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What does ‘home’ mean?

What is home?

Habitus magazine invited me to contribute to an exhibition exploring the question: ‘What does home mean to you?’ I wrote a story. The exhibition will be displayed during Sydney Indesign, 15–17 August 2013, at the Galleria in Sydney.

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I didn’t sleep well the night before our appointment with the HDB. We, and the sellers of the 1979 ‘four-room’, were to sign the final round of paperwork. Fear struck my heart – not so much for the thought of the binding and inflated debt we were about to assume, but for the impending interrogation by an officer of a Singaporean government agency. Would our finances be deemed to stack up adequately? Did we properly follow all the e-filing rules for last year’s tax returns? Would the prescribed ‘ethnic quotas’ of the estate allow for a foreigner like me? Would there be any issues with my home-based business? Did we fill out the application forms correctly? Will we comply with all the regulations? Well, Mindy, our youthful HDB officer, wasn’t the stern, severe-haired toughie I’d expected. A mini dress, a mismatched oversized aircon-busting jacket, slippers, flowing locks, and a Hello Kitty pen. But her getup was not to say that she wasn’t by-the-books. In the span of around thirty minutes, she printed and waved what seemed like half a ream of paper past us. We signed about fifteen sheets. The speed of her meek voice suggested (yet somehow demanded) minimum time for detailed scrutiny of each sheet. We proceeded, as you tend to do in Singapore, rather like cogs in a machine, trusting our research and putting our faith in the idea that with 82 per cent of Singaporeans living in government flats, millions have done the same and survived. Surely the government wouldn’t shaft us! Anyway, it’s not like we could bend any rules. So, spat out from the HDB headquarters and a renovation later (and I won’t start on those rules), here we are at home, where I’m a ‘spouse’ by marital status (that is, female) and an ‘other’ by racial profile (that is, not Chinese, Malay, or Indian). The neighbours don’t seem to mind my colour (as far as I can tell), or my gender. The mortgage is cheaper than the rent was. The train station isn’t far away. We’ve made friends with the cleaning guy, the teh tarik uncle, and a lovely aunty down the corridor. It’s a great neighbourhood. By the time we finish paying off the mortgage, our flat’s value – according to the government-issued home insurance scheme – will be about 10 per cent of its purchase price. I doubt that we’ll be here by then.

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Five ways with words

1. Epiphany via luxury brand

I suppose many people encounter epiphanies in Hermes stores. I hadn’t until earlier this year. Months after it happened, I still think of a conversation I had with Japanese artist Shinji Ohmaki while we sat on the floor of Hermes’ in-store gallery (Third Floor) in Singapore’s Liat Towers.

Ohmaki was telling me about the installation he had just finished there – a colourful floor- and wall-scape of powdered glass in floral shapes titled Moment and Eternity. It was intricate, delicate, precious, and fleeting, for it was soon to be smudged and destroyed by the slipper-clad feet of exhibition goers.

As I was probing Ohmaki for insights into the experiences that have shaped his art practice, he offered an intriguing morsel: his karate practice has influenced how he perceives space. There is a limited space for karate, he explained, and during training you need to perceive each corner of the space. You always need to think about the limit – the life-and-death line, he said. Your body may be positioned in the middle of a space, but your mind is above and perceiving every part of it. Everything’s interrelated.

Ohmaki’s thoughts on space visualisation left a memorable impression on me. It was a pleasure to experience their manifestation in the confined space of the Third Floor gallery, to which he managed to bring a quality of infinity by smartly manipulating shape and reflection. A few snaps of the work follow …

Ohmaki demonstrating how he applies the motifs:

Then after the layering of colours and a quick vacuum of the excess powder, voila!:

The first of the exhibition goers treading carefully on the opening night:

And some weeks later:

Thanks to Ohmaki for sharing his thoughts, and to Haruka Hikita for her expert translations! Read all about Moment and Eternity and see a great photo of the infinity effect in Cubes magazine, issue 56.

2. Discovery via state

When you live ‘elsewhere’, discoveries seem to happen more often than they otherwise might. Until doing research around the Singapore Art Museum‘s exhibition Lee Wen: Lucid Dreams in the Reverie of the Real, I was unaware that Singaporean performance art was the subject of intense controversy during the 1990s. Government funding was slashed after a particularly ‘prickly’ performance, and though the cuts have since eased, strict licensing still applies.

