By combining such concepts as phenomenology, sustainability and formal exploration, which have become part of a particularly Singaporean conception of architecture, Soo Chan of SCDA Architects occupies an unusual niche within the architecture profession. To complement this wide range of interests, his firm also engages in a wide range of activities, working on architecture, landscape, and interiors projects, and even acting as its own developer on a number of occasions. In this latest interview from Vladimir Belogolovsky's “City of Ideas” column, Chan discusses the early experiences that led to his current understanding of architecture, and how the context of Singapore has affected his designs.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Was architecture on your mind from an early age? What was it that first attracted you to the discipline?
Soo Chan: I was deeply influenced by the house I grew up in, the Khoo Kongsi compound in Penang, an island off the west coast of Malaysia. Khoo Kongsi was planned around a central communal courtyard where many generations of my extended family lived, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site today. I can still picture the spatial and light qualities of the long and narrow house I grew up in, punctuated with open air wells. I remember the smell of fresh rain coming deep into the house on to the sunken courts, and the pockets of light and darkness in the house.
This childhood experience probably influenced my decision to study architecture and the kind of work I do. I remember always making things, playing with building blocks and model kits. I also love to draw. My father was into development, which he did on the side, and I liked being at construction sites with him. Looking back, I really appreciate growing up being close to my family and to nature.
VB: Could you touch on your experience studying architecture in the US?
SC: I left for the US in 1980, right after high school when I was 18, and went first to Washington University in St. Louis and after completing my Bachelor of Arts there, I pursued architecture at Yale. After graduating, I stayed in the US for three years, working for various architects until 1990, before coming here to Singapore.
VB: And who did you work for in the US?
SC: A number of firms. First, for Allan Greenberg in New Haven.
VB: The classicist... I am looking at your work and I am not quite seeing the connection...
SC: Well, these were the 80s, the heyday of Postmodernism. Being at Yale I was also exposed to Deconstructivism and Poststructuralism. We had such critics as Rob Krier, Thomas Gordon Smith, Robert Venturi, Bob Stern, Philip Johnson.
VB: Sounds like you were committed to the architecture of the times.
SC: Totally and sincerely. I had a passion for classical architecture and Postmodernism was very attractive to me then.
VB: And at Greenberg’s office, were you drawing columns with Corinthian capitals?
SC: And pediments, and entablatures with cornices and friezes, and acanthus leaves [Laughs]. And imagine, there were no computers back then. We had to draw all those details by hand. Then I moved to New York and started working for Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates. It was a transition to a new scale but still it was the Postmodernist period. I continued working on similar projects for a while even after coming here to Singapore. I started my own firm in 1995 after working on historic renovation projects for a few years, and then there was no more classical architecture.
VB: What made you change?
SC: Trips, exhibitions... I started traveling and I really liked projects by Schinkel, Rietveld, Kahn, Mies. I always liked these architects, but at the same time, I also wanted to go back to the basics and to me, classical architecture was a very important foundation. I like calm spaces. I was never drawn to Deconstuctivism, which I saw in the famous 1988 Deconstructivist Architecture show at MoMA. I knew it was not for me. I was much more interested in structure, order, sequence of spaces, center, symmetry. Another exhibition that was important for me was on Viennese secessionists. I liked Josef Hofmann, Otto Wagner, Joseph Maria Olbrich, as much as Wright or Le Corbusier. I also liked the fact that the secessionists designed everything from the spoon to the city, so to speak. But summarizing, what I took from the Postmodernism is the importance of looking back and learning from history, analyzing various building typologies.
VB: You are multidisciplinary firm and besides architecture, you do landscaping, interiors, furniture, and product design. Could you talk about that?
SC: I conceive my projects in a holistic manner. When I design a project, I think of the interiors flowing seamlessly onto the landscape. So interiors, landscape, and architecture are inseparable. I started designing tables, chairs, sofas, and other products for homes and offices early on, in collaboration with design companies. I like them as stand-alone objects but also I like to integrate them into spaces of my own design as much as possible.
VB: Is there a particular progression from project to project in your work?
SC: I try to be clearer now and focus on fewer ideas, as well as a more refined palette and detailing than in the beginning. What I like most about working here in Singapore is the ability to design and program transitional spaces, the boundaries between inside and outside.
VB: Would you say there is such a thing as a Singaporean approach to making architecture?
SC: Well, if you look at the work of Kerry Hill, WOHA or my work you can see many similarities in how our projects relate to the climate and region. But most importantly, Singapore does not have a weight of history as it is a relatively young nation. Our post-colonial architects are very open and free, and experimental. I would add that our architecture is universal. My architecture is universal. We utilize globally perfected building technologies and aesthetics. What makes us distinctive is how we bring landscape into buildings, particularly up to high-rises.
VB: Do you have a particular position on green architecture?
