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:

New work on the shelves: red dot design concept yearbook 2011/2012

Have you ever thought it might be possible some day to ‘print’ a house using rapid prototyping? Ever conceived of farming crickets in the city to create a source of food? How about a car park ticket that tells you where the nearest empty bay is?

For a number of years I’ve undertaken copyediting for the red dot design concept yearbook. This year’s edition is now on sale, and as always it contains a huge array of concepts for products that have the potential to dramatically change the ways in which we live.

In the book’s 348 pages are concepts for products ranging from robots to showerheads to cooking implements to safety devices to communication tools, and many more besides. Notable in this edition is the number of concepts that address disaster and emergency situations – no doubt a direct response to recent events across the globe.

This year’s competition contained the largest number of entries yet: 3,536 of them from 54 countries. 295 awards were given to professional designers and students – also the largest number to date.

Some concepts that have stuck in my mind (accompanied by a few snaps from the book) are:

Microbial Home by Philips Design (the Netherlands) – winner of the ‘red dot: luminary’ award (the highest accolade in the competition).

Microbial Home is a domestic ecosystem that challenges conventional design solutions to energy, cleaning, food preservation, lighting, human waste, and healthy lifestyles.” It consists of an evaporative-cooling larder built into a dining table; a bio-digester island that converts vegetable scraps and solid bathroom waste into methane gas, which in turn is used for powering a range of home functions; a bio-light that uses bioluminescent bacteria fed with methane and compost; and an effluent-filtering squatting toilet that feeds a methane digester.

Potável by Saltuk Karayalcin (Turkey) – winner of a ‘red dot: best of the best’ award.

Potável is a motion-enabled water purification device for developing countries. It purifies unsafe water collected from a water source two or more miles away. Its purification system kills bacteria, viruses, and algae while it is pushed or pulled home.”

Daylight by Felix Wilden (Germany) – winner of a ‘red dot award’.

Daylight is a lighting system that consists of “reflecting lamellae (plates) mounted on the façade of a building and reflecting devices in the room.” The aim is to reflect daylight but not direct sunlight. The external aluminium reflecting plates stream daylight through windows to the interior reflecting devices, which can be adjusted individually.

The red dot design concept yearbook 2011/2012 is available for purchase at the red dot design museum shop (at red dot traffic, Maxwell Road, Singapore). Read more about the competition at the red dot design concept website.

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.

Creating places for people

An Urban Design Protocol for Australian Cities

I stood in the plaza at the rear of the Sydney Town Hall last week, contemplating how delicately a pedestrian bridge to the brutalist-inspired 1970s Town Hall House addition had been rammed into the existing nineteenth century sandstone building.

A few days prior, I’d pondered, with some panic, the logic behind the installation of obtrusive railing to prevent pedestrians from tripping over some new plumbing-related mounds on a footpath in Rushcutters Bay. Relatively tucked away it may be, but nevertheless it’s difficult to see it as anything but an embarrassment for an affluent suburb in a major city in one of the planet’s most urbanised nations. And an affront to any pedestrian who comes across it.

Why the widely recognised beauty and nuances of Sydney’s natural environment are not easily translated and incorporated into imaginings and construction of the city’s urban environments is curious. Speculation about why points to many factors – car dominance, management issues, lack of financial investment, liability concerns, and insufficient public fluency with things architectural, urban, and landscape-design related. The phenomenon afflicts many Australian cities.

On 30 November 2011, the Australian Government’s Department of Infrastructure and Transport launched the first ever Australian Urban Design Protocol. Titled Creating Places for People, the protocol is a direct response to a call by leaders at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) for a higher standard of urban design and architecture in Australian cities. Good call!

An associated media release from the office of the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, describes the protocol as “a new tool to improve the quality and useability of our public spaces and city buildings – a plain-English ‘how-to’ guide and check list for decision makers and professionals whose work affects the built environment as well as members of the public who care about the design of their local community.”

