Complete Property Market Updates of Singapore

June 16, 2008

Designing their way to fame

Filed under: General,Property Add Value — Propertymarketupdates @ 3:40 am

Independent young architects make their mark with award-winning projects despite a challenging environment that favours the big and the branded, reports GEOFFREY EU

GENERIC-looking ho-mes and copycat designs are not exactly absent in Singapore’s residential marketplace, and the universal rule among architects that good design also requires enlightened clients still holds true. When the chance to create an interesting home does occur, though, young and talented architects are meeting the challenge together with more established names and making the most of the opportunity to reshape the local housing landscape.

Head turners: The focal point of the ground floor at this terrace house (left) is now a cage that extends from the floor to the ceiling and beyond, courtesy of Formwerkz.

At the 9th Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA) Architectural Design Awards earlier this week, a group of young architects were among those who received peer recognition in the form of awards for architectural excellence. They represent some of the country’s emerging names in architecture – young guns who are able to find inventive solutions to age-old problems while adding a personal touch to the mix.

For example, when Chang Yong Ter of Chang Architects was approached by a young couple to turn a terrace house near Orchard Road into a green sanctuary, he took the brief to heart, creating a literal green house where plants and garden form an integral part of the interior living space. Best of all, he created a magical setting on a relatively tight budget.

‘They wanted a forest setting in Orchard Road,’ says Mr Chang, 38. ‘I took the liberty to think of the project as a landscape installation, but in 3-D form.’

The result, completed in late-2007, is a five-bedroom, three-storey house with a roof deck that features a living green wall that goes up the entire height of the building and a two-storey water feature wall at the rear of the house, which also has a small opening to the sky.

Another innovative aspect of the design is that Mr Chang reversed the conventional layout of the house and replaced the car porch at the front of the building with a kitchen, complete with plants that extend from the floor through the ceiling.

In its jury citation, the SIA award read: ‘The house has magical quality of its spaces, where the residents can hear birds sing, see squirrels run and enjoy the emergence of a little rainbow in their living spaces.’

Mr Chang, an NUS graduate from the School of Architecture, says that he learned a lot from working with veteran architect Tang Guan Bee. ‘It provided me with a good platform to start my own practice in 2000,’ he says. ‘Now I have more freedom in terms of design expression, and my immediate boss is the client – you set your own design language, which is determined by the client’s brief and the context of the project.’

All about agenda

As with all young architects with small practices, Mr Chang’s commissions involve mainly residential projects. ‘It’s very much an individual thing – external factors keep changing,’ he says. ‘Problems and opportunities will always be there – it’s how you want to set your architectural agenda. Having a client who understands what you’re doing helps a lot.

‘You need a lot of optimism in this profession because there’ll be a lot of obstacles, such as a contractor who doesn’t meet expectations or a client who doesn’t appreciate what you’re trying to do, or problems with the site. It’s not easy trying to do something different. Basically, you’re redefining conventional notions, and that’s why clients need architects – otherwise, they just need an engineer or a draughtsman.’

He adds: ‘Being unique should also mean enhancing the living conditions. The role of the architect includes a heavy responsibility because what you build will affect lives.’

As everyone in the industry knows, getting a plum public project has always been the province of an international brand name architect or a large, well-established local company with good connections – or some combination of the two. Small local firms with talent but no track record have virtually no chance of getting in on the act, although there have been one or two instances when the ‘rules’ are ignored, such as when WOHA Architects won a competition to design the Stadium MRT – work that also won them an SIA Design Award this week.

‘When we started out, it was one year before the Asian Crisis, so it was a recession start to our practice,’ says Richard Hassell of WOHA, a firm that made the leap from start-up to upstart, going on to achieve local, regional and international recognition.

‘So if some firms started out a couple of years ago, they would have been well positioned to take advantage of the recent building boom. People who were doing houses had the chance to work on condos and high-rises, so it’s a sudden widening of the plains.’