Lee pushed on with his challenging practice through the lean years and found himself with a Cultural Medallion from the National Arts Council in 2005 and the solo show in 2012. With a celebratory undertone, the show drew on his entire portfolio. The suggested mixture of control and support for performance art practice in Singapore may be looked upon with some confusion. Nevertheless, Lee’s exhibition surely reached out to a wide audience who may have drawn varied messages from it.

I wrote (cautiously) about the show for Art Asia Pacific magazine, issue 79. The article can be read online or in print.

3. Scoops via suburbs

Beyond the theme park rides and the golf course lawns, there is site-sensitive design and a sustainable dwelling ethos to be found on Singapore’s Sentosa island. I discovered an example of it in the form of a meticulously conceived five-level house designed by Singapore-based Australian architectural designer Nicholas Burns in the Sentosa Cove suburban development. Despite its size, it embodies multiple qualities that establish its sustainable nature now and into the future. The materials, vertical screen, and overhang in the shot below start to tell the story. Read more in Monument issue 110.

Back on the mainland, I discovered a house with an equal amount of natural ventilation but a very different aesthetic. Walking through a home crafted by MAKK Architects in Serangoon Garden Estate gave me the impression of touring a spacecraft that had docked with its party wall and that hovered just above the ground. Its white mosaic-tiled, angular facade turns up the hip factor on its architecturally unchallenging street. But there was certainly more to discover than its appearance. The tale is told in d+a magazine, issue 68.

4. Encounter via Internet

For I wrote a feature on Singapore-based French architect Yann Follain – director of the Singapore branch of architecture practice WY-TO. I enjoyed speaking to Follain about high-profile projects such as the exhibition design for Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal at the ArtScience Museum (Marina Bay Sands) and his art direction of ArchiFest in 2010 and 2011. It was even more enjoyable to hear him talk of ‘dreaming’ tropical architecture. Read about it here:

5. Style via craft

I turned my hands to copywriting earlier this year for Singaporean laminate brand Lamitak. With newspapers and fashion stylebooks in its conceptual DNA, Lamitak’s The Craft of Style brochure presents some of the brand’s latest laminate designs with an emphasis on how they were conceived and produced. Thanks to the great team I worked with on the project.

In and out of the grid

Time, spaces, people, and the grid. What’s it like to live in the Singapore grid of public housing blocks, shopping malls, and tiled surfaces? Can some kind of liberation be found in what can be a rather dehumanising environment?

I enjoyed the opportunity to contemplate artist/writer/curator Heman Chong‘s exhibition Calendars (2020–2096) with reference to Superstudio’s science fiction-style photomontages of the 1960s and ’70s. I did so for d+a magazine’s 67th issue.

Held at the NUS Museum from late 2011 to early 2012, Calendars (2020–2096) was a menacingly expansive meditation on Singapore’s overwhelming homogenising ‘grid’, its ‘public’ spaces, and the roles that people play in them through time. Chong presented 1,001 photographs of de-peopled ‘public’ spaces in Singapore as future calendar pages – an eery collection that he referred to as a “dream machine” in the show’s catalogue.

If you missed the show, it’s well worth taking a look at the catalogue – as well as d+a of course!

Also for d+a 67, I investigated dreams of other persuasions – a radically remodelled home by Genome Design Consultancy in a fantastical, other-worldly Singaporean estate of repetitive pseudo-classical terrace houses; and an artful redeveloped shophouse by HYLA Architects that forms part of a developer’s larger vision of a collection of boutique properties on a single Geylang street. The HYLA project won a URA Architectural Heritage Award in 2011. Read all about both projects in d+a.

I’ve also had a number of articles appear in Cubes 55, addressing an array of contexts and conditions. Firstly, there’s an extended look at the colourful architecture of Sauerbruch Hutton via their new book Sauerbruch Hutton: Colour in Architecture, which I had also investigated for

Secondly, I had the chance to immerse myself in the mesmerising pattern-scapes of the Grand Hyatt’s newest events space, The Gallery. Super Potato continued their work at the hotel with this seductive space that presents new options for guests in terms of how they interact with and direct their experience of the venue.

I took a walk across the water to write about Aedas Singapore‘s Sentosa Boardwalk – a morphing surface of composite timber that provides a direct pedestrian link between Vivo City and Sentosa.