Importantly, the protocol defines urban design as both an outcome (based on the pillars of productivity, sustainability, and liveability) and a process (based on the pillars of leadership and design excellence). To quote the protocol document:

“Although urban design is often delivered as a specific ‘project’, it is in fact a long-term process that continues to evolve over time. It is this layering of building and infrastructure types, natural ecosystems, communities and cultures that gives places their unique characteristics and identities.”

Developers and councils, take note!

The principles, desired outcomes, and attributes of good urban design and spaces are spelled out in an extremely straightforward language that one hopes will be interpreted sensibly and sensitively by decision makers. The aim was to make the protocol digestible by everyone – not muddied by obscure terms. Explained Minister Albanese during the protocol’s launch:

“The planners among you will be disappointed if you were hoping to hear about permeability, legibility and way-finding. Instead you will read descriptions such as ‘It feels comfortable to walk through,’ ‘You feel safe and secure,’ and ‘It is a place you want to visit, experience or live in.’”

How was it developed? The Department of Infrastructure and Transport’s Major Cities Unit assembled an editorial board of around fifty people, which included State Government Architects, representatives of State planning departments, representatives from the Australian Local Government Association and each of the capital cities, the Heart Foundation, Preventative Health Taskforce, peak industry and professional bodies, and academics. Contributions also came from members of the public via a public consultation process and workshops around the country. The process took two years.

Congratulations to Sara Stace (Director, National Urban Policy) and team at the Major Cities Unit for their work on the protocol. Sara explained to me some of the challenges involved:

“We tried to provide a visually strong framework that would make sense to anyone reading the document. It was surpisingly difficult to keep the jargon out. With an editorial board of fifty professionals, and feedback from public consultations, we had a lot of great suggestions. But they often used languge that could only be comprehended by other professionals. I kept applying the ‘mum’ test: ‘Could my mum understand this, and would she want to visit such a place?’ I’d like to think we’ve succeeded to a large extent.”

The principles of the protocol have been adopted by a number of organisations – government, professional, and private. View them on the protocol’s website.

Another interesting read is the State of Australian Cities 2011 report, released in October by the Major Cities Unit. It presents findings on population, productivity, sustainability, liveability, and governance for Australia’s eighteen largest cities. The report can be downloaded here.

On being foreign

Excuse me for a moment’s self indulgence … Travelling back to Australia last week brought into focus the perpetual state of mind in which I now seem to live. Like so many others who leave their homelands, I’m now a foreigner everywhere – dislocated from the blinkered view of familiarity and looking at the everyday (in every place) with a hyperreal perspective. Depending on which emotional chord I choose to strike, this is either a melancholic or liberating way to be.

The last six weeks have involved a number of journeys aside from the physical one to Sydney. I’ve been busily working in Singapore on various writing commissions – I’ve met some prominent Singapore-based architects, absorbed morsels from thirty years’ worth of Singaporean architecture journals, investigated some fresh Asian art, and contemplated high-rise architecture for the tropics. I’ve also been exploring a potential new secondary creative path. (More may be revealed at a future date!)

All of that didn’t leave much time for blogging.

In upcoming posts, I’ll share a couple of architecture-related topics from Sydney. For now, just a few tourist snaps of some aspects of the city and surrounds.

Surely one of Australia’s smallest gardens (in a Surry Hills laneway):

Loved the straightforward vibe of the Organic Bread Bar on South Dowling Street, Paddington. The shop design and food presentation impressed me as being both sensitive to contextual everyday style and confidently unique. Delicious bread, too:

Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin designed the suburb of Castlecrag in the 1920s, with sensitivity to the existing topography. They also designed some houses there using local stone, and prescribed the lifestyle of residents. Read more here.

