|The Process of (Un)learning|
by Robert Powell, 1997
the principal issues of designing in the tropics is the discovery of a design
language of line, edge, mesh and shade rather than an architecture of plane,
volume, solid and void. An unlearning process is involved, given the dominance
of European architecture which forms the substance of the training of architects
over the past 200 years"
- Tay Kheng Soon
Tay Kheng Soon
|Tay Kheng Soon was born in 1940, a year before the Japanese armies swept down the Malaysian peninsula and captured, in surprisingly quick time, the supposedly impregnable island of Singapore. The relationship of the colonised people of Southeast Asia to the British colonial power was never to be the same. Although the British returned in 1945, a decolonisation process had been set in motion which led to Singapore becoming a self-governing state in 1959. By 1965, Singapore was a fully independent sovereign nation. Tay qualified with a Diploma in Architecture in 1964 imbued with a strong desire to create a modern tropical Malayan architecture. He was one of a group of five students to graduate that year from the School of Architecture.|
Lim Chong Keat taught for two years in the Polytechnic and Tay worked for him on a house in Binjai Park. Another teacher who greatly stimulated Tay and remains a close friend and provocateur is Lee Kip Lin. Tay's 'Malayanism' was strongly influenced by both men. Two particular buildings were an inspiration to Tay at that time. One was the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House, the
Lim Chong Keat and Tay Kheng Soon in Penang 1962.
Tay assisted Lim Chong Keat in the design of a house in Binjai Park
|winning design by the Malayan Architects Co-Partnership in a competition held in 1961 and the other was the Head-quarters of the Boy Scouts Association of Singapore, completed by E J Seow Associates in 1959. These two buildings attempted to translate the climatic responsiveness of thetraditional vernacular into a modern design language. After graduation in 1964, Tay joined the Malayan Architects Co-Partnership and became an Associate a year later. Whilst many of his contemporaries received their architectural education abroad, Tay was in the first group of Singaporeans to receive their entire|
The HQ of the Singapore Scouts Association by
E J Seow Associates (1959)
formative architectural education in Singapore. It is significant for although the Singapore system was, and still is, largely modelled on the British educational model, it perhaps set Tay apart from the overseas graduates returning from Australia, UK and the USA.
Tay was one of the first post-colonial architects not to have worked in one of the prominent expatriate practices such as those of Swan and Maclaren, James Ferrie and Partners, Raglan Squire and Partners, and Palmer and Turner. In 1966, Tay embarked on a world study tour to further his education armed with letters of introduction to the friends of Lim Chong Keat and William Lim around
He recalls that the intensity of light in the architecture of Ram Karmi,
an Israeli friend of William Lim, made a particularly strong impression
upon him that was to have an affect on his own architecture as was the
notion of interlocking geometries in the work of Alfred Neumann at Haifa
In 1967, the Malayan Architects Co-Partnership was dissolved. Chen Voon Fee worked out of Kuala Lumpur (the Malaysian capital), Lim Chong Keat set up Architects Team 3, whilst Tay Kheng Soon along with Koh Seow Chuan (another Associate) joined William Lim as founding partners of Design Partnership (the forerunner of the now huge corporate practice DP Architects Pte Ltd). Lim's influence on the practice's direction was very strong. The practice was in its Brutalist phase; a response to the demands for an architecture to express the confidence and determination of the new nation. Tay worked with William Lim on the design of the Tanglin Shopping
Centre (since (de)faced in marble and aluminium cladding), Katong Shopping Centre and People's Park Complex (1967-70) in Singapore's Chinatown. The latter was inspired by the interlocking geometries in thework of Alfred Neumann and by Fumihiko Maki's work on Collective Form whilst a Visiting Professor at MIT. Lim recounts in his book Cities for People how Maki visited the site during construction and commented that," We theorised and you people are getting it built..."
- Wolf Prix, Co-op Himmelblau,1986
In 1964, a number of architects and other professionals formed an independent think-tank with the acronym SPUR (Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group). Tay was among the more outspoken of the group. In 1966, he published an essay in Rumah, the Journal of the Singapore Institute of Architects entitled 'Public Housing in Singapore' and in September 1967, in a paper delivered to the Democratic Socialist Club at the University of Singapore entitled 'Environment and Nation Building', he expressed apprehension about the housing policies adopted by the government. At the time, less than 35% of Singaporeans were accommodated in public housing but Tay, alert to the potential problems of monotony, identity and lack of a sense of community, called for opportunities for people to participate in the building of their homes in the form of co-operative housing. Concerned with the shortage of land in the city-state, he advocated that, "We should build compact high-density; medium-rise housing in which it is possible to create viable communities"(Tay 1967). It was a theme that he was to pursue passionately over the following thirty years. The process of (un)learning was already discernable.
From 1970 to 1971, Tay was the Chairman of SPUR. SPUR offered numerous ideas, some of which gained acceptance. For example, it was SPUR who first proposed that the Singapore International Airport should be at Changi and not at Paya Lebar. But in a paper published in June 1970, in the organ of the University of Singapore Students Union, entitled 'Development and its Impact on Changing Values', Tay launched a hard-hitting attack on the quality of the built environment emerging from government agencies and what he saw as a decline in human sensitivities arising from the centralisation of decision-making at all levels. He sensed an alienation in society and a decline in intel-lectual integrity. "In an atmosphere of expediency as a basis for action," he noted, "each individual comes to terms with his own brand of self-deception." (Tay 1970)
Sketch taken from a 1969 publication of the Singapore
Urban Research Grounp (SPUR): The Future Asian City.
