Practising High Density: In Conversation with ARC Studio


Eight years have passed since the completion of Pinnacle@Duxton, the landmark housing estate in downtown Singapore that elevated ARC Studio’s profile. Since then, the firm has gone from strength to strength – working on projects that interrogate our complex urban milieu. ARC Studio also researched and curated two instalments of the “1000 Singapores” exhibition, presenting a conceptual manifesto of Singapore’s urbanism to a global audience.

The directors of ARC Studio Khoo Peng Beng MSIA, Laurence Liew MSIA, and Belinda Huang MSIA speak with our Practice Editor Ronald Lim MSIA in a wide-ranging conversation on the joys and challenges of practice in Singapore.

KPB - Khoo Peng Beng

LL - Laurence Liew

BH - Belinda Huang

RL - Ronald Lim (The Singapore Architect)

RL:

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. To start, what new opportunities opened up since you completed Pinnacle@Duxton eight years ago?

KPB:

It’s just been incredible! We were just doing houses before that so the jump in scale was amazing. Belinda and I previously practised in RSP so we were used to large projects but as Arc Studio we were only doing single-family homes and small condominiums.

Post-Pinnacle, we started getting more high-density housing projects. The project kick-started a whole practice shift and opened doors in China, Malaysia and India. The project also invited opportunities to further research into urbanisation and high-density environments. As a result, we’re now looking at townships at the urban scale.

RL:

So the narrative of High Density Urbanism remains central to your practice?

KPB:

After Pinnacle, we researched and curated the “1000 Singapores” exhibitions. Researching this idea of Compact Cities - of cities as the main driving form for human settlement in the world - made us realise that high-density does not mean Pinnacle@Duxton as a typology. In a high-density environment like Singapore we should have variety and difference – different ways to invent spatial opportunities at different densities.

An urban environment could have patches of super high density and areas of lower density to produce variation within the city. So instead of thinking of the city as one flat mat, we can think of it a series of peaks.

LL:

The question of high-density is not about literal numbers. We consciously design and create community spaces for the public. For example, the Tembusu condominium’s uniqueness is its wrap-around sky decks. We created three layers of what appears as upper floors engaging a sky deck that feels like the ground. These sky decks are also a spatial opportunity for community interaction. So we’re not talking literally about high-density per se but about meaningful spatial and programmatic variation.

High-density is inevitable but we also need low-density, so we have to cleverly distribute the numbers and forms for a certain interplay between the two. But ultimately, the game is still high density and how we can create community spaces within this parameter.

KPB:

We are always interested in the people-element of architecture – how it organises the lives of communities and families. When creating High Density environments, we also want our spaces to have a particular identity or “spirit of place” that makes people feel proud to belong - that sense of “this is my home” or “this is my town” - and to want to stay. We understand that high-density environments can be potentially challenging for humans!

RL:

So if a project brief that doesn’t give you a dense plot ratio, your goal is programmatic variation and complexity?

KPB:

Yes. Also, looking at living environments makes us conscious of how organisation of spaces and buildings affect the life of the city. We want to make lively buildings, not just pretty buildings. Our goal is to create spaces that promote life.

RL:

Maybe you could speak about your recent projects?

KPB:

The most recently-completed condominium project is the Tembusu. There, we examined how the sky gardens and its greenery could act as a building skin. As Laurence mentioned, there was also a stacking of grounds. Imagine a 5- to 6-storey mid- to low-rise building but we have 3 stacks of it. So there is the stacking of ground and a living façade, but “living” in a way that avoids disamenity to people in the apartments. When looking out you don’t feel that the view is blocked but when you observe the building from outside, it is overwhelmingly green.

We love contradiction and contestation of ideas because they push the design. So we use concrete, but in a soft way that alludes to a fabric that references the original garment factory on site - which was how Wing Tai started. The idea to make the building “soft” created totally new ways of putting sky gardens together for high-density environments. That was really exciting and also challenging to execute.

RL:

I guess the filigree layer was GFA-exempt?

KPB & LL:

(unanimous laughter)

LL:

You think we could have gotten away with that amount of GFA? (laughter)

KPB:

That’s another skill we developed - how to invent new things within the definition of GFA!

