by Vladimir BelogolovskyOct 16, 2021
I first met Richard Hassell and Wong Mun Summ, the founders of the Singapore-based WOHA, in May 2016 at the opening of their exhibition Fragments of an Urban Future at Palazzo Bembo in Venice during that year’s 15th Venice Architecture Biennale. During that conversation, the two leading partners of the 100-person firm told me bluntly, “The only way to preserve nature is to integrate it into our built environment.” That’s exactly what their buildings—porous, breathing structures—deliver; they bring more greenery to their sites than their footprints could fit if they were parks. For example, the architects’ Parkroyal Collection Pickering features planted areas that are five times the size of the hotel’s original site. And WOHA’s Oasia Hotel Downtown has a green plot ratio of 1,100 per cent. This means that all plants comfortably growing on this building’s facades and terraces cover an area 11 times larger than its original site. Imagine if every building was committed to such a contribution! Then our cities would be 11 times greener than the countryside all around and at least as green as the densest forests.
Richard Hassell and Wong Mun Summ founded WOHA in 1994 in Singapore after working for five years as designers at the local office of Kerry Hill Architects. Apart from Singapore the practice currently has projects under construction in Australia, China, and across South Asia. In addition to the abovementioned projects, the architects’ most recognised built works include Singapore Pavilion at the 2020 World Expo in Dubai and two other projects in Singapore—social housing complex SkyVille @ Dawson and Kampung Admiralty, a co-location project that includes public housing, medical centre, and rooftop community park. In the following interview with Richard Hassell, we discussed the expanded realm of architecture; the practice’s efforts to try to achieve architecture that’s sociable, high-performing, active, and engaging; seeing architecture and nature as one domain; advocating for their green ideas to become systemic; and about WOHA’s key ambition—to build more humane buildings.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You once described your architecture as, “an interesting dialogue between cozy domestic horizontality and futuristic verticality.” How do you see your role as an architect?
Richard Hassell: First, architects should not be reduced to form-makers. Styling an object is not the point. A lot of our design research is channeled into thinking of the role of the building beyond its footprint—being a part of its neighbourhood, its relationship to climate, the environment, culture, history, and so on. We design buildings by studying what impact they will bring to the site and the local community. We don’t see our client as the only stakeholder; we consider the surrounding area and the city; we even think of birds and insects as our clients. [Laughs.]
VB: When you describe your work you use such words and phrases as generous, responsible, delightful, sensuous, sky parks, pocket parks, public amenities, high density, domestic high-rise, architecture as infrastructure for landscaping, three-dimensional matrix with different environments within, civic generosity, living building, breathing architecture, green in the sky, sky villages, environmental filters, humanising buildings, buildings as system components, open-air, a part of an ecosystem, and system thinking. How else would you describe the kind of architecture you try to achieve?
RH: Our work is really about the expanded realm of architecture. That’s what many of the words and phrases you cited allude to. To make cities desirable, high density must be paired with high amenities. Projects must be ambitious and architects must be future-positive. Our architecture is social, far beyond abstract beautiful shapes placed into a city like sculptures on a plinth. Of course, we are interested in the aesthetics as well. But we see architecture primarily to be in the service of other ideas. To us, it is a sociable, high-performing, active, and engaging architecture that we try to achieve. Architecture is not frozen music. We see it as something moving, connecting, communicating, welcoming, and sharing. Our architecture is clustered in its expression. It is not a single object. We try to create the kind of architecture that is more than the sum of its parts. We are not interested in being unified and simple. We are interested in the character of multitudes.
VB: I like how you describe your buildings as moving on a windy day.
RH: Yes, there is this aspect of a porous and breathing object. Here in the tropics, the line between indoor and outdoor does not need to be very strong. In-between spaces are really the primary and engaging spaces.
VB: Another word you use in describing your work is “prototypology.”