Tay Kheng Soon's secretary Jessie Wang selling SPUR pamplets in 1967. The independent think-tank was dissolved in 1973.
Tay was outspoken on other issues, including Public Transport provision. A talk to the Singapore Rotary Club in September 1974 on public transportation systems, followed by a exchange of letters in the Straits Times, led to Tay being castigated by Lim Leong Geok, the then Secretary to the Road Transport Action Committee, who suggested he should stand as a candidate for election to Parliament if he desired answers to his questions. For Tay, modern architecture was simply inseparable from its social under-pinnings and this carried over into other fields. In view of his public activities, in 1974, the partners in Design Partnership decided to dissolve the practice and to reform as DP Architects without Tay Kheng Soon. Tay says there was no acrimony in the separation but it is evident that it was a painful decision for all those involved. William Lim in his book, 'Cities for People', notes that,"In the resultant new grouping, the style of the design interaction of the partners changed dramatically. Design sessions became more peaceful, but increasingly infrequent and restrained".
|Tay left Singapore undecided at first what to do. For a while, he toyed with the idea of giving up architecture but a series of events led him to set up a practice in Kuala Lumpur. It was a move which opened up exciting opportunities, for denied the opportunity to explore alternative forms of low-rise, high-density housing in Singapore, where the HDB had adopted a policy of high-rise slab blocks, he designed pioneering low-rise, high-density, low-income housing projects in Cheras and Setapak Jaya in Kuala Lumpur which were completed in 1976 and 1978 respectively.||
Aerial view of a kampong at Potong Pasir, a source of inspiration for the Chersa Housing.
|Characteristically, he questioned and later departed from the building regulations which were a legacy of the British colonial administration. In this instance, he had the backing of Tan Sri Yacob Hitam, the Mayor of Kuala Lumpur at that time who called a round-table meeting with the technical officers to grant building permission. That meeting approved Tay's layout for the linked-cluster form of housing with some minor amendments.|
Setapak Jaya Housing, Kuala Lumpur (1978)
Conceptual diagrams for Cheras low-income housing project.
Some years later, in 1984, he described the experience in a seminar organised by the Aga Khan Program at Harvard and MIT. "A problem that we faced in Malaysia was the incompatibility between the climate and the building regulations; vestiges of the colonial period. They are based on British codes and have little relevance to tropical conditions."
R e t u r n f r o m E x i l e
Encouraged by the success of the housing projects, Tay returned from his self-imposed exile and in March 1976 set up Akitek Tenggara in Singapore with Chung Meng Ker. They were joined by Woo Tchi Poung who sadly died in 1982. Chung Meng Ker studied architecture at the National University of Singapore and worked for Design Partnership after graduating in 1973. He met Tay, who was a part-time tutor in the School of Archi-tecture, at a workshop on high-density low-rise housing and subsequently worked with him on the Cheras and Setapak Jaya low-income housing projects.
"Already by my third year in architecture school, I was fascinated by morphological studies and by Lionel March's work on built form and space. I wouldn't go as far as Pythagoras who said that 'Geometry is God', says Chung,"but I always find in looking at the small aspects of a design problem some revelations about something larger. What we see as small or large is only the result of our own time-space. Sometimes you see the small things in the large things and sometimes you see the large in the small. In geometry, you are not trapped by preconceived ideas. You are free to find a solution.
Chung Meng Ker
You must constantly ask the question, 'So what?' Asking the right questions is an important function of analysis."
This gives an insight into Chung's contribution to the practice. Patrick Chia says of him,"Chung Meng Ker excavates deeply and precisely within the confines of an archi-tectural problem to arrive at the most balanced solution; he weaves together finely dovetailed answers. His strength is in the detailed resolution of morphologies and a simultaneous ability to make connections at the highest levels." (Chia 1996)
Ming Arcade, commissioned in 1977, was an important building for the practice.
When planning permission was granted, it ensured the survival of the practice.
|The practice struggled to establish itself. The granting of Planning Permission for the Ming Arcade project commissioned in 1977, came just in time to ensure the survival of the nascent partnership. The building was completed in 1982 and in 1983, it was awarded the Singapore Institute of Architects Design Merit Award, an endorsement of the practice's determination to produce good architecture|
|on tight budgets. Other projects began to come forward, including Cecil Court, the Selegie Complex and Dairy Farm Condominium, commissioned in November 1980 by the Kuok Brothers, one of the largest developers in the region. Chung recalls the early years of the practice with some nostalgia: "There was so much enthusiasm," he says," a person is a person, not just an architect and we were concerned about the forces which shape architecture, the social forces, the political forces. Of course, these have a momentum of their own. We had so many ideas about how to create better housing, but getting these alternatives accepted was difficult. The regulations were sometimes restrictive, on other occasions it was the bureaucratic mindsets that stifled initiatives; we were carried along by strong idealism; how to find a way of expressing this idealism through architecture was the problem."|
1984 paper entitled "Innovative
Technology: Implications on the search for a relevant approach to Architecture",
delivered at the Asian Congress of Architects, Tay drew attention to the
contributions of Kisho Kurokawa to the intellectual debate on Asian architecture
and stressed the need to question the Western thought process itself.
