SPECIAL REPORT

The Wonder Called WOHA

by Marc Almagro
Photography by Chino Sardea
02 Aug 2017

As far as Singapore architecture practice WOHA is concerned, sustainability and beauty live on the same street

Before you even get to know about WOHA, or read about the people behind it, you will have encountered tens of thousands of images of its works online. Google the firm’s vaguely Asian sounding name, click on Images on the menu bar, and pages filled with pictures of residential buildings, city hotels, resorts, and even train stations will download. It’s really like an e-shrine dedicated to the space-defining projects of one of Singapore’s leading architecture firms. Each one is different – there seems no specific WOHA gesture or handwriting going by the images – except maybe the lush plantings and the preternatural Instagramability.  

Among those images you will find that of an air well, apparently choked with creepers and ferns, one of the centerpieces in the WOHA office located on the edge of Singapore’s Chinatown. It’s actually a vertical lung that connects all four floors of two buildings joined at the backs that in turn create the narrow and deep office spaces. There is a social hall somewhere, which may have a fancier name, on one of the floors, that looks like a ballet studio with its mirrored wall, a sleeping quarter for visiting peers and those who have to work late. On the top floor is a pantry with a bar and an adjoining open-air space where another table, weather permitting, can be used for meals or quick meetings. There is even a house cat, a stray that came into the building and stayed.

On top of that top floor is an urban garden where chilies, peppers, gourds, papayas, melons, herbs and many other plants are growing in planters. Lotus plants bloom in tanks where tilapias breed. Staff members go up to look after the plants and or hang their clothes to dry if they happen to cycle to work. The architectural firm, which has environmental and social principles spliced into its DNA, is not shy about overstating that, yes, they work with plants and they make plants work. The top of the top floor is also laboratory where plants that end up in any of the firm’s projects get tested.

Now go back to Google Search, type Parkroyal Hotel on Pickering Street, or Oasia Hotel Downtown, or Enabling Village, or Alila Villas Uluwatu.

You’re welcome.

  • DREAMING BIG
  • BODY OF FACTS
  • TO DO GOOD
  • WOHA WHO?
  • POWER PLANT
  • SUSTAINING SUSTAINABILITY

Dreaming Big

“There seemed to be a real need for us to start our own practice,” says Richard Hassell who, with Wong Mun Summ, is one of the two founding directors of WOHA. “It’s quite shocking that with all the talk about global warming very few people are looking at the big picture. The world is transforming in many ways, people are quite passionate about nature, there is this consensus that the world is changing quickly, and everyone is an expert – but no one is doing anything like it’s nobody’s responsibility. Especially the building sector, which accounts for, I think, about 60 per cent of emission and energy use.”

Richard and Mun Summ were former colleagues at an architecture firm where they worked on a number of groundbreaking projects. But both felt that something was lacking. “What we’re really very passionate about was creating very humane environments.”

Architecture must mean something, Richard declares. “You’re the facilitator of a lifestyle, and when you were studying in school you were talking about the history of art, and architecture, and politics, and sociology, and you were told that architecture is something really important,” he elaborates. 

  • DREAMING BIG
  • BODY OF FACTS
  • TO DO GOOD
  • WOHA WHO?
  • POWER PLANT
  • SUSTAINING SUSTAINABILITY

Body of Facts

  • Richard Hassell and Wong Mun Summ started WOHA as young architects in 1994.

 

  • Richard was just 28 and Mun Summ 32. “We think there’s a lot of tremendous creative stimulus in trying to address the issues that we are interested in. We can’t understand why some people are just styling old products,” Richard says.

 

  • The firm’s name is a combination of the names Wong and Hassell, but coined to conceal the identity of the founding partners. “We wanted it to be about the brand, not about us,” Mun Summ says.

 

  • The founders’ common friend who works at an ad agency came up with the name, which was inspired by ‘Hoo-ha!’ – the signature expression of Al Pacino’s character in the film Scent of A Woman. “We like that it’s like an exclamation every time you say it,” says Mun Summ.

 

  • WOHA won the first government work competition they entered – the Marina Line MRT Competition; later renamed the Circle Line, it comprises the Bras Basah and Stadium stations. “As a young practice we couldn’t even our hands in projects so we started entering design competitions,” Richard says.

 

  • The first WOHA office had four people. Mun Summ and Richard were prepared to run the firm for a couple of years without an income.

Marc: What was there when you decided to launch the firm? Did Singapore need another practice?

Mun Summ: Did Singapore need another practice? Well, Singapore always needs better designers…

Richard: We were confident with our design. Some of the projects we’ve done have received awards and accolades.

Mun Summ: When someone starts a firm, it is not so much about there’s a need for another firm, but whether or not we can dictate our own journey. If you work for a firm and you agree with its philosophy and practice, it makes sense; but if you don’t, it feels like it’s not the right place for you to be in.

