perhaps a concern some homeowners will have is that if design is reduced to too simplistic forms, everything might start looking the same, or worse, quickly go out of style.

To this, Aamer Taher of Aamer Architects says: 'I think cutting edge designs may get dated but never go out of style - if by dated, one means old.' For example, he notes that while the architecture of 1960s Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer belongs to the now defunct futurist school of architecture, it 'still looks beautiful today'.

It is nevertheless difficult to say, without hindsight, what is good or bad architecture. But recalling the 1970s and 1980s, it is probably quite safe to say that architecture of excess is never a good thing. Many will know of at least one example of the 'wedding cake' houses of that era - 'Those poor copies of western classical architecture that symbolised wealth' - and beloved by business tycoons, muses Mr Taher. Today, as he wryly points out, these have very much fallen out of fashion. So it's probably a good thing that clients are a bit more budget conscious these days.

It should, however, be said that while the budget may affect the look of a house, the approach to design does not change. 'Since I like to incorporate some sculptural forms in my work and treat each as a work of art, it wouldn't necessarily be any different if I had designed it 10 years ago,' he says.

Timeless architecture of today may lack some of the cultural cues that reflect wealth and prosperity but it is no less rich in symbolism.

Claudio Silvestrin, who has designed 18 villas for developer YTL Corp at Sentosa Cove, believes that architecture is akin to 'composing poetry on earth in partnership with the earth . . .'.

Mr Silvestrin is known for designing Giorgio Armani stores and his designs are not cheap. Yet the Sentosa Cove villas look almost uncompleted in their simplicity. 'The project is about a vision and about architecture to be appreciated as architecture in its purest form,' says Kemmy Tan, director of international real estate, YTL Singapore.

Ms Tan explains that Mr Silvestrin's architecture 'explores the innate nature of place rather than the visual excitement of superficial building form'. So, are home buyers sold on this new age architecture? Well, at Sentosa Cove anyway, more than half of Mr Silvestrin's 18 villas have been sold so some people certainly are.

What is clear, though, is that the best architecture of today is transcending the physical realm of nuts and bolts. And if there is one thing the global recession has taught us, it is that just as money cannot buy happiness (ahem . . . Mr Madoff?), a house needs only to define the space in which you live. How you choose to live your life is another matter.

Source: Business Times, 24 Sep 2009

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