Kurokawa analyses the bi-polar fixation in Western thought and suggests
it be replaced by an Asian tri-polar viewpoint which defines a neutral
zone between polar opposites: as the zone of maximum tension and therefore
of creativity. "What we need," said Tay," is a new modernism,
one which can include matters of the spirit and of the senses. The rich
oriental traditions can be a source of inspiration for this new modernism
and in the search for a dynamic balance of the complex and contradictory
A year later, in 1985, the practice completed the 447-unit Dairy Farm Condominium for the Kuok Brothers. Open balconies and wide overhanging roofs, a transformation of traditional climatic responses into contemporary technology, give the residential units a tropical aesthetic lacking in most recent condominiums. Ironically, the Building Control Department (BCD) regulations in Singapore have regressed in some respects, for they inadvertantly do not actively encourage ecologically-responsive housing. Balconies and roof overhangs in housing projects which exceed 1.4 metres are now included in Gross Floor Area (GFA) calculations and consequently, developers often enclose and air-condition them. Because of this, such buildings are frequently less environmentally-sensitive than many built 20 years ago. The Dairy Farm Condominium is a reminder of a solution which combines the benefits of living in harmony with nature whilst at the same time providing increased density. The Selegie Complex completed in the same year indicated an early, albeit tentative, attempt at developing a design language of line, edge and shade in an urban context.
T h e T r o p i c a l C i t y
Tay attended an important International Conference held in Kuala Lumpur
organised by the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) and the Aga Khan
Program for Islamic Studies at Harvard University and MIT. At that conference,
Julian Beinhart of MIT, summarising the mood of the seminar, proposed
a research programme on the form of cities in the tropics, the Southeast
Asian City or the 'low-energy' city.
There has been no model for the tropical city and Beinhart thus suggested a research focus. The generative metaphor would be that of an 'urban garden'. The conference brought together a number of like-minded architects and academics who had an interest in the phenomena of the rapidly-growing cities of Asia and who had been working independently. In the conclusion to his own paper entitled "The Tropical City", Tay articulated the challenge in this way: "The prospects for building the great tropical city are brightest in Southeast Asia, but the odds against building it even here are very great. We need to first go beyond all our contemporary wisdoms and to shed the inferiority that makes us slaves to ready-made skills, ideas and vocabularies. We have to take on the conceptual tasks ourselves. Up to now, paradoxically, as we develop our economies, we use our new purchasing power to buy skills and ideas from abroad and we lose the ability to innovate. It is the timid but powerful decision-maker who is shaping our future. We have yet to decolonise our minds."
Finding a common focus was a valuable step towards defining new solutions. Tay and other architects such as Ken Yeang in Malaysia took up the challenge of that conference and began in earnest to explore the ideas and visions of the Tropical City. Later in 1985, Akitek Tenggara completed Parkway Builders' Centre, a medium-rise office tower block which critically questioned the nature of high-rise towers in the tropics. The thirteen-storey, L-shaped office building encompasses a naturally-ventilated atrium which is the full height of the building. It was the first attempt in Singapore to produce an environmentally-responsive solution to the high-rise office, to use the tropical climate positively and to reduce the air-conditioning load. It parallels the efforts made by Ken Yeang in Kuala Lumpur to develop a design language for the tropical skyscraper but whereas Yeang has concentrated his energies on developing the bio-climatic skyscraper, Akitek Tenggara has widened the investigation to a whole range of building types and the city as a whole. In January 1986, the practice completed Cecil Court, another office tower in the Central Business District (CBD) which had a number of innovative design features. In January 1986, the practice completed Cecil Court, another office tower in the Central Business District (CBD) which had a number of innovative design features.
1986, the practice completed Serangoon
Gardens Country Club, which marked a further step in the development
of a modern design language for the tropics. On this occasion, the building
type was a low-rise private club with a large covered outdoor space. Central
to this project is a total reappraisal of what makes living in the tropics
different; what makes it unique. Tay sees this building as one of the
benchmarks in the development of an urban tropical design language and
morphology. This bold architectural approach explored new frontiers in
technology and finds new expressions of traditional and cultural patterns
at a time when many new building designs were being transported wholesale
to Singapore by foreign design consultants.
Lodge Townhouses were also completed in 1986. This small suburban
residential development has a number of well worked-out architectural
elements which give the development its tropical character. Jack-roofs
and monsoon windows are used along with a system of open timber trellis
beams which provide shade and visually integrate the whole development.
of Tay's scepticism of the buildings emerging in the heady years of a
newly independent nation was conveyed in the title of a paper given at
an ARCASIA conference in Beijing in 1987, 'A
World Class City deserves a World Class Architecture'. The implication
was that Singapore was not getting the quality of buildings it deserves.
The influence of unsympathetic foreign architects came in for severe criticism
in the paper and Tay raises questions of the appropriateness of imported
forms and architectural languages. "A world class architecture,"
he pointed out, "will not come about by recycling other people's
ideas. Foreign expertise has not broken any new ground. Foreign designs
brought to Singapore have not surfaced any new design issues in themes
intrinsic to Singapore. The designs are conventional and conservative.