Finally, I contemplated a rare instance of pro bono architectural work with Spark‘s design for Fai-Fah Prachautis – a centre of creative education for disadvantaged youths in Bangkok. Read an abridged version of the article on

Jake Dyson and his amazing long-life LED lamp (

So ubiquitous is planned obsolescence that products designed to last for decades seem almost unreal these days. I was staggered to learn that British designer Jake Dyson‘s new LED task light CSYS will shine for 37 years before its LED chips need replacing – even when it’s used for 12 hours per day.

I interviewed Jake recently for at Space Furniture in Singapore, where he was launching CSYS. Read the full story here.

The stars seem to have aligned for Jake in terms of creating the conditions in which he can deeply investigate and push an engineering-led design practice. It’s a good thing. His dedication to sensible innovation has the potential to shake up those with complacent design habits and benefit us all.

Thanks for your time Jake!

New work on the screen:

Meeting and chatting with Berlin-based architects Matthias Sauerbruch and Louisa Hutton (Sauerbruch Hutton) was a genuinely pleasant experience.

I met them recently on a grey and rainy Singapore afternoon to discuss their new monograph Sauerbruch Hutton: Colour in Architecture.

The thoughtfulness and open-heartedness with which they answered my many questions seemed to me a reflection of the sensitivity at the root of their approach to architectural forms and urban connections. Thanks Matthias and Louisa!

Read about their thoughts, their work, and their new book in my article for

All work, no play?

If only you could buy window grilles like the old one above (Club Street, Singapore)!

Since January I’ve looked fleetingly through my (more tamely grilled) window at the world beyond while my thoughts focused on the many worlds being developed in the multitude of Word documents before me.

To say the least, it has been a busy time. It’s also been an interesting one. I’ve ventured into art and architecture; PR for interior designers; the manufacturing process for an architectural material; fashion branding; human-robot love; and a swathe of interactive digital media projects.

Future posts will explain the projects I’ve been immersed in, but for now here’s a look at work that has hit the shelves and screen during the past couple of months.

For d+a magazine (issue 66), I wrote about two memorable houses. One of them (pictured on the cover) was designed by Studiogoto for a builder. It manifests a rawness that’s not often seen in Singapore, and which I didn’t expect given the owner’s line of work. No marble in this house. Instead, exposed concrete, remnant materials, and reclaimed timber from the house that formerly occupied the site. It’s an exciting direction.

The other was designed by Genome Architects and Design Consultancy with inspiration drawn from parasitic plants. New upper levels were hung over the existing lower ones, with sky-lit voids on either side of the floor plates breathing life into this ‘treehouse’. Read more in d+a!

For Cubes magazine (issue 54, Feb/Mar 2012), I had the pleasure of entering the home studio and the minds of Plystudio‘s Victor Lee and Jacqueline Yeo. The resultant profile explores the rigours of their thinking and design approach – both of which I greatly admire. The article also features a number of their projects. One recent project that particularly struck me was an outlet for The Soup Spoon at Changi City Point mall. Learn more in Cubes or in the abridged version of the article on

For Cubes 54, I also wrote about a house in Japan by Singaporean architectural designer Kevin Lim of Studio SKLIM. Designed with a ‘super pragmatic’ approach, the house offered the opportunity to contemplate exhibitionism and privacy in the realm of (foreign-designed) Japanese residential architecture.

For Singapore Architect (issue 267), I wrote about the Hub-to-Hub public art program of 2011. I had compiled a short blog post on this event last year, but it was great to explore it in greater depth for SA. One hopes that the event will encourage top-down and bottom-up design/engagement with Singaporean public space into the future.

New work on the shelves: Articles in Singapore Architect magazine

The latest edition of Singapore Architect (SA) magazine contains an extensive feature on last year’s ArchiFest ‘Common Spaces’ forum. As part of SA’s coverage, I interviewed the sole Singaporean speaker at the forum – Siew Man Kok of MKPL Architects. We had an interesting chat about Singapore’s common spaces, MKPL’s designs for tropical high-rise residences, and HDB housing. Siew is a member of the HDB’s Architectural Design Panel, the URA’s Design Advisory Committee, and the Preservation of Monuments Board – quite a spectrum of activity alongside his professional practice. I enjoyed the opportunity to pick his brain!

