Husband-and-wife architect team Khoo Peng Beng and Belinda Huang design high-rises that maximise human engagement and interaction with ecology
By Jonathan Evans
Soft spoken yet effervescent, bang on schedule and beaming widely, Khoo Peng Beng strolls into the bijou HQ of his and his wife Belinda Huang’s practice Arc Studio Architecture + Urbanism in Singapore’s fashionable Jalan Besar. At 47, though looking a decade younger, he appears every bit the trendy professor in his thin-rimmed specs and green shirt liberally specked with pastel-coloured flowers – his outfit almost a literal representation of the aesthetic focus and environmental ideology that drive the firm’s work.
Though Khoo and Huang have since helmed a vast panoply of initiatives both in Singapore and overseas, one of their first blueprints remains ARC’s most famous. In 2002, as relative upstarts, he and Huang took the Duxton Plain Public Housing Design Competition by storm with a monumentally ambitious entry that redefined the potential of public residential projects. Their proposal, the groundbreaking The Pinnacle@Duxton, ¬was selected over 201 worldwide entries. Both the city’s first 50-storey residential development and the world’s tallest public-housing building, it also features the world’s longest sky gardens. A landmark by any yardstick, it still dominates Chinatown’s skyline eight years after completion.
Ordinarily, one might associate this kind of monolith with more ebullient characters, but Khoo and Huang remain remarkably reserved and modest despite their many accomplishments
“We were just fortunate we asked the right questions,” he says of his Duxton win.
What made you and Belinda leave your first company and set up your own practice?
Khoo: We had practised for around seven years, all through that early ’90s boom. In 1998, we had our first child and had a few problems with childcare. Belinda started a home office, but after a while it started snowballing, so I left RSP Architects Planners & Engineers to form our own practice; it was really organic, and happened in a very fluid way.
What qualities did you see in each other that made you believe you would make a great professional team?
Khoo: I look at our working relationship like a dance: it’s two partners, but we take turns to lead and follow
Huang: We worked together in RSP in the design team, and knew each other’s working methods, strengths and weaknesses, so we decided to give it a shot.
Khoo: The way I look at it is like a dance: it’s two partners, but we take turns to lead and follow. We bring different perspectives to the way we approach problems, and life, and that broadens the way we view architecture, the city and humanity. Belinda brings the feminine viewpoint, as well as a more practical one. She strives to provide order to the challenges in our world; I try to open doors and figure out how things work together, and I’m quite comfortable with uncertainty. So the two of us balance out.
You were still relatively new as a partnership when you submitted your entry for the Duxton competition. How did you formulate such a bold proposal?
Khoo: In the design brief, we were asked to look at a high-density high-rise that had never been attempted before. We were in [suburban enclave] Holland Village, in one of the U-shaped blocks, and it was only 15 storeys. We were thinking: If we multiplied this three times, what would we like to see if we lived there?
We thought we should find a model that looks loose and open, while being efficient with materials and cost. We looked at porosity and identity, and thought that even though it was such a massive building, the impact on the city should not be massive – it’s kind of a contrarian model.
We invented this repetition method that used a small number of modules to create a diverse-looking façade. We thought if we gave the units different features, like bay windows or balcony planters, which could make a small difference. We also thought it would be wonderful to put up gardens in the sky – reclaiming land in the air to liberate more space for communal areas. That idea, inspired by Le Corbusier’s projects where he used the rooftop as another garden, was fascinating to us.
Huang: Most of the time it is like that – it’s very complex, so we try not to determine what the final product is going to be, but create a script where we “grow” the solution.
How do you foresee public housing in Singapore evolving, and to what extent do you think The Pinnacle will be an influence?
Huang: The Housing Development Board (HDB) provides for up to 85 percent of the population, so you have lower and higher incomes and levels of affordability. The Pinnacle is one extreme; there is a whole diversity of housing. It would be difficult to replicate something like The Pinnacle today; the cost may be three times the original.
Khoo: At the moment in new towns, at planning level we are considering ecology and more human-centred design – public spaces, ground connectivity. That’s a trend I see continuing, with people living close to parks, greenery and a walkable town, more community-based and care programs, all interwoven very closely. In the centre of town, close to nodal areas like the MRT, I would imagine as technology improves, we would grow taller.
Have you found Singapore a conducive place to advancing your careers as architects?
Huang: At the turn of the millennium Singapore wanted to create a design economy on top of production and industrialisation. I think we were right at the heart of the entire movement. All of it needed creative thinking: physical planning and human geography were creative ways of using economic tactics to stimulate behavioural changes –industrial parks, residential estates. It had to come together in a very coherent manner because there was no hinterland, and very limited resources.
Khoo: Our profession grew on the back of these waves of development driven by the government, and there was a lot of support – grants, financial backing – for creative industries. So it was a very good place to be in this period of growth.
Your blueprint for The Pinnacle was chosen 15 years ago. Do you believe Singapore still supports younger architects in the same way now, or is there a tendency to give contracts to overseas firms with more experience?
Khoo: Comparing the environment we were in then to now, I think it would be harder for a young practice to gain commissions. The requirements have become more complex and demanding. Government structures have started to be more stringent with the firms that can participate in the tenders. But they are always open to improvement; they see the benefit in the creative side, but it’s important for them [to have] both younger energy and more experienced firms in the execution.
Do you feel innovation and ambition are still prized qualities in Singapore architecture?
Khoo: For city-centre development, and five- and six-star developments, we will continue to strive to break barriers and be different. If you look at Marina Bay, new residential projects have a more multi-layered approach – retail, offices. In new HDB estates, we are seeing integrated use – elder care, childcare, assisted living, all occupying the ground floor. In some urban centres, you see retail outlets occupying the base. I think we will see that more and more.
Huang: Elder care, I think, will continue to be a big feature in new development because we are ageing very quickly! Together with Tokyo and some other cities, we will have to pioneer this. I think the next generation of buildings will not necessarily [be about] formal innovations at a superficial level, like an interesting façade, but more how a city will provide compassionate care to the residents.
Which current architects impress you the most?
Huang: Architects like WOHA [Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell] started a generation ahead of us, and I’ve always found the connection as friends and fellow practitioners really helpful. When we see good buildings we’re always thinking about how we can fast-forward some of these ideas in terms of design.
What is the project of yours that you are most excited about in the future?
Khoo: In Kolkata, this year we’re going to finish The Atmosphere, a “sculpture in the air”. That’s like The Pinnacle on steroids! Each unit is a bungalow; double-volume spaces, with huge decks like plots of land in the sky.
Next year will be the Sentosa Village Hotel; recently the most exciting [new project] for us was The Tembusu [a condo near Kovan new town], a series of interconnected low-rise buildings that stack up to become a high-rise.
This article originally appeared on Property Report.