They serve only as corporate status symbols."
the practice completed the Chee
Tong Temple in Hougang. It is another important building in the development
of a design language for the tropics albeit addressing issues of tradition.
On this occasion, it was a convincing transformation into modern architecture
of a traditional religious building type. The architects believe that
the building, "seems to have touched some deep common chord of consciousness
and that it confirms that architecture can be made to respond to deeper
imperatives than those obvious and literal stylistic motifs used as convenient
signs and symbols of identity in a pastiche manner."
|In 1988, Akitek Tenggara regrouped with a new partner Patrick Chia, another graduate of the National University of Singapore. Chia has been described as an embo-diment of his work,' stripped of pretensions, questioning, unassuming and very, very good. '(Steel Profile Nov.1995) He joined the practice upon graduation, after working for DP Architects as a student in the 1970s. When he came to Akitek Tenggara in 1981, he was impressed by the atmosphere of discourse on ideas and the manner in which design was considered at so many levels, not the least||
| being at
the intellectual level. "This firm gives the latitude if you want to
affect situations and if you have initiative. The situation is very dynamic.
Tay Kheng Soon is very good at defining possibilities and rapidly synthesising
ideas.""The firm does not perceive design in a very narrow sense.
We approach it in a much more comprehensive manner. Design encompasses social
aspects, cultural aspects and political aspects. Density, for example, is
a very, very important issue which is not generally dealt with sufficiently.
There are so many elements in design that we do not currently acknowledge,
not just the nature of the artifact but lifestyles, space, climate, geometry
and landscape. Landscaping should be integral, not only decorative. The
architect is the orchestrator of all these elements and has to decide which
the practice won a competition for the redevelopment of Kandang
Kerbau Hospital in Singapore. The project had a chequered history.
The site was changed after the competition was won and the brief, too,
went through various amendments. Then, in a surprising turn of events,
the competition jury's verdict was overturned and the com-mission was
taken over by the Public Works Department (PWD). Tay Kheng Soon appealed
to Mr S Dhanabalan, the then Minister for National Development, who intervened,
and a compromise was worked out whereby the design work was done by Akitek
Tenggara assisted by hospital consultants McConnell Smith and Johnson
of Australia, with the Public Works Department (PWD) as Principal Consultants
carrying out the contract administration. The hospital was completed in
March 1997 and despite the separation of responsiblities, the clarity
of the design by Akitek Tenggara has been realised. The project takes
the notion of Line, Edge and Shade to a new level of sophistication.
Conceptual sketches for Kandang Kerbau Woman's and Children's Hospital (1988).
|Then, in a surprising turn of events, the competition jury's verdict was overturned and the com-mission was taken over by the Public Works Department (PWD). Tay Kheng Soon appealed to Mr S Dhanabalan, the then Minister for National Development, who intervened, and a compromise was worked out whereby the design work was done by Akitek Tenggara assisted by hospital consultants McConnell Smith and Johnson of Australia, with the Public Works Department (PWD) as Principal Consultants carrying out the contract administration. The hospital was completed in March 1997 and despite the separation of responsiblities, the clarity|
of the design
by Akitek Tenggara has been realised. The project takes the notion of
Line, Edge and Shade to a new level of sophistication. In October 1988,
the opportunity arose for Tay Kheng Soon to develop his ideas on 'The
Tropical City.' Ho Pak Toe, one of his erstwhile collaborators in SPUR,
was by then Director of the School of Architecture at the National University
of Singapore. Ho Pak Toe invited Tay to conduct a workshop with senior
students on the theme of the Intelligent
Tropical City (Tay 1988). The programme would explore ideas set out
in a working paper by Tay which sought to advance the paradigm of the
Intelligent Tropical City.
was devised to model the concept of The Tropical City. Singapore's population
will expand by 1.3 million people in the next 40 years. What kind of city
would emerge if 500,000 people were accommodated on the reclaimed land
adjacent to Marina Bay? This was the proposition explored, a proposition
which would maintain those parts of the island, as yet undeveloped, for
recreation, nature reserves and forest reserve. These reserves are presently
threatened with reduction into mere tokens.
model and the fixed volume model initially looked daunting but the gross
plot ratios arrived at were acceptable at 12.5. The final spatial model
of the concept had a delightful quality of urban spaces and immense vitality
even though the densities were high.
the conceptual framework provided by Tay, the student workshop developed
specific guidelines for:
tested The Tropical City proposition and assisted in the formulation of
the agenda for future research. The results were helpful to Tay in modelling
many aspects of the Tropical City which was subsequently published as
a book, Mega-Cities in the Tropics by the Institute of Southeast Asian
Studies (ISEAS) (Tay 1989). Tay received support in his research from
the late Professor Kernial Singh Sandhu at ISEAS where Tay was appointed
Research Associate from 1988 to 1989 and at the Aga Khan Programme at
MIT where he was appointed as a Visiting Scholar in 1986 and in 1989.
Yet another project won in competition, the Nanyang
Technological University Hall of Residence No.V was completed in 1989.