This issue of SA also contains two reviews authored by me – one exploring a light-filled house in Windsor Park, where MAKK Architects investigated the courtyard as a spatial organiser; and the other delving into the recent BMW Young Asian Artists Series III [3 parts] exhibition at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute. The latter presented the opportunity to contemplate the nature of the “Southeast Asianness” and conditions of anxiety in the work of artists Genevieve Chua (Singapore), Lyra Garcellano (Manilla), and R.E. Hartanto (Bandung). The exhibition was curated by artist and writer Heman Chong (Singapore).

My thanks to all parties who gave their time to assist with the production of these articles. SA issue 266 is on sale now.

New work on the shelves: Interviews in d+a magazine

You can’t miss it … It’s bright orange and features a very shiny house. It’s Singapore’s d+a magazine, issue 65, and it’s on sale now!

I had the honour (and great pleasure) of interviewing the two recipients of the President’s Design Award Singapore 2011 ‘Designer of the Year’ accolade for this issue of d+a.

My conversations with Tang Guan Bee (Tangguanbee Architects) and Chan Sau Yan Sonny (Chan Sau Yan Associates, or csya) revealed two very different architectural characters who share a singular passion for their work that remains after decades of practice.

Our conversations spanned topics ranging from humour in architecture, to tropical highrise, to the activities of the Singapore Planning and Urban Research group (SPUR) in the 1960s and ’70s, and much more. It was a privilege to gain first-hand insights into the past and present of their practices, and to collate their comments for d+a‘s readers.

I thank these icons of Singapore’s architectural scene for sharing their views and experiences in so welcoming a manner. Congratulations to them both for their most deserved honours!

Heterogeneous mass: Jakarta

Jakarta is a city that puzzles as much as it enchants. Last month I took a short trip there (my third visit). Varied systems have influenced its urbanism and architecture, and have made for a mesmerising tapestry that I hope to be able to decode further on future trips.

Jakarta is possibly the largest city in the world that doesn’t have a train system. Obviously, intensely heavy traffic and pollution result. Neither does Jakarta have much of a sewerage system. Vehicular flow carves through a heterogeneous, sprawling urban mass whose system of property valuation is as yet beyond me.

Travelling through the city reveals the jostling of street stalls and hawkers with behemoth shopping malls, smaller developments of postmodern pastiche, and older modest structures. Within this textured physical fabric hums a local social network that is both visible to and hidden from the foreigner.

The creativity, inventiveness, and resourcefulness of many Jakartans is often evident and is a refreshing sight. The entire scenario makes me wish that more Australian schools had offered classes in Bahasa Indonesia when I was a kid!

If you’re interested in the landscape and ecology of Jakarta in relation to its urban design, keep an eye on the ‘Ciliwung Project’ – a research project being led by Christophe Girot, Chair of Landscape Architecture at ETH Zurich, through the Future Cities Laboratory (Singapore).

As described by Girot online, the project looks at the “design and management of tropical watersheds within dense urban agglomerations by seeking to define a more sustainable restructuring of river profiles in response to prediction models … The objective of this project is to integrate cultural and economic considerations within an adaptive system of large-scale landscape structures in view of creating a resilient environmental corridor system capable also of yielding more protection and fruition for the inhabitants.”

The research intends to bridge scientific research and empirical and heuristic methods of landscape architectural and urban design.

A few photos from my trip:

Architecture is an intellectual practice: ‘Open Agenda 2011’

“For those that assume architecture is only about buildings, this exhibition will disappoint.”
– Anthony Burke (Head, School of Architecture, University of Technology, Sydney), in his introduction to the Open Agenda 2011 catalogue.

It shouldn’t take long for the gravity of architecture to be felt by new students of the discipline. With the first late night spent at the studio, it’s likely to hit home that – structural concerns aside – architecture requires the weighty task of responding to many factors in a single creative work: the location and physical condition of a site, political and economic contexts, cultural and social realms and narratives, material and technological possibilities and agendas, relationship of built form to resources and services, access and safety, wider urban or natural conditions (including their governance), architectural precedents, methods of design communication, possible future conditions, and on, and on.

Furthermore, graduates will quickly discover the need to position themselves in terms of their approach to professional practice.

Indeed, architecture is not only about buildings.

Open Agenda is an annual Australian competition for speculative architectural design research. It is an initiative of the School of Architecture at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), and is open to recent graduates from any university. The winning entries in its second edition are being displayed at Sydney’s Customs House until 20 January 2012.

The Open Agenda 2011 exhibition presents three voices of critical enquiry that interrogate architecture in Australia and explore its relevance into the future. The intention of the competition, explains Anthony Burke (in his catalogue introduction), is “to create a tension between three points of view, while acknowledging the breadth of issues in contemporary architecture and the value of different approaches to design research.”