Part of Centennial Park was transformed into a set for the filming of The Great Gatsby. A chunk of house, a tree trunk, a fragment of paving, and a lot of foreign potted plants – it’s astounding that this will end up looking convincing. Woman with pram makes a point about the inadequacy of the fence:

There’s a charming cafe/florist up north at Palm Beach called The Boathouse, with an impressive variety of uses for crayfish pots:

The everyday Sydney spaces of those who can afford them – the boardwalk near Bronte, and Rushcutters Bay:

The magnitude of the Sydney Markets at Homebush was as dizzying as the hideous drive along Parramatta Road to get there. Worth it for the bounty of cheap local produce:

Note to Sydney: the most enjoyable street art is usually not the kind sponsored by councils. Note to Singapore: neither is it the kind sponsored by paint companies …

K2LD’s ‘Beauty in Imperfection’

K2LD Architects have established a small gallery space beside their office in Singapore’s Waterloo Centre. Last night it was filled with sake-fuelled discussions about a freshly opened exhibition of Japanese ceramic and wood vessels.

The ‘Beauty in Imperfection’ exhibition is the first to be held at the new K2LD Design Gallery at 261 Waterloo Street, #02-31. K2LD principal Ko Shiou Hee intends to make the gallery a hub for design-related exhibitions (of various disciplines) and is open to proposals from those seeking a display space.

The gallery is actually smaller than what is depicted in my snaps of last night’s opening event; the rear space (containing the ring-shaped display platform) is soon to be taken over by K2LD’s neighbour, Dwelling Concept.

‘Beauty in Imperfection’ showcases beautifully textured ceramic vessels and some wood pieces from Shiou Hee’s personal collection. Each of the (unused) items is for sale. Shiou Hee explained to me that he collected these objects while living in Japan. He built a considerable collection of one-off mismatched pieces – a manifestation of his favour for an ephemeral sense of harmony.

The artists whose work is displayed include Hanaoka Yutaka, Murakami Yaku, Gomi Kenji, Yokoyama Takuya, and Hanyu Noa. The exhibition will be in place until 11 November 2011. The gallery is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 6pm.

K2LD moved to the Waterloo Centre about 8 months ago, joining a small cohort of creative practices taking root in this HDB context. Interestingly, K2LD has a second office in Melbourne and has completed a number of projects in Australia (including two schools in Tasmania). A southwards (rather than eastwards or northwards) move is relatively rare for Singaporean practices. It’s nice to see!

Conformist and non-conformist gardens

I often wonder about the garden philosophy of Singapore. The ‘garden city’ concept is a way to brand the island, and supports a valuable landscaping industry. It results in a particular image for Singapore, despite many of the prescribed vegetative species being foreign. It makes the expressways more pleasant traffic funnels. But from the perspective of the pedestrian on the footpath, urban planting is also a form of control – a barrier (similar to a fence) rather than an environment to be inhabited.

Singapore’s garden spaces are often less a representation of nature, and more a rationalised formula.

I find myself drawn to the exploration of the island’s various ‘natural’ environments to see how plants really behave in this climate. The photos that follow were taken at the Southern Ridges Forest Walk and the Venus Loop at the MacRitchie Trails. These environments have had various degrees of human intervention. As sites for nature tourism, they also have an economic dimension, as well as some connection to the garden ‘story’ of Singapore that is still being written.

What I enjoy about them is experiencing the spaces and forms that develop in them through natural processes. The photos don’t do justice to the various degrees of enclosure, openness, and light filtration created by these environments, but the ways in which vegetation layers itself is clear. So too is the way boldly shaped tropical plants can create natural focal points.

It could be nice if some day, daily Singaporean urban spaces support other types of gardens – such as food or educational gardens tended by the public. Wouldn’t it be good to grow vegies rather than hedges?

Good reads at The Plain

Thanks to The Plain – one of my favourite cafes in Singapore – for adding Interior Pop! and Cardboard Book to its fine collection of reading material.

I undertook the editorial coordination and text for these books while working at an\b editions. Big thanks to Vincent and Laura for giving them a loving home at The Plain!

The U Cafe international magazine exhibition is almost over. Catch it at The Plain and other quality local cafes before it ends on 23 October! >> UPDATE: The U Cafe has been extended to 27 November.

Interior Pop! and Cardboard Book can be purchased at Basheer Graphic Books, Workshop, and other good bookstores. And by the way, the third title I worked on at an\b editions, Upcycle, will be released in the coming months. Look out for it!