SC: I don’t really talk about it consciously but many of my projects embrace sustainability and are Green Mark or EarthCheck certified. It feels natural to me. I think green architecture should be every architect’s baseline. I would rather talk about the ideas behind the architecture itself.
VB: “Architecture itself,” meaning...?
SC: Meaning that beyond sustainability, there is the formal and spatial expression of architecture in context. It could be about how one space transitions into another... As an architect, how do you distil the essence of place? How do you evoke a spirituality of place formally? I use green architecture to generate these feelings and to humanize spaces, but it is more important to me to sustain culture and a sense of place, to interpret living traditions. For example, when I designed my resort in Bali I tried to generate spaces based on traditional planning techniques used in the design of temples and rice irrigation planning in the region. Such things are important because architecture is about preserving a way of life, not simply about introducing a new formal language. To me, cultural sustainability is just as important, so it is not just the use of green technology or formal techniques.
I like designing spaces that are phenomenological. Materiality, light, and structure, and spaces in between buildings or parts of buildings are very important to convey such a feeling, both in horizontal and vertical projects.
I first started incorporating gardens into single-family houses, inserting them in between rooms by breaking closed volumes into a system of pavilions. As the scale of my projects grew, I incorporated these green spaces into larger and taller projects.
VB: The experience of in-between spaces, such as large multi-story cavities in buildings by you or WOHA, are a very distinctive Singaporean experience. To be able to feel the breezes and see the city all around you on various levels within buildings is something very special.
SC: In our residential buildings, we combine various apartment typologies such as the famous double exposure units developed for the Marseille Block by Le Corbusier. We fuse similar apartment types with landscape in our quest to develop more responsive, regional solutions.
VB: What you are describing seems consequential for this climate. Yet, it is rare to see these ideas implemented in other locations with similar climate conditions, which means it is encouraged here more than in other places. There is a favorable policy in place.
SC: There are local codes that encourage this type of green architecture. For example, if you introduce a cavity or a cutout within a building, all the floor area that happens to fall outside of an imaginary 45-degree line, projected from the exterior edges towards the core, is free for the developer. If there is no height restriction the developer can add these areas to the project as various outdoor communal spaces. These ideas and regulations first appeared in the late 90s based on tropical modernist projects and vertical gardens as proposed by Geoffrey Bawa in Sri Lanka. By then we abandoned the Postmodernist model of the Greek temple. These vertical garden ideas were embraced by many Singaporean architects. We started experimenting with buildings that pulled apart and now a whole planning mechanism is enforced from top down.
But I am much more interested in refining a particular formal language based on volume, line, and plane. Over the years, a clear formal language that can be applied to absorb site and program has served us well. It is not dissimilar to that of classical architecture.
VB: Could you talk about your residential projects in New York? I am interested in how architects bring their regional ideas to new places and how their work transforms in the process. Do you think your ideas can be used in cities situated in much colder climates such as New York?
SC: It is a challenge, of course. To keep the heat in you need to introduce technology, double-glazing with low emissivity coatings, but the glass can be pushed deep inside to present a transitional zone; to bring as much of the outside in as possible. In New York, you rarely have the opportunity to design something freestanding. Most buildings are grouped together and are located within mid-block as part of the overall urban fabric. So in New York we try to work with orientation and bring as much sunlight as possible deep into the building through multiple notches, slots, and slivers of space. We are also introducing pools of water to animate space through a connection of inside with outside. These are not necessarily for swimming but for bringing light reflections, the sound of circulating water, and tranquility for a full phenomenological experience.
VB: Could you talk about your role not only as an architect but also as a developer?
SC: First, my motivation to be a developer is to allow me to be pure as an architect. Being both a client and designer gives me a lot of control. It opens many opportunities and allows me to select the kinds of projects I want to explore and the way I want to do them. For example, I always wanted to do a resort, but I didn’t know anyone who would commission me, so I went ahead and initiated such a project on my own in Bali. Soori Bali led to a number of resort commissions in other places, including the Maldives, Sanya, and Lijiang. I did the same in New York. I wanted to do a project there, so first, I designed a house in Westchester in 2000. It was called “A house for four seasons” [Prickly Pear] and the idea was to make various parts movable. In summers, the house would open up and undress and in winter, it would close up and bundle up. However, this project was never realized. Then I decided to develop a residential building near the High Line on 29th Street. The building will be finished later this year. Once I started this project, it attracted the attention of local developers and I was hired for two more commissions in the same neighborhood and another in midtown.
VB: What did you learn from being a developer?
SC: Now I sympathize with the developers a bit more [Laughs]. Well, it gives you a new perspective through which to understand the entire process. It is not just about design issues. You understand the whole picture and you try to exploit the full potential of the site, budget, marketing, and program.
VB: What would you say is the intention of your work?
SC: Simply put, I try to design spaces that can evoke an emotional response while continuing to hone the formal and spatial vocabulary that I am interested in pursuing. I strive to design spaces that are calm and are qualified by space, light, and structural order.
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.