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Singapore-based architectural firm Ministry of Design reveals, conceals and embraces our past, present and future, within the layers of the Canvas House. The newly completed, all-white co-living space is located in a traditional shophouse (a building type which is both a residence and a commercial business space) in Singapore, along Blair Road. The blank, white interiors blur boundaries between object and space, provides a canvas for the future, and preserves its history in concentrated spots at the same time.
The Canvas House was commissioned by the developer Figment, who gave Ministry of Design (MOD) a fixed budget and only four months to reimagine the heritage shophouses’ interiors, and turn it into rental suites for expats, for three-12 month stays. The brief also appealed to the architects, to make the space look uber appealing to renters who stayed long, and to make the living shophouse distinctive. According to MOD, “Historic dwellings like conservation shophouses are repositories of memories, with previous lives and a past of their own”. Ministry of Design did not want to completely forgo the structure’s past, and so weave it in the new, all white interiors, and how!
The white paint covers the floors, the walls, the ceilings, the furniture - almost every inch of the four-storey shophouse is rendered in white, to present itself as a ‘blank canvas’. Colin Seah, Founder, Director, Ministry of Design, the Canvas House, explains the idea behind the interiors saying, “It is a neutral white canvas for the future to be dreamt upon, rather than a wholesale homage to the past.” The old, original surfaces are revealed sporadically within the blank palette such as old timber and brickwork - these choreographed glimpses by MOD, described by them as “playful peek-a-boo reveals,” pay homage to the past, and give it a distinct character. Parts of vignettes on the decorative dragon or longevity vases, ceramic plates hung on the wall, and wooden screens, vanity dressers and chairs are playfully revealed here and there.
Circular cut outs on the walls of the Canvas House expose the shophouses’ original red brickwork, while circular spaces on the stairs have been left unpainted to present its old, timber treads. The bedroom suites also see fragments of old wooden flooring, their shape determined by the shadow cast by the sun at specific times of the day. Adding on to the intrigue, most of the tables, chairs, chests, mirrors, screens and vanity desks were repurposed and given a new lease of life, ala upcycling method.
Seah shares, “When it comes to adaptive reuse projects, the question is always the same, how do we tread the line between the past and the present? If one opts for the project to be just about preservation, it's as good as time standing still… which could be paralysing and inhibiting. But at the same time, neither do we want to disregard history completely by creating something too foreign or novel. Our response was to layer over the existing history with a proverbial blank canvas whilst leaving choreographed glimpses into the past, blanketing both space and the furniture in it - allowing us to blur the inherent boundaries between past and present, object and space."
A neon art piece fabricated by The Signmakers decorates one wall in the Canvas House, encapsulating MOD’s approach to the project, by featuring a Thomas Jefferson quote – “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past”. A small array of custom lights crafted by cling film inhibit the space, designed by artist Kang, who was called upon especially for the project, and who specialises in upcycling.
Rendering the Canvas House entirely in white blurs the difference between the old and the new; it also diminishes the distinction between the spatial elements such as the walls and the ceiling, and the objects within it such as the furniture and lights. “With everything white, object/space dichotomy is blurred. The house becomes more whole, rather than a space populated by objects and people that move in and out. That allows the people using the space, to truly activate the space, and be the prominent features instead of merely inhabiting space”, explains the Ministry of Design team.
Name: Canvas House
Area: 350 sqm
Year of completion: 2020
Architect, interior design: Ministry of Design (MOD)
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