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Gardens in the Sky: WOHA's Sustainable Architecture

The principals of the Singapore-based firm are determined to paint a tropical metropolis green.

Mun Summ Wong (left) and Richard Hassell outside their office in Singapore.

Asia’s successful experiment in social and economic planning, Singapore has also proved fertile professional ground for architects Mun Summ Wong and Richard Hassell. The two founding partners of WOHA have realized their dreams for sustainable urban design on the island, a practice that won them recognition as Maison & Objet Asia Designer of the Year 2017. It’s been nearly 30 years since their introduction, a notably meet-cute story. “My aunt had lunch with Kerry Hill’s wife,” recalls Hassell about how he came to work in the Singapore office of the Australian architect behind a number of early Aman resorts. “Mrs. Hill mentioned Kerry needed new recruits, and I needed a job.”

Wong was already on staff at Hill’s office, and the two architects quickly discovered they had almost identical training and academic interests, as well as similar ideas about “designing utility that is also beauty,” says Hassell. While researching Asian vernacular structures and materials for splashy luxury beach resorts such as the Datai, in the Malaysian archipelago of Langkawi, the two bonded over a fascination with what Hassell describes as a “forgotten period of sustainable architecture” in the 1980s, when the global oil crisis gave rise to innovations such as subterranean houses with grass roofs and homes topped with solar panels. After five years, the two left to launch WOHA, the name of which is derived from the initial two letters of their respective surnames.

A Southeast Asian city-state about half as big as Los Angeles with few natural resources, Singapore offered alluring fundamentals to the ambitious duo, namely its small size, rapid growth, and an equatorial climate. These dynamics align well with Wong’s and Hassell’s shared beliefs. They follow Kenneth Frampton’s idea of critical regionalism, which argues for architecture to be modern but geographically and culturally contextual. They are also fans of Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa’s examination of the holistic connection between inside and outside in tropical living. “So many elements are hard to embody in your designs if you haven’t lived in the tropics,” observes Hassell. “Living here,” Wong says, “you get very attuned to the smallest natural movements that realize larger results.” The thing that distinguishes WOHA is that they’re applying these ideas to skyscrapers.

Spending time with the architects is as much as lesson in environmental design as in the underlying eco-science. Any conversation about their constructions quickly shifts to green-plot ratios and gardening tips. The real-world application can be seen in projects ranging from Singapore’s 36-story Newton Suites, equipped with sky gardens and green walls, to hotels such as the Parkroyal on Pickering and Oasia Hotel Downtown, which have soaring lush aeries. “In Singapore, little is left to nature. The landscape is all managed, created, or in many cases destroyed,” Wong says. “In the Pickering project, we designed a building that is also a bit wild, with a mountain and a grotto.”

These days, the climate is around five degrees warmer than it was in Wong’s childhood because the dense urban development is constantly absorbing the sun and converting it into heat. Plants, Hassell is quick to remind anyone who forgets their grade-school science, turn energy from the sun into water by locking it up in a chemical bond. “If everyone did it,” he says, referring to WOHA’s foliage-cloaked buildings, “the cumulative effect would bring down energy consumption and temperatures measurably.”

And, he might add, fill the skyline with vertiginous gardens.

 

Wong Mun Summ’s and Richard Hassell’s guide to Singapore

Gardens by the Bay.

Built entirely on reclaimed land, the 250-acre Gardens on the Bay are a “living, breathing Google” for anyone interested in flora. “Coming here gave us ideas for how to use plants,” Wong says. The park’s Cloud Mountain recreates the biodiversity and geology of the real cloud forests in the heart of the new city.

At least once a week, Hassell heads to MacRitchie Reservoir Park to jog the protected reserve’s seven-mile loop, home to flying lemurs and owls as well as an 820-foot-long suspension bridge over dense, natural rain forest. “Coming here perpetuates such a different notion of Singapore.”

 

Macritchie Reservoir Park.

Church of St. Mary of the Angels is WOHA’s first community project in Singapore. Though not religious themselves, the two worked closely with the friars, “taking their esoteric brief to which we could apply our creativity,” says Hassell. “People in the congregation say it reinforces their religion,” adds Wong.

More recently, WOHA completed the renovations of a traditional Singaporean shop-house from the 1940s as the coffee shop Punch. “People thought we were crazy to do an outdoor courtyard for a café in tropical Singapore,” Hassell says. Ceiling fans and retractable shades allow for seamless indoor-outdoor living, ideally suited to the cultural shift among younger people toward spending more time outdoors.

“Suddenly it’s a surprisingly interesting place,” says Wong of his birthplace, which has long held onto a straitlaced image. He points to 15-seat Gyoza Bar as an example of how locals delight in discovering hidden places around their tiny island. “It’s a funny little spot upstairs in a shop-house.” The menu is composed only of Japanese dumplings and French champagne, presented masu-style in wooden sake cups.

Gillman Barracks.

Though it has yet to generate the intended buzz, Hassell and Wong agree that the contemporary art hub Gillman Barracks, in a former British military building near the island’s southern tip, merits attention. “The natural setting takes you by surprise,” says Hassell about the cluster of galleries and restaurants fronted by a natural stream inhabited by kingfishers and monitor lizards. “Nature in Singapore may seem unimaginable when you look up at the dense concentration of skyscrapers. Yet it’s really very accessible.”

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