LL:

We like to think that our projects as fun in their own way. As Peng Beng said, Tembusu had a unique set of challenges. Just by seeing the design you can discern the amount of stakeholder work involved. But that’s the joy of doing architecture. It’s painful but at the end of the day, you know you’re not doing something run-of-the-mill where the challenges are repeated ad nauseum.

A unique project challenges you to resolve issues in new ways that keep the project fresh. If you can simultaneously meet the project agenda and get the design you want, it keeps the practice of architecture interesting and challenging.

KPB:

To use the analogy of a professional athlete, if you keep winning by running the same race or playing the same game, it’s not as fun as if you had something new to drive you to keep your game fresh. That keeps your discipline high. For us, being creative forces us to be very disciplined. We cannot create wildly but must do so within the awareness of delivering the project successfully. So every time we want to add or evolve a certain typology, we have to create something better instead of something that creates problems downstream. The value we add to the project is extremely high and it cannot even be measured in dollars and cents.

RL:

Many firms concentrate on certain project types to allocate resources efficiently. By comparison, your practice has a breadth of project types – community centres, church interior, mosques, highly customised houses, residential condominiums. Is this a deliberate business choice?

KPB:

We see portolio diversity as good for us. So we work hard to try to get work that is important, even if it means we may not be paid as much as we would like. If you take a long-term view, then building a diverse portfolio actually benefits us.

More importantly, we consciously avoid that cookie-cutter approach because we want to respond to each project’s specific conditions. Rather than respond broadly to project requirements, we try to examine it in a more specific way to create unique projects. We want to work on transformational projects rather than repeated projects.

LL:

It gets boring if your office just does condominium after condominium. That’s the nature of design work. We relish the opportunity to do something different. I think that would be the preferred model of practice instead of repeating a project type.

But if you actually think about it – in any building project, how its structured and whichever stage you are in – there are many commonalities to how things are done. The skill is really to understand the key parameters to organise the work. And you must know when and who to ask questions if you have a new project type. So maintaining a generalist attitude to projects is actually not that difficult.

RL:

What challenges does Arc Studio face at this moment?

LL:

What is difficult now is all the new regulatory schemes. We understand the agenda but the rapidity and intensity of this thing that gets thrown at us – we barely have time to breathe trying to meet this or that new requirement. Meanwhile, the developers themselves are becoming more demanding from project to project. That’s actually the tough part, if you ask me, not so much the project type.

KPB:

It’s inevitable that as technology evolves, the regulations will also keep increasing. When we started practising there were other kinds of regulatory adaptations and now we are worried about these new initiatives. I think in the future - as technology and requirements change – we will constantly be faced with these kinds of things. These regulatory controls set performance parameters that may drive innovation, or it may kill it.

The conversation should be much more open-minded about how to approach the quality we want. So not always resorting to external regulations from the authorities but some internally driven self-regulation from the profession.

RL:

“Internally driven” meaning that architects come together to set the agenda?

KPB:

Yes. Having that conversation will be very healthy. Instead of subjecting ourselves to authorities’ regulation, we should reach a point where architects set the benchmark and agenda for what they want. I think it will be healthy if we grow in that direction, however tough it is. But if we continue to be passive then there will always be external forces driving us. This is the difficulty of practice I feel, that so much resources go into administering to regulations.

LL:

Sometimes those additional time and resources are not necessary for the project.

RL:

Are you coping well with the checklist of how many staff has attended certain mandated certification courses?

KPB:

We are in the process of coping. Sometimes we do not understand why – for example in the GMFP (Greenmark Facilities Professional) course – they make architects learn thermal efficiency calculations that we will not use in the end. It basically wastes our time and everybody’s time. This should be reviewed and architects should give feedback. We have engineers for that and we are good working with them. We don’t have to be them.

LL:

Since the architect still leads the process, this may be an indirect way to force architects to push this agenda - just because we now supposedly know more about how an efficient air-conditioning system should work! But that’s a little bit – how do you say – not the right way of doing it.

So for example, if you want a certain number of GMP (Greenmark Professionals) for PSPC Panel 01 and one GMFMP (Greenmark Facilities Management Professional), I’d rather you say you need more GMPs in architectural practice in lieu of GMFP because that is actually not needed.