The hall is a modern reinterpretation of traditional ways of responding
to the tropical climate. Light wells, covered walk-ways, open-to-sky spaces
and deep window reveals all work well within the compact plan. Most importantly,
post-occupancy evaluation has shown that the design approach
Tay achieved an apparent breakthrough. The publication of 'Mega-Cities
in the Tropics' and the positive assessment given of the buildings produced
by the practice, notably in the book Innovative Architecture of Singapore
(Powell 1989), led to an invitation from the then Minister of National
Development, Mr S Dhanabalan, to prepare a Development Guide Plan (DGP)
for a 76 hectare site on the fringe of the central area of Singapore known
Bugis. It was an inspired move by the Minister; in effect he challenged
Tay and the Singapore Institute of Architects to produce a viable plan
to integrate the ideas on the Tropical Asian City that Tay had been vociferously
propounding for almost a decade. Tay was appointed by the SIA to lead
a team on the project. His frequent criticism of the government agencies'
approach was now put to the test. Could he produce a radical yet workable
alternative? The time was past for abstract theories, the alternative
would have to pass detailed scrutiny and empirical analysis by those who
for years had borne the brunt of Tay's criticism.
Tay assembled a core team of professionals. The Revised Concept Plan for Singapore was still being prepared (it was not published until 1991), so Tay seized the opportunity to question the whole urbanisation strategy for the island. The team eventually produced a radical new approach to planning the city in the tropics, in effect answering the chal-lenge thrown down by Beinhart at the Kuala Lumpur conference in 1984. Given the Tay Kheng Soon model and an alternative plan by the URA which effectively continued the successful policies of the past, the government accepted the URA version.
was inevitable, for it would have been an admission of the limitations
of its own metho-dology to have done otherwise. It was not that the URA
produced a bad plan, simply that it lacked a vision of the Tropical City
in the 21st century. Pragmatic, buildable and based on a proven formula,
it did not engage in any rethinking of previous norms. It did not address
the question of how the island could become more hospitable to nature
or how an island-city-state could be more sustainable.
Soon is philosophical about the outcome. "There is a certain inertia
to planning policy and it is difficult to deflect it from its customary
trajectory. At the same time, there is a tacit acceptance that we were
correct: you see there has been a gradual increase in Plot Ratios in subsequent
plans. In the Newton DGP, for example, a Plot Ratio of 4.5 is now being
proposed which is precisely what we had advocated at Kampong Bugis. Light
Rail Transit (LRT) is now being widely seen as an addition to buses and
MRT. We had proposed this in the Kampong
Bugis DGP and likewise, the idea of service tunnels beneath highways.
It is all a matter of time before the ideas win acceptance."
it another way, "The state is the largest landowner, but it restrains
new possibilities by assuming past models. Certain attitudes are entrenched.
It is difficult to pinpoint but in some respects, we have not moved very
far and when new ideas come up, such as those proposed in the Kampong
Bugis DGP, it is difficult for them to gain acceptance. The idea of vertical
planting, for example, needs political will if it is to succeed: we are
willing to do the research to verify ideas but it is dependent on
Tay wrote a seminal essay on The
Architectural Aesthetics of Tropicality; an essay which summarised
the progress to date in developing a design language for Tropical Asia.
In the words of Patrick Chia, "It clarifies our position. It brings
together a body of ideas, not a style of architecture but a way of thinking.
It is both a look back-wards to assess what we have learnt and a look
forwards to see what we can do based on this knowledge."
It amounts to a new theory of architecture. It is the outcome of a struggle in every sense of the word against deeply entrenched bias towards western models, parochial thinking in the profession and the centralisation of design opinion in Singapore which has tended to dampen new initiatives. "Perhaps by publishing these ideas at this juncture," says Chia, "it will encourage others to pause and to see if there is another route that we in Asia can take. If we do no more than raise questions, that will be enough." It is difficult to develop theory in the world of practice which is dominated by market forces.
clients are prepared to take the risk of experimenting with new ideas?
Akitek Tenggara has been unusually lucky in having a few remarkable clients
but it is also notable just how much of their work has had to be been
won in competitions. "There is undoubtedly a struggle to develop
an appropriate design language for the tropics," says Chia, "in
fact there are two struggles. Firstly, there is the struggle against the
establishment against entrenched ideas, and this is well-illustrated by
the struggle that Tay Kheng Soon had in the early years of the practice.
But there is another struggle which has an internal dimension, everyone
of us comes to this. It is a private struggle, within oneself, what I
call the unfinished business. In this time of rapid economic expansion,
how do we stand with the rest of the world? How then should we design?
Should it be in the manner of I M Pei or Kevin Roche or Norman Foster?
What is the authentic response? If you are a conscientious architect in
the Third World, you want to be involved in this. In the 1960's and 1970's
there was ferment, there could not be consensus. But now is a different
time with different ideals, different visions."
1990, the practice produced the Victoria Street Concept Plan, an urban
study which built upon the Kampong Bugis DGP. The new study recommended
the repopulation of the central area of Singapore, reversing the massive
depopulation that resulted from a housing policy encouraged by the British
New Town model. Akitek Tenggara recommended the provision of dense urban
morphologies. In the Victoria Street area alone, residential accommodation
for some 18,000 people was proposed.
In 1989, Akitek Tenggara won a competition for the design of an Institute of Technical Education (ITE) at Bishan. The design language of line, edge and shade reached a new level of refinement. "The traditional Malay-Village-response to the tropical climate is marvellous," explains Patrick Chia, "they had breathing walls, monsoon windows, raised floors and the air just went through to provide a perfectly balanced climatic response."