The projects were nice and interesting, but we felt that we were not being credited for what we were doing. We wanted to be able to innovate and do other kinds of project. And, ultimately, we wanted our projects to affect a larger group of people – the general public – so today we do a lot of public works project. We feel that it is important to benefit the ordinary person.”

Marc: Has your commitment, or what you set out to do, changed? Or has it remained the same through all these years?

Richard: Our commitment has evolved because we keep learning as we go along. We were dong some of our projects in the late 1990s; it was before Al Gore came up with An Inconvenient Truth. It has started some high level conversations; now everyone’s talking about global warming. It became easier to do the things that we do. Before that it was difficult to explain to clients why they should cut down their energy consumption….

Mun Summ: We haven’t really changed; we’ve evolved, yes, but our position has not changed.

Richard: …but many years ago, I couldn’t find sustainable timber for our projects because the market wasn’t there. Now you find FCW (forest certified wood) and we have to educate ourselves in all those things. There’s still a lot things that we don’t know; it’s a complex subject.

It’s also about the occupants of the building. You can design something with fantastic management systems that will lower power consumption, but sometimes you get the inhabitants who don’t like that. They want control of their own space. Unless a building works for the people who use it, it’s a failure.

It’s a constant evolution. So although we started the firm to chart our own journey I think on a national point of view its important to have young practices coming up—firms are like people. When you’re young, you’re a little bit crazy and perhaps not concerned about the consequences of your actions, and you might be more of a risk-taker. We’re still innovative, but I think we’re in some ways cautious on some matters and more strategic in our thinking.

Mun Summ: Innovation is in our DNA, but we see other ways to get to the same result. We’re smarter and get to our goal faster as well. We’ve learned to work with our partners, were in a good position in a way that were in good communication with them. We’ve built works that demonstrate goodness for the general public. They welcome our ideas.

  • DREAMING BIG
  • BODY OF FACTS
  • TO DO GOOD
  • WOHA WHO?
  • POWER PLANT
  • SUSTAINING SUSTAINABILITY

To Do Good

Richard admits there’s a ‘moralistic’ element in their stand, particularly the democratization of good design that should be accessible to the rich and the poor.

“The basics (of good design) are the same in both luxury and affordable housing. Luxury housing has perhaps more layering and finishing. Maybe the category of people who live in them is more sophisticated and needs more layering because of where they are,” Mun Summ elaborates. “But we also found out that this layering allows us to make interesting things that benefit the makers, the manufacturers. So we still do it. We’re not cynical about it, but we do like to cater to all segments of people.”

WOHA designed the landmark Enabling Village, a social and commercial space with amenities that facilitate the participation and enhances the mobility of visitors with disabilities. WOHA is also working on another project for MINDS (Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore). “We feel that people with disabilities need to be taken care of and we need to produce good design for them, too. It is consistent with our belief that we want to effect change and bring good to all people,” Mun Summ emphasizes.

“We have worked on projects with very low budget, and if you have good proportion, space, light, and air people think it’s (an) expensive (design). It’s a bit sad,” says Richard.

“When something is well-designed and well-considered, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily expensive. We are saying it’s not,” Mun Summ concurs. “I think that for a very long time the design quality in Singapore was generally not good, so we have to bring that to a higher level. That’s why public housing and similar projects have to be well considered and well designed so that we, as a society, can improve. The government can go on promoting good design, but if the general public does not appreciate it, we won’t get there.”

  • DREAMING BIG
  • BODY OF FACTS
  • TO DO GOOD
  • WOHA WHO?
  • POWER PLANT
  • SUSTAINING SUSTAINABILITY

WOHA Who?

Click to next slide

Mun Summ says that being under the radar is consistent with the practice’s belief. The people at WOHA are what’s important, not the two of them. Everyone must be of the same caliber and dedication, and deserving of the same recognition. “We don’t feel the need to glorify the people. If we want to last in the design industry, the focus must be on the brand not the individual. We can be WOHA spokespersons at this point, but in the long run it should be about the brand.”


READ

Mun Summ: I hardly read. I flip through magazines a lot; I read the newspaper.

Richard: I go through phases.

Mun Summ: I like the new media: You like an article and there’s a button and you can save it or send it to someone.

Richard: I try to read more. In the past five years, as my eyesight was going bad, I stopped reading as much because my eyes hurt.

Mun Summ: I started wearing eyeglasses when I was 35 and it has been tough.

Richard: I still buy books; I buy a lot of art books. I bought David Hockney’s new book, which I did read all the way through in about two hours. It was great writing about the meaning of art and making pictures. I also like travel art so I buy a lot of travel art books.


MUSIC

Marc: Do you like listening to music?

