Monday, July 9, 2012

Kampung deluxe

Straits Times: Mon, Jul 09

The drab Tan Boon Liat Industrial Building in Outram Road is home to a hodgepodge of businesses - furniture stores, photography studios, container services agencies. It is not exactly a chic design hub, but it is where one of Singapore's most forward-looking architectural agencies makes its base.

The curiously punctuated and capitalised ip:li Architects was a big winner at the Singapore Institute of Architects Architectural Design Awards in May. It had the most mentions of any firm, with principal architect Yip Yuen Hong taking five design awards and an honourable mention.

His designs for homes at 19 Sunset Place, 3 Lermit Road and 9 Leedon Park bagged design awards in the residential project category. The first two projects also snagged the prize in the top categories of Building Of The Year and Best Project Under $1.5 Million, respectively.

Here in Mr Yip's office in this airy industrial space, amid Artemide lamps and Herman Miller chairs, the 53-year- old talks about how the building keeps his team in touch with the messy reality of daily life. 'This place seems alive to me. I like this. If you think about it, in most cities, the districts with the cheapest rents are where the artists live. That mish-mash of activities is exciting.'

He speaks with a measured, calming tone and patiently explains tricky architectural concepts. He describes how he had to shorten the legs of a dining table to make it fit Asian body frames better. Now a work desk, it has been stripped of its thick gummy brown finishing to reveal a raw blonde surface. Elsewhere in the office is a steel storage rack rescued from a workshop, re-tooled and refinished into a filing cabinet oozing industrial chic.

Both desk and cabinet are fitting symbols of his design ethos - a pride in simple, naked forms, understated luxury and a focus on elegant solutions.

What kind of barrier blocks vehicle noise and headlight beams from entering a roadside home, yet does not look like a prison wall? How does a bedroom get a window view without compromising privacy? How can sunlight illuminate a large interior without heating it up so much that massive air-conditioning is needed?

His solutions to these problems helped him clinch prizes. Not, as he points out, because of the use of odd shapes and exotic materials, as some laymen might think. 'A lot of people think of designers as arty-farty people who don't understand the real world. And a designer can fall into that same trap. Good designers think very hard about how to solve a problem. They might take a longer time, but they are really thinking about it. And if it solves your problem, it can save you a lot of money,' he says.

Architecture in Singapore is constrained by two main forces, designers tell Life!. Government rulings on matters such as lifts and whether balconies are part of the gross floor area affect the shape of buildings. The other factor is land price, which drives the need to make every square centimetre pay. These twin factors cause design here to converge to the same point, resulting in landed homes and condominiums that are distinguished largely by cosmetic differences.

Mr Yip's ip:li, together with a tiny group of ideas-driven Singapore firms, are turning the tide of space-maximising glass-and-steel boxes made livable by energy-hungry air-chillers.

Founded in 2002 by Mr Yip and his architect wife Lee Ee Lin, 43, ip:li's (their modified surnames make up the name) first base was in an apartment in Mount Faber that the couple used to own.

Like all fledgling consultancies, it struggled to stay afloat. Then the prizes started coming. In 2006, the Singapore Institute of Architects Architectural Design Awards gave the firm a prize in the Individual Houses category for its kampung-inspired home at 6 Sunset Place. The President Design Awards last year came next, for 26 Cable Road, a bungalow with design cues from attap houses.

Today, ip:li's staff strength stands at six architects, one project manager and an administrator. On every job taken on, Mr Yip oversees the big picture, working out the key problems. He says that by Singapore standards, the firm is small.

While coming up in the creativity league tables, it has not quite arrived yet, compared with older and larger concept- driven firms such as Woha Architects, which is behind the School of the Arts, Iluma mall and Bras Basah MRT station.

Certainly, there are no skyscrapers or MRT stations on ip:li's project list. The firm has designed many semi-detached homes and bungalows, as well as the Watten Residences cluster housing project and, in collaboration with design consultancy CPG Corporation, additions to the NYU Tisch School of the Arts Asia.

'We are not there yet, where I am able to turn away jobs if I find the clients incompatible,' Mr Yip says with a laugh. 'But it must be nice though.'

Clients come to ip:li, he believes, because they have seen its past work, such as the kampung-themed houses, and want something in a similar vein. 'They might want to extract something from there and build on it,' he says.

The other ip:li signature, he acknowledges, is a discreet opulence. 'There is a certain kind of luxury that I am after in simple authentic materials such as concrete, steel or marble. It's not about whether the material is expensive or cheap, but it's about the charm of it. A nice chunky piece of wood compared with a skinny piece has a luxury, a classiness.'

Concrete is certainly a key element in his prize-winning structure at 9 Leedon Park, a single-storey extension home with a 'bachelor pad' in the basement for the owner, a widower, while his children and their families live in the main bungalow. The starkly geometric concrete shell, Mr Yip jokes, reminds some people of a bomb shelter. Skylights throw beams of sunlight into the interior. Trapped heat rises to the 6m-high ceiling, under a pitched roof which is vented. Water running down one wall cools it, which in turn cools the home.

The other prize-winning home, at 19 Sunset Place, again features concrete. This time, it is grafted over the decades- old brickwork of the original house to extend its living area. The result is a new patio, balconies and an outdoor shower. Yip points out that the original brick wall and the teak floor gain a new beauty when juxtaposed against the concrete.