Conceptual sketch of the Tropical Skyscraper. Tay
Kheng Soon (1989)
Chia is equally
adamant about the need to develop a design language for the tropics. "You
can consume indefinitely but you have to express yourself and make a statement
about who you are. We crossed the threshold of basic needs about 15 years
ago when we solved most of our infrastructure problems, so it's now time
to ask who we are in the world community."
Chia goes on, "Here, the light is strong and at times produces very precise shadows so what you want to create is an architecture of lines and shadows as opposed to a temperate climate where
planes and volumes to make your statement. In the tropics, you should
design with lines, shadows and horizontality. This is because the high
vapour content in the air tends to diffuse the light. Volumetric forms
don't stand out anywhere nearly as well as lines and edges. Those volumetric
forms you see in Manhattan do not sit well here. Basically, in the tropics,
you just need an 'umbrella' for a roof. You do not need to fight the elements.
This is where the informality of Asian lifestyles comes out."
of Technical Education was completed in 1993. "At ITE Bishan, we
wanted to encapsulate a microcosm of the city in a tropical climate,"
concludes Chia, "A very sad thing is happening in architecture in
that there is a lot of glossing over of the artifact. The historical motif
is creeping back. These are not authentic expressions of our time. Ours
is a neo-industrial age. Here we are standing at the gateway of the 21st
century yet we see people going back and copying history!". Strong
words from Chia and an indictment of the classicist post-modern façadism
that passes for architecture in many countries in Southeast Asia. "One
of the greatest problems of being an architect,' says Chia, "is knowing
how to restrain oneself, knowing when enough is enough."
The ITE was
a conceptual breakthrough and in subsequent competition entries for other
ITE buildings at Bedok, Balestier and Bukit Batok the practice attempted
to advance the ideas further but they were unsuccessful in all three competitions.
"The emotional damage is serious when this happens," says Tay.
"In competitions, you have to risk all and thus there is an enormous
commitment in time, energy and emotion."
tragedy of the competition process is that there is a lack of continuity
in developing ideas. Nevertheless, it is immensely challenging. You have
to be more rigorous and demanding of yourself. You have to demonstrate
superiority in a few drawings. Many subtleties are not visible; when you
want to do something new or different you have to ask yourself why. This
leads to the opening of minds, to creating conditions of change. It is
An indication of the increasing international recognition of the work of Akitek Tenggara came in 1993 when Tay Kheng Soon was invited to be a judge, along with Sir Norman Foster, Sir Richard Rogers and Philip Cox of the prestigious Quaternario Awards.
Preliminayt sketches for the Modern Tropical House, Tay Kheng Soon (1989).
|In 1994, Akitek Tenggara completed The Modern Tropical House. A client who had carefully studied the work of the practice and who was sympathetic to the architectural intentions of Tay Kheng Soon gave him the opportunity to explore 'Tropical Modernity' and to define a tropical lifestyle. The house relies on the juxtaposition of pure form against water and vegetation to create an image and an experience of the tropics. Openness and transparency and the careful manipulation of light and vistas are calculated to engage the imagination. The architectural language is consistent with the|
practice's earlier explorations and produced a stunningly beautiful contemporary dwelling.
with which Tay Kheng Soon promotes the cause of an architectural language
for Tropical Asia inevitably creates controversy; for it spills over into
the spheres of culture and of politics. In 1994 he wrote a critical article
in the Straits Times (ST July 30th) on the subject of the proposed Singapore
National Arts Centre designed by Michael Wilford Associates in association
with the Singapore practice of DP Architects Pte Ltd. "The project,"
says Tay," focusses on the dilemma of being Asian and Modern at the
same time. On the cultural symbolic level, the acceptance of the dominance
of the western-type performance hall structures is symbolic of an implicit
acceptance of the dominance of western arts in the consciousness. That
the huge structures are allowed to overshadow actually and symbolically
the diminutive Asian arts performance spaces is a demonstration of insufficient
consciousness of this as a cultural issue in design." The criticism
of this potential national icon created a political furore although many
agree with Tay's comments. Dramatist Kuo Pao Kun put it succinctly when
he said, "this arts centre should not be the last of the great western
arts centres, but the first of a series of Asian ones."
on to suggest that a certain mundane-ness (sic) has crept into the design,
a mundane-ness that can only be corrected by providing more scope for
the celebration of the outdoors in the design of the Asian arts section
of the complex. The timidity with which the proposals have subsequently
been revealed to the public suggests a lack of conviction on the part
of the designers regarding these cultural issues.