The exhibition, he states, “seeks to revive a space of intellectual and spatial enquiry through architecture.” Evidently, he perceives a lack in this area.

‘Greater Western Sydney Special Economic Zone (SEZ)’ by Daniel Fink

Daniel Fink’s enquiry explores the framing and generating of urban development with contemporary flows of ideology and capital. He reimagines the two western greenfield growth areas in Sydney’s current metropolitan plan as a single independent economic entity similar to the SEZs seen around the world – “spatial products of extra-jurisdictional alliances between state and non-state agents.”

In his Greater Western Sydney SEZ, he derives an “engine of urbanisation” from its “specific infrastructural apparatus” aligned with “Sydney’s covert project in infrastructural Balkanisation”. He explores the functional and architectural possibilities of the interfaces and thresholds between Sydney’s existing frameworks and those of the imagined SEZ with, for example, manufacturing plants, a train interchange station, an airport, warehouses, office spaces, and hotels.

‘The Cars that Drank Lake Eyre’ by Mark Leong and Nicholas Sargent

The work of Mark Leong and Nicholas Sargent explores the architectural potential of place and landscape in an ‘end-of-the-world’ scenario. Their project utilises architectural representation and techniques to investigate, analyse, and express the strange middle ground between romantic and apocalyptic depictions of the Australian landscape – in particular, Lake Eyre – as it relates to place and the space of architecture. The project aims to address specific and universal questions fundamental to the ground of architecture, like ‘who are we?’ and ‘where are we?’

Lake Eyre (South Australia) is an expansive temporal lake sitting at the lowest point of the continent at the drainage centre of two basins. It is transformed from a ‘dead heart’ to a life-filled inland sea when it is flooded. It is the remaining incarnation of a prehistoric sea that once covered much of the Australian continent. Early explorers had mythologised a great inland sea, but found only Lake Eyre – “symbolic of a national romantic ideal gone bad”.

Leong and Sargent write: “Lake Eyre mysteriously sits both central to Australia’s national narrative, and elusively at the edge of our imaginations. To many, the lake is characterised by a morbid and difficult relationship with the landscape – a struggle between an internal reality and an external reality, for what is wished for and what is given.” With a range of facts, fictions, texts, and characters, they tease out realities and impressions both present and past that shape people’s relationships with this mysterious entity. Their abstract architectural drawings “trace human experience and encounter, becoming analogous to the task of architectural practice: to find the world and speak of it sensibly.”

‘Potential Futures for Design Practice’ by Rory Hyde

Rory Hyde’s investigation into modes of design practice presupposes that the twenty-first century’s complex design landscape cannot be adequately addressed by the design professions as they exist today. ‘Potential Futures’ indexes new directions / territories / tools / processes that today’s designers might consider if they wish to remain relevant.

His research, expressed in a series of posters, has been undertaken for the book Potential Futures for Design Practice (to be released in 2012). The posters feature images from the ‘real’ world – of protest, nature, crisis, and the surging city. Overlaid are architectural proportional systems such as Corbusier’s Modulor and the Golden Section. Writes Hyde, “The mismatch between these supposed ‘systems of control’ and the images they accompany illustrate the vanity of architects’ attempts to impose order on the necessarily chaotic and uncontrollable world.”

The ‘potential futures’ take the form of models of practice: ‘The Opportunistic Architect’, ‘The Social Entrepreneur’, ‘The Historian of the Present’, ‘The Professional Generalist’. There is an underlying assumption that these potential futures are positive, yet there exists the possibility that such new roles would be misused. Hence, negative slogans accompany the positive ones to question the direction that the roles could take if practiced irresponsibly.

The three projects illustrate the extents to which architecture is an intellectual practice and design is a form of thinking, as described by Burke. The exhibition presents heady subject matter, and it is surprising (but good) to see it within a venue that serves, and works to attract, a generalist audience – including tourists. Customs House is a City of Sydney venue that presents itself online as “a dynamic cultural institution” and an “accessible 21st-century public space” with free entry and free Wi-Fi. The heritage building contains a public library, city model (beneath a glass floor), exhibition spaces, and popular food and wine venues.

Open Agenda is sponsored by the City of Sydney, Customs House, the University of Technology, Sydney, and Architectural Review Australia.