At Lermit Road, he was asked to update an older home without destroying its character. It held deep sentimental value for the owners. The key thing he could do for it, he realised, would be to lessen the unending roar of traffic and the glare of headlights penetrating the home. The street is heavily used as it connects Nassim and Cluny roads.

Along with other upgrades, he built what he calls a Great Wall Of China to muffle the noise. To make the structure less forbidding, it is constructed with warm red bricks and dotted with perforations. Creepers will eventually cover the barrier. As a bonus, it defines a forecourt, now filled with plants. The greenery fills the views from the interior.

The idea of a wall, like many of Mr Yip's brainwaves, was met with hesitation from the client, who feared it would make her home look and feel like a fortress. That it was built was the result of the delicate back-and-forth between client and architect. It is rarely ever the case that a client buys into the bolder ideas at the first meeting, he says.

'People might think the wall is too radical. But to me, it is sensible because it addresses the problem. It might look radical, but it is grounded in logic. To me, that is the beautiful thing,' he says.

The three prize-winning projects cost $1.2 million to $1.8 million to construct. His own fees, which he says clients prefer to keep secret, are not included.

Not all relationships end happily. He has had to fire, and be fired by, the odd client or two. There have been those who see the architect as just a draughtsman with no right to introduce ideas of his own. Then there are others with whom he has had an irreconcilable clash of ideas.

Projects can take years to complete, so harmony is important, he says. He remembers one developer with whom he spent three years working out how to build a condominium on a hill with the least impact on the natural surroundings. The client changed his mind. 'The job was then given to a big well-known architectural firm which promptly flattened the hill and built the condo. It still irks me after all these years that the hill was flattened when it should have been conserved,' he says in an e-mail.

He is the eldest in a family of three boys and two girls. His early years were spent in the family home in a Chinatown shophouse ('Six households on one floor, one shared toilet and a shared kitchen'). His father, who died 12 years ago, was a ship's mechanic and his mother, now 79, was a housewife and occasional alterations tailor.

He attended Pearl's Hill Primary School and his good grades got him into Raffles Institution. He did architectural studies at the National University of Singapore, graduating in 1987. The field appealed to him because it draws on both the arts and the sciences, he says.

One brother is an aeronautical engineer and the other a real-estate developer. One sister is a housewife and the other a banker.

When he just graduated and was fired up by idealism, Mr Yip gravitated towards jobs in Singapore's most forward- thinking architectural firms, among them William Lim & Associates and Arkitek Tenggara II.

That idealism also spurred him to join the Housing Board for a spell, where, on top of the usual design issues, he also learnt how to deal with members of the public irate over the placement of a utility such as a pedestrian bridge, and to be rigorous in designing flats such that every unit in a block was the correct size, down to the last square centimetre.

Mr Ling Hao, 44, principal architect of Linghao Architects, has been friends with Mr Yip for more than a decade. Mr Yip is much like many others in his field - a person driven by ideas, he says. Mr Yip, however, has managed to hold on to his ideas in the face of commercial pressure.

Says Mr Ling: 'The sense that ideas mean something is what drives many architects. I think he has maintained that.

'He doesn't try to be a radical architect going after extraordinary shapes that hit you in the face. That is not his intention. He goes for simple, really well- thought-out plans. He looks at the relation of the house to the environment.'

Rather than build imposing edifices that maximise land use, Mr Yip's homes 'have a sense of scale' - sized just right aesthetically and functionally, he adds.

Mr Yip and his wife live in a terrace home in western Singapore. They have no children and travel a lot - London and Japan being favourite spots. Among other things, they spend time looking at buildings. How these structures relate to a people and the historical period is a topic that fascinates Mr Yip. His prize-winning bungalows, with their wide overhangs and balconies, reference a lost style of tropical architecture.

'As I grow older, I've become more conscious of historical aspects of our architecture and what little is left of it. We have beautiful kampung houses, blackand-white houses and townhouses. But we are now so connected to the rest of the world, we become a part of it. And the danger is that our design will become faceless.'

My life so far...

Mr Yip Yuen Hong with a younger cousin when he was 12 (above), with his Raffles Institution friends when he was 18 and with his mother in 2001. -- PHOTOS: COURTESY OF YIP YUEN HONG
'It was great working in HDB. I really learnt the mathematical side of things. You have to be very precise. When you design a flat, you can't make it 0.5 sq m bigger than the next flat. Both neighbours must have the same square footage. That's really tough because sometimes, you need to bend the block to fit the contours of the land'

Mr Yip Yuen Hong on working as an architect in HDB from 1988 to 1990

Mr Yip Yuen Hong with a younger cousin when he was 12, with his Raffles Institution friends when he was 18 (above) and with his mother in 2001 (above).
'Kampung houses are very sensible. They have big roof overhangs to protect from thunderstorms and sunlight. The scale of the house is small and the windows are large, so air is always moving through. Those are the little things that we can extract for contemporary architecture. But today, people want modernist glass houses - we are being cooked, microwaved inside'

On traditional forms that inspire his work

Mr Yip and his wife, Ee Lin, also an architect.
'If a client came to me and wanted a house just like the others on the street, I'd encourage him to be himself. If you are going to pay so much, you might as well get a bespoke suit. Make it fit your body, not someone else's'v

On how he deals with clients

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