In 1995, Tay took on a major role in organising the 8th Congress of the Architects Regional Council of Asia (ARCASIA) and presented a paper on urbanisation patterns in the region. The theme of the congress was 'Asian Cities in Asia's Century'. The claim that the 21st Century could see the economic resurgence of Asia is well founded. A period of impressive growth and physical transformation is already evident but the impact of this on the Asian Cities is giving cause for concern. It is far from the 'brave new world' that many have anticipated. Asian Cities are becoming extremely congested and highly polluted, not to say downright ugly, and it was these looming problems which focussed the minds of the delegates.
be the form and shape of Asia's Cities in the next century? Tay Kheng
Soon's paper discussed essential spatial operations to address the ecology
versus urbanisation conundrum. If the region is to become increasingly
urbanised without undermining the balance with the natural environment,
then spatial morphologies and built forms must be found which permit the
development of high-density, compact settlements and which simultaneously
do not have a negative impact on the environment. The disciplines of spatial
morphology and built-form typology enable other disciplines to be harnessed
in order to model space, energy, administration, finance and eco-environmental
propositions at regional and local scales.
on to define what is meant by the term Spatial Operations. It is the relationship
between height, block depth, site coverage and plot ratio. These constitute
the independent variables which determine form. If one has a height restriction
of say 3 storeys and the plot ratio is determined to be 2:1, a quick calculation
reveals that the site coverage will be 2 divided by 3, i.e. 66%. All variations
can be determined when the other three are fixed. Past knowledge of buildings
shows that there are few successful designs which fulfill these parameters
as the block depth will be considerable and the design will have to rely
on internal courtyards and light wells. He cited an example in Fukuoka,
Japan by Rem Koolhaas which extended the frontiers of high-density low-rise
solutions for housing and which solved the problem of great block-depth
elegantly. Without mastery of morphology, designers are trapped in premature
spatial and form rejection and are caught in mindless repetition of past
with the context, Tay advanced the proposition that the economic and political
complementarity of Singapore, Johore and Riau province in Sumatra (SIJORI)
is greater than the competition between them. The advanced technology,
global business network and infrastructure of Singapore, added to the
vast material, mineral and agricultural resources of Riau and Johore together
with their combined population represent a development potential of regional
and global significance.
the scale of the development, it was assumed that greater parity of income
is obviously desirable between Riau, Johore and Singapore than at present.
A levelling upwards would generate a vast increase in economic activity
and propel an in-migration of population upwards of 20 million. In spatial
terms, one might expect a three-fold increase in urban floor space and
infrastructure. This, as Tay pointed out, is both the consequence and
the catalyst of economic development. He posed the following questions:
o What will
this increase do to the environmental conditions in existing cities and
strategy for SIJORI is based on catalyzing a new growth cycle by pooling
the resources, capital, skills and infrastructures of the three territories.
The construction of physical linkages in the form of a system of trans-national
tunnels and bridges is the key catalyst. These would link Johore to Singapore
to Karimun Island, then west to Sumatra and east to Batam. These linkages
would in effect create one economic zone augmented by the existing telecommunications,
shipping and air traffic links. The urbanisation of the enlarged economic
region is conceptualised as nodal clusters along the trunk linkages with
large natural areas in-between. It is postulated that this string of human
interventions in the landscape will not only be cost-effective but also
environmentally more friendly.
pattern is then linked to the demand and supply of labour, to sustainable
use of resources and to nature conservation. The thrust of Tay Kheng Soon's
paper was devoted to a spatialisation strategy for SIJORI and the exploration
of the relationship between built form, CO2 generation and nature conservation.
The paper offered a critique of planning models currently used and the
disparate approaches of the different land-development disciplines. He
explained how Morphological Research would give insights to designers
in terms of urban layout and built-form in a stylistically unprejudiced
manner. This view is substantiated by reference to Lionel March's investigations
with Leslie Martin and others at the Centre of Built Form Studies at Cambridge,
published in 1972 in the book 'Urban Space and Structure". This part
of Tay's paper concluded with a proposed model for "A Compact, Low
CO2-Generating City in the Tropics." The model was elaborated in
some detail, including its relationship with its rural hinterland, the
ecological impact, carbon dioxide emission, tropical forest conservation
and food production as one system.
a guest speaker at the Congress, remarked that there is at present a bankruptcy
of planning solutions for Asian Cities. Planning in the conventional,
con-servative sense cannot deal with the modern city which in many cases
is propelled by forces which are out of control. Planning has died without
a whisper, surrendering to the homogenising forces of globalisation, capitalism
and consumerism. In the face of this scenario, there is in the west a
retreat to sentimentality for the past, nostalgia for tradition. Professor
Tunney Lee, responding to Tay's paper, remarked that Asia is a high density
context and that, "We should rid ourselves of the sentimentality
of the West." Tay Kheng Soon's SIJORI paper represented a substantial
shift from the received wisdom of western planning models. It rejected
low-density planning solutions in the face of rapid urbanisation.
In 1995 and
1996 Akitek Tenggara completed work on three school projects: Elias
Park Primary School, Clementi
Town Secondary School and Beatty
Secondary School. The Elias Park Primary School, in particular, raises
questions on the nature of education and school design in Singapore at
the end of the millennia. It challenges the notion that a school ought
to have an imposing or monumental entrance. The design intention is to
diminish the scale of the building so that it is perceived as a place
for children and to make it an environment of constant discovery. It is
a continuation of the process of developing an architectural language
for the tropics and emphasises the interaction of children with the natural
In early 1996, the practice underwent another self-renewal exercise. CP Lee, an AA graduate and a very strong maker of building forms, who had been a partner since 1987, left to pursue his own direction and Winston Yeh, a Harvard-educated architect and urban designer, amalgamated his Hong Kong practice with Akitek Tenggara. Formerly, the two practices had been associated through Pacific Asia International Ltd. Yeh was a member of the design team that formulated the Kampong Bugis DGP and it presents the enticing possibility that given Yeh's decade of experience of planning and urban design in China, the intelligent city, with accompanying dense morphologies, could yet be built, though in a different climatic context.