KPB:

These initiatives tend towards technical skills and quantification but neglect the qualitative – like social aspects or the quality of spaces that affect good living environments and community formation. Instead of forcing us to do courses, we could do research projects that meaningfully contribute a body of knowledge instead of just numbers that can be fed into a computer.

If you look at commuting paths or mobility systems etc. - architects will be happy to do design research on ideas projects that contribute to the profession. Whereas now we are moving into engineering which does not help us improve our craft. It really is not sensible.

RL:

You’re personally committed to research. You curated two versions of “1000 Singapores” and helped to create the film “699.1 sq km” for the Sao Paolo Biennale. How does research inform your practice? Are you able to maintain that research attitude in all your projects, despite other professional demands?

KPB:

Our whole practice is built around research, whether it’s into technology, construction methods, or even specifications. The idea that we make incremental improvements by examining our own experience all forms part of our practice. It is the people around us that create the practice, rather than the projects. If we work on enriching the people in practice, the projects would follow suit.

In our “1000 Singapores” research, our primary motivation was to know ourselves better because we should be the ones who know ourselves best. After Pinnacle@Duxton, we found it hard to explain to Americans who live in quarter-acre homes that the units in Pinnacle were 600 square feet. They cannot wrap their heads around it. It’s hard for someone living in that environment to understand what we go through.

If we do not know who or what we are, then we can never innovate or grow our cities to our own needs. Therefore, the larger research creates that body of knowledge and positions us for the future types of projects that we wish to do.

Today’s rapid urbanisation requires architects to think big and understand small at the same time. So, while dealing with the planter box detail at the door, we also have to examine the larger public spaces and urban systems. I think this is the new demand for practice – to zoom out and take a large macro-perspective and then zoom down to the micro-scale of human touch-and-feel.


RL:

We are witnessing many new mixed-use mega developments in Singapore – whether they’re integrated government hubs like Our Tampines Hub or Commercial “starchitecture” like South Beach. What is your view on this typology?


KPB:

The multi-use complex is probably the way to go for a high-density environment. If these projects and their programme are complex, the chance is greater for innovation and urban excitement.

Integrating mixed uses is a natural and right thing to do. A vertical stack enables more spatial innovation than if everything happened horizontally on plan. A sectional development of program and typology also creates in-between public spaces that enrich the urban landscape, making it interesting.

I think this will eventually differentiate hubs from new towns, departing from today’s cookie-cutter replications. Ultimately, the public benefits from this. I think architects can further research and interrogate how architectural scale, proportion and programme affect public spaces.


RL:

How would you describe the common thread that runs through your projects?


KPB:

We are fascinated by how to create diversity from repetition within very tight parameters for spatial demands. We always look for some kind of effect – some kind of complexity that can be generated from simple actions - like simple repetitions that create a perception of complexity, instead of a complicated form that uses a lot of resources to create. Ultimately, it’s about finding the most economical way using the least energy.

RL:

What is your most important lesson learnt since starting this firm? Any advice for young architects?

KPB:

Mastery is important. Regardless of how or what you practice, it is important to make small, incremental improvements every day and have a larger goal that you wish to achieve, work at it and spend time reflecting on it. Repeat what you do but with reflection – that’s a discipline. Practice is actually the discipline to learn to love whatever you’re doing however difficult it is, to find the positive.

BH:

The most important thing for me is to receive every single party on a project with respect. You may disagree but if a team works harmoniously, the outcome will be joyful. However well conceived a project is, if you don’t carry this process through it will not be satisfying. It’s often about building the relationships before the work and problems can be addressed. You don’t learn this at school. Every body needs that affirmation and sense of dignity from having a job done well.

KPB:

Actually, the calling is very interesting. Because we are the first to imagine the future in a way, there is a prophetic quality to what we do. As an architect, it is a privilege and honour to be the first person to hold that vision, share it, and garner resources to actualise this vision. I think that is the greatest gift we can give back. We actually owe it to ourselves to hold that higher vision.

RL:

This interview has been a pleasure. Thank you for the interview.

[August 2017]



Practice Information

ARC Studio Architecture + Urbanism Pte Ltd

Directors:

· Khoo Peng Beng, MSIA

· Belinda Agnes Huang Wan Jing, MSIA

· Laurence Liew Wan Check, MSIA

Year of Founding:

· 1999

Number of Employees:

· 23

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