Richard: Again it’s in phases. When we’re super stressed we find music more stressful because it’s another thing to filter and to process. When I paint I listen to music, but I’ve become so passive that I listen to whatever Apple recommends.

Mun Summ: Let’s face it, music is a permutation of the notes, and now you find that most music is just another variation of another piece of music. I think we’re old and we’ve heard it all. I like Adele, but how often do you find one like that? We like real, everyday noise. I like classic jazz, like Billie Holiday.

Richard: I like music from school days; it has a nostalgic trigger.


WORKING TOGETHER

Mun Summ: My father is an engineer in a metal factory so I have like a technical upbringing. I liked art and drawing early. So architecture kind of brings them together.

Marc: Did you consider other options?

Mun Summ: I was kind of distracted at first. When were about to enter the university, computer science was the main thing. I thought that I wanted to do that.

Richard: I remember visiting job sites with my father. He’s a geologist but he was running his father’s business, which started as an import business but became a sheet steel fabricator. He was always making stuff with scrap materials. He restored these old houses that my ancestors built – like early settlers’ house. So I was staining timber shingles for the roof and wheelbarrowing stuff around.

Mun Summ: My dad was in metal engineering and automation. It was a good foundation. I used to hang out with him during school holidays or after school in the factory. It was fun but also a little dull.

My mum, a teacher, was quite artistic and she made toys for us. I was a product of Singapore education. I was very good at art in secondary school, but at Secondary 3, we had to do streaming. I wanted to join the art course but they said ‘no’. I had good grades so I had to do join the sciences or technical stream.

Marc: Isn’t it ironic that because you have good grades you couldn’t do what you wanted?

Mun Summ: Yes.

 

 

  • DREAMING BIG
  • BODY OF FACTS
  • TO DO GOOD
  • WOHA WHO?
  • POWER PLANT
  • SUSTAINING SUSTAINABILITY

Power Plant

"It’s interesting working in Singapore because it has a different climate. It doesn’t have a lot of good design to follow in terms of designing for the climate. There’s plenty of kampongs and low-rise buildings, but when you look at large and dense projects there’s only that high-rise that was made for cold, temperate cities,” Richard points out.

“We thought there was great creative opportunity to make some kind of solutions for buildings, train stations, hospitals or shopping centers. The field was wide open to do it in a different way. There’s so much that can be done simply and cheaply,” Richard say, “when addressing climate in terms of passive design. There’s also a lot of high-tech things that are going on, but we always think that the simple way is the best. We use high tech only when we can’t solve something with a low-tech solution.”

Richard is pleased that Singapore developers are exposed to issues like climate change, as well as the potential marketing advantages of implementing good design. The resistance to sustainable and ecologically sound building solutions is much lower, Richard shares. The thinking is, “What’s your great idea gonna cost us, and can I do it within the project budget?”

Private sector projects are understandably driven by profit, Richard notes. “We need to explain the idea in the language of marketing and ROI so that the commissioning organization can then confidently report to their shareholders or directors that the idea makes sense.

“It’s easier for us to sell the idea today because we have a track record of projects that are not only good ideas but also good business. So for example, Parkroyal Hotel at Pickering – their initial feasibility study had projected room and occupancy rates, which they have far exceeded. It has been great business for them,” he says.

Another popular WOHA project is Oasia Downtown, a groundbreaking building that is covered with plants. “Far East Organization (which owns the development) wasn’t asking us for a strong sustainable solution; they wanted a cool hotel.

“We realize that everyone wants to do good if it doesn’t cost them money. And if you can find a way of letting people be good they actually enjoy it. It can even be a tool to transform another organization. We have a list of that type of projects, and people believe us when we say that this will deliver business and marketing publicity.”

  • DREAMING BIG
  • BODY OF FACTS
  • TO DO GOOD
  • WOHA WHO?
  • POWER PLANT
  • SUSTAINING SUSTAINABILITY

Sustaining Sustainability

Richard believes that sustainability, including the incorporation of nature to the structure, can be achieved without tricky technology. “Parkroyal doesn’t have very complex systems or control mechanisms. It’s about drainage and waterproofing and plants. It’s not high-maintenance; you can get to the garden without using special equipment, which is something that we always try to design in.”

By making it accessible, the cost is no different from those of gardens on the ground or anywhere else, Richard claims. “There’s a lot of other properties with gardens around and people don’t lose their hair about maintaining those. It’s a combination of really having the aspirations in terms of where you wanna go and, in a really banal way, making sure that it works on the very practical level of pipes and dirt.”

Richard foresees the idea for incorporating green will last, but that at the moment it’s unfortunately a trend. “I think it will be both a long-term and short term trend. The long-term will be driven by data on making cities more livable and sustainable; that won’t go away.” The short-term trend will be compromised by unsound practices that may lead to maintenance problem. “That might cause a backlash where people say gardens aren’t working or that they’re so five years ago.”


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