He adds: ‘It’s a nice thing if local firms can use this time to build their brand – if you have a name, it’s easier to move to other markets.’

The general standard of this year’s submissions for the Design Awards was very high, especially in the residential category, says Mok Wei Wei, managing director of W Architects and a member of the judging panel. ‘We are honouring people who contribute new ideas and also expand on existing repertoires,’ he says.

According to Siew Man Kok of MKPL Architects and chairman of the SIA’s design committee, the emergence of young architects is a good sign, but there is still some way to go. ‘It’s encouraging but it’s still a struggle. After houses, where do they go? The major jobs are still going to the big firms. People go for proven track records, but why can’t government projects be used as avenues for new talent? The roadblocks are still there and we have not reached a situation where good design is the measure for getting the job – recognition of good design as a pervasive culture is still very lacking.’

‘There are many young and talented architects in Singapore,’ says Erwin Viray, assistant professor at the NUS Department of Architecture. ‘It is difficult to get commissions except through friends and introductions, but they are responsive to the conditions of the world and come up with proposals that are refreshing – they also look closely at issues to do with the ecology and sustainability.’

‘Through their work, there is a certain discussion on how architects can play a crucial role in creating a better environment,’ says Prof Viray.

Mr Chang’s winning design, for instance, offers a new way of looking at how interior space is integrated with the outside street, and how the private and the public relate to each other. ‘In a way, there is this desire and passion in Singapore architects to create a state of architecture that is progressive and cutting edge to a certain extent, on the way to defining itself,’ Prof Viray says.

Out of ordinary

One of those architects is surely Ling Hao of Linghao Architects, who has a knack for turning ordinary buildings into extraordinary spaces. A narrow conservation shophouse in the Rochor Canal area was cited by the SIA as an example in which the architect maximised the existing space and produced a variety of spaces in a small tower behind the shophouse.

Another house he completed recently is finished in a variety of different materials to produce a layered effect – glass on the ground level, wood on the second floor and steel on the upper floor.

Meanwhile, he is working on a large ‘entertainment’ bungalow in Sentosa Cove that includes four different gardens within the ground level, nine bedrooms above, each with its own garden, and a rolling terrain-like roof with a pool and assorted landscapes.

‘I’m not into traditional spaces,’ he says. ‘There are a lot of architects doing their own thing, and people can see their value after they are built – it’s not generic.’

He adds: ‘I think Singapore has changed a lot, and in the next few years, there will be a lot more change, and it’s good that we can still have the opportunity to do interesting work.’

Meanwhile, Alan Tay of Formwerkz Architects has been practising for 10 years, but he and his three partners – Gwen Tan, Seetoh Kum Loon and Berlin Lee – are still in their early to mid-30s, having banded together when they were all still in architecture school. Their firm, with about 10 architects, has a relatively varied portfolio of residential and commercial projects.

Formwerkz is another firm that places great importance on the relationship with nature. Too often, says Mr Tay, the connection is simply not there. ‘We constantly strive to bring that experience back – it helps to differentiate yourself from other projects.’

One such terrace house project (and SIA Design Award winner) involved a pet lover who had a collection of parrots and dogs, so the architect integrated the pets’ needs with the design. The focal point of the ground floor is now a cage that extends from the floor to the ceiling and beyond.

‘We crafted the bird cage to become the new fireplace,’ says Mr Tay, adding that with three dogs living there, the concrete floor was a practical solution as well. ‘We like to bring the garden into the house and use plants as an architectural element.’

The firm is currently working on a bungalow that features a basement finished entirely in black – like open-cut black quartz, says Mr Tay – and a 50-metre lap pool running the length of the house. ‘It’s about meeting the lifestyle needs of the owners.’

Times are changing for young local architects, he says. ‘It’s always been tough, but the fact that we managed to start something shows that times are getting better. The awards give us reassurance and opportunities, we hope, to make some inroads into bigger projects.’

Source : Business Times – 23 May 2008


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