RH: It means a strategy of a prototype. The future we imagine shouldn’t merely be expressed with futuristic features. Being a stylist simply reduces the role of the architect. Our idea is not to stylise a prototype but to question the essence of the prototype itself. Prototypes can be expanded and we need to think of new models that suit the concerns of the 21st century. We see prototypology as a sort of drive to develop other prototypes. We are pursuing the new green, multipurpose, regenerative town in the tropics. What could it mean? Do we need a new prototype? We want to imagine what the components of such a city of the future would be like. Once we develop a new prototype, we can create a new typology and build urbanism based on such new typologies and prototypes. We think the 20th century typology has become a trap for urban design. And urban planners perpetuate these established types and architects and developers have no choice but to follow them. So, new and more appropriate prototypes should be developed. We should think of new building regulations, and new urban design strategies by being critical to allow real change and innovation.
VB: Parallel to architecture you have an interest in art, especially in creating works based on complex geometry, tiling, and tessellation. Could you touch on that?
RH: It is a real passion of mine that dates back to my childhood. I have loved the work of MC Escher since I was little. I did my own tessellation at high school. It is very architectural and if you see it as a floor plan there is no separation between the figure and the ground. The figure is the ground and the ground is the figure. So, every line has a double duty and double meaning. That’s what we try to do in our architecture as well. We always think of in-between space both as void and figure. So, there is an interplay between spaces and solids. Our projects have this tessellated quality in terms of indoor and outdoor spaces. There are moments of invention and mathematical discovery in the design process itself. I find tremendous satisfaction in creating something based on the process of figuring things out. I like the freedom these exercises offer. I am completely free in making my choices, unlike in architecture which is dependent on so many factors. And I like that very simple moves lead to very surprising and complex consequences. That’s very intriguing. That’s what I want to achieve in our architecture, where individual elements seem to be quite simple but as an assemblage, the building becomes something else entirely.
VB: You said, “We aim at merging the megacity project from the past with the idea of a garden city for the future. We want our cities to be cozy, comfortable, natural, and domestic.” Could you elaborate?
RH: We avoid designing buildings as abstract objects. The bigger they are the more intimidating they feel. So, we think about how to make high-density projects livable. We always ask, how do we domesticate a high-rise building? In a way, we try to de-abstract it. For example, if you put a sky garden on top and treat a building as a landscape as Parkroyal Collection Pickering here in Singapore, suddenly it reminds you of a hill, which is not intimidating. Man-made forms can be very tiring; they make you think, judge, rationalise, and so on. That’s why we try to insert layers of landscape wherever we can. It is much more restful. A tree is the key component of a high-density city.
VB: As you told me before, “The only way to preserve nature Is to integrate it into our built environment.”
RH: Absolutely! If we don’t incorporate nature into our built environment there is not going to be much nature left to support us. Cities must be part of nature, the life support system on earth. Throughout history architecture and nature have been separate domains. We see them as one. But, if our decision-makers spend most of their time in glass boxes they are going to make bad decisions about nature because they are so disconnected from it. If you don’t look after a plant you can’t look after nature on a much larger scale. There is also an educational aspect. If we spend more time around trees and plants, we are going to be much more careful about our planet. What’s important here is our relationships with other living creatures on our earth. In the 20th century, we pretended that all we need is technology because that’s what we come across in our daily lives. But in the 21st century, we realised that this attitude needs to change. The idea is to take a comfortable garden suburb experience and replicate it vertically through a megastructure for everyone to enjoy.
VB: Do you see your work as exemplary or as your unique solutions? Do you envision other architects employing your strategies and even specific examples?
RH: Definitely! All our ideas will be so much more effective if others will follow us and they become systemic. That’s why a big part of what we do is education—lecturing, publishing, and sharing ideas with other architects and decision-makers who have the power to change the way architecture is done. Also, here in Singapore, we frequently feedback to the local agencies in their discussions of codes and regulations, and policies, to initiate incentives and waivers for building more humane buildings. There is a productive dialogue.
VB: This dialogue seems to be quite effective because many local architects and students do follow many of your examples quite directly, to the point that architecture in Singapore has become representative of the WOHA approach and typologies.
RH: This is what we talked about earlier when a prototype is introduced and many people explore variations of that prototype. Of course, they don’t all resemble our buildings in the way we detail them or the way we make form choices, but you are right, the typologies we see here are pretty much WOHA typologies. But that’s ok because not every building needs to be a new prototype. Architects often work within typologies. So, I would say it is not that many buildings here look like WOHA buildings but many of us are working within a fresh typology that WOHA first proposed.