Like Tay and Chia, he is both a practitioner and a teacher. He taught for two years at the National University of Singapore from 1985 to 1987 and for almost a decade, part-time, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "Through teaching, you discover your agenda," says Yeh," I share Tay Kheng Soon's concerns for the ecology and energy conservation though I have arrived at this point by a different route. I discovered that for me, passion alone was not sufficient to generate design. I needed guiding principles which are not personal or idiosyncratic. I am not attached to any particular religion, but
religions do provide me with an attitude to design. Love and kindness are things shared by all religions; love for individuals, for groups, for the environment; isn't this the ultimate criteria? Translating 'love and kindness' into specific architectural and planning terms is not easy. It is neccessary to resolve many difficult conflicts. I like the notion that William Morris had, that the end product should be a beautiful object as well as a utilitarian object. The space and time in producing these objects should also be pleasurable."
1996, Tay delivered a paper in Kumamoto, Japan, entitled Architecture
of the Future: the Challenge to Asia and the West. The title is significant
in that it acknowledges the interconnectedness of the global economy and
the global ecology. The paper enlarges upon The Tropical City concept
to include the supporting region in the form of considerations for the
production of food supply, water collection and CO2 absorption.
In early 1997, two major projects were completed which reveal the practice's progress in developing a design language for the tropics and in examining new morphological patterns for high-density housing. These are Kandang Kerbau Hospital and Choa Chu Kang Public Housing Precinct; both projects won in competitions. In 1982, Akitek Tenggara had made proposals to the HDB for Design-and-Build Housing but at the time it was judged to be inappropriate. The housing scheme at Choa Chu Kang critically questions many accepted norms in public housing in Singapore. Car parking, for example, is moved to the perimeter of the housing project and the block depth is increased. This opens up new permutations in the spacing of blocks.
both ideas that Tay Kheng Soon has advocated for many years, most recently
in Thoughts on Mass Housing (Tay 1991). Kandang Kerbau Hospital, completed
in March 1997, brings the development of the design language of line,
edge and shade to a new level of sophistication. Tay has some minor criticisms
of the way the project has materialised. It was the practice's intention
that the western site boundary would merge with the adjoining lily pond
in Kampong Java Park and that there would be a blurring of edges. But
the boundary eventually set has inhibited the full potential here.
Soon continues to cultivate controversy and the Singapore administrative
establishment treats him warily. This is something he has grown to live
with and perhaps it is the fate of the radical intellectual in any society.
However, his international stature as an architect and educator was recognised
by the invitation in 1996 to become Adjunct Professor at the prestigious
RMIT School of Architecture, Australia. Also in 1996, he was an invited
speaker at the UIA Congress in Barcelona and is to be an exhibitor alongside
Peter Eisenman, Toyo Ito, Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaas at the Pompidou
Centre in Paris, in an exhibition entitled Enquete sur l'architecture
proche (Approaching Architecture: an Enquiry), scheduled to take place
for a design language for the tropics and the process of (un)learning
that it implies has a remarkable symmetry with the process of decolonisation.
The practice is now, in Chia's words,"... in a period of transition.
Increasingly, work is done outside Singapore. The arrival of Winston Yeh
in 1996 will possibly accelerate this process. Our abilities are not just
confined to this context. Our approach to design in a comprehensive manner
is applicable in different contexts, the context of China, where we are
currently doing masterplanning projects, the context of Fiji, where the
practice is currently working on the World Trade Centre in Suva and the
context of the Philippines where we are preparing proposals for low-income
Chia expands on this,"The cities of Asia are also in transition. Many are going through periods of self-doubt as they are becoming more corporatised, losing their identity. There is a 'facelessness' about things. This situation is serious, this transformation of cities according to the logic of capitalism. I am not critical of foreign architects working in Asia but I am critical of those irresponsible foreign architects who are harnessed by these faceless corporations and who are not sympathetic to these issues. What we need are enlightened patrons who are alert to the need to create cities which are much richer and serve other agendas, not just the narrow agenda of capitalism, they are not mutually exclusive."
"As a practice, we perhaps do not take enough care to 'present' ourselves, to dress correctly, to appear in the 'right' places, but the problems that are affecting Asian Cities are much more pressing and so much more challenging than narrow professional politics."
Central to the work of Akitek Tenggara for more than two decades has been a responsiveness to the natural world and a concern for sustainable or 'green' architecture long before it became fashionable to include this in one's agenda. This does not infer a nostalgic return to past forms but a commitment to a design language for the tropics using a modern vocabulary. This was evident in the early days of the practice with the low-income social housing at Cheras in 1976, and in the most recent work such as the
Sketch by Tay Kheng Soon, for a house at Batu Pahat, Malaysia (1997).
|Modern Tropical House of 1992 and the Kandang Kerbau Hospital of 1997. These concerns, together with a continuous engagement with the challenge of rapid urbanisation and the need for housing solutions using dense morphologies, will ensure that the practice maintains its focus and remains relevant into the 21st century.|
The precedence for the architectural language of Line, Edge, (Mesh) and Shade is to be found in the traditional vernacular architecture of the Malayan peninsular. Photograph by Tay Kheng Soon, taken in 1969.