Transforming Design Practice: In Conversation with Formwerkz Architects

Written by Ronald Lim MSIA


Editor's Note:

At the time of this interview in 2018, three years had passed since Formwerkz completed their acclaimed Al-Islah Mosque in Punggol, a milestone in the firm's transition from a small boutique practice focussed on innovative houses to one that can successfully deliver larger projects that are equally inventive. In an engaging conversation with TSA's Practice Editor Ronald Lim, the firm's Architect directors - Alan Tay MSIA, Gwen Tan MSIA and Seetoh Kum Loon MSIA - discuss the firm's work and its strategic transition for the next lap.

[It is worth noting that in 2020, Formwerkz looks a very different outfit, significantly expanded and with subsidiaries Bravo (Graphic Design) and Afternaut (Experience Design and Digital Strategy) contributing to a much more multi-disciplinary group. An updated profile is in order in the near future.]

L to R: Gwen, Seetoh, and Alan

AT: Allan Tay MSIA

GT: Gwen Tan MSIA

SKL: Seetoh Kum Loon MSIA

RL: Ronald Lim Assoc. MSIA Practice Editor - The Singapore Architect

START OF INTERVIEW

BEGINNINGS

RL:

How did you start Formwerkz?

AT:

It started with 3 of us in 1998. We did not start as an architecture practice. Back then, we were still at NUS and were mostly doing interiors for apartments and friends' houses. They were a scale that we could manage. That was how Formwerkz started.

GT:

If I remember correctly, we only started a formal practice after getting a hotel project. They needed to deal with a company instead of individuals. That forced us to formalise our collaboration.

SKL:

It was a fun thing that eventually became serious. We were offered an office space at a good rate and took it on.

AT:

It evolved from this part-time side gig while we were in school. After graduation, we continued this with the view to eventually become architects.

RL:

So this allowed you to test the relationship before formalizing your partnership.

GT:

It was an incubation period.

AT:

We obviously could not just start an architecture firm due to licensing. Our path is unusual. We had a vision of where we wanted to be and collaborated with Aamer Taher during that period. We worked together on all his projects and he was our mentor. [1]

RL:

You worked on your own projects with Aamer Taher?

AT:

It was both ways. We had our own projects but also worked with him on his projects. He gave us the necessary guidance and training.

GT:

We eventually moved into one space.

AT:

We worked together for 2 to 3 years. It wasn’t that we created the design and he signed the plans. It felt more like us working for and together with him. These projects became our licence examination case studies.

RL:

All of you were with Aamer?

SKL:

We were on different projects. For some projects we worked with other school seniors who were already QPs, but we worked mostly with Aamer. [2]

GT:

That’s just for houses. We also did developer housing projects for a complete picture of what goes on out there.

AT:

It’s a road less travelled.

GT:

It was considered quite radical. Back then, nobody else graduated from architecture school and not join a firm.

Formwerkz's office space
Model-maker

BETWEEN MAN AND NATURE

RL:

Can you explain your firm’s design philosophy? If I may quote from your website,

“The practice is largely defined and shaped by their common interest in the recovery of mutual human relationships and the restoration of primordial relationships between man and nature.”

AT:

I wrote that to pin down our design values. These are fundamental human needs. The relationship between man and man - they are our users. The house is essentially about the family and how spaces encourage cohesion and mutual encounter. It may not always be rosy and sometimes the relationship carries conflict. But both the good and the bad constitutes man’s relationship with man. These relationships always exist. Architecture allows these relationships to happen.

RL:

So the building’s form and spaces are subsidiary to the people?

AT:

Architecture is a stage for things to happen. I often use the example of the mosque we designed. Beyond its literal requirements, the mosque was a stage for new relationships with the community - breaking down barriers and bridging cultures. Architecture has this potential beyond shelter and dwelling.

GT:

Architecture's possibilities expand when you give it a bigger role. A building should serve other purposes besides its main function. We have no fixed formula for our work. When we speak to clients, we try to understand the common desire that clicks. From these conversations, we sift out the specific angle that triggers the architectural journey. Their needs are not always stated explicitly. It's only over coffee conversations when you hear bits that you feel are precious to them.

RL:

So your process depends on an intimate understanding of the client.

AT:

For houses, yes. But it shifts with the project type. For public buildings it becomes community-based. For commercial projects, you have to understand the developer mindset. The dynamic changes but we extract the most from this client relationship. We probe to find the missing link. This relates to our interest in man's relationship with nature.

The word "primordial" suggests that we can try to find alternatives missing from current everyday relationships. For example, in landed houses today, this sense of "landedness" or connection with the outdoors is severely challenged because the envelope is maximised. What tiny street that remains becomes meaningless. How do you re-create links in a project – where the idea of a garden may not be a literal green , say a green wall or a façade, but the outdoor experience? Our desire to re-create these links in different ways drives our many projects.

WORKING THROUGH THE FORM

RL:

Are your buildings a critique of some prevailing condition in our built environment that dissatisfies you?

GT:

I wouldn't call it dissatisfaction. It's merely a response to the constraints we face.

AT:

Architecture projects are a simultaneous critique but we don't do a project to criticise. It may seem like a critique but we are just finding solutions to a certain given condition.

SKL:

We do not try to question or create something that is too new. However, in each project, we discover certain potentials to be exploited that spark new connections. This applies even to our projects that are not houses.

GT:

It's our way of saying, "Does tropical architecture have an alternative?" We may fulfil all aspects of tropicality but our buildings may not look tropical. Although many of our projects are in Singapore, the site and context are really different, resulting in projects that look different.


AT:

Our poetic aspiration is to create familiar stuff in a strange way. Like art, there’s always an alternative approach to the same stuff – like the eaves or the verandah in tropical architecture. We hope to contribute more ways to experience a given condition.

RL:

Can you explain the name Formwerkz?

AT:

Well, the concrete formwork is the starting point of construction. You create the mould and pour the concrete. It’s a good framework and we believe that good design is always held together by a good framework.

RL:

So it’s the concrete formwork that inspired your name, not form.

GT:

Right.

AT:

There's another less serious part. Back in school, I had a tutor who kept repeating the phrase "Form follows function." So Formwerkz was my take on this phrase - that form without function or dogma could have its own value. That's not to say that it is our value now. It was just a jibe at that tutor. Of course, we are interested in working through the form. The building's appearance itself - even if skin-deep - has a deeper meaning and value, impacting both the inside and outside.

RL:

A previous version of your website stated that you do not believe in a “Minimalist Box?" I could have read that somewhere.

AT, GT, & SKL:

unanimous laughter

AT:

That text was lost somewhere. You should view this statement against its context. Back then, people were infatuated with minimalist boxes. It doesn't mean that we avoid it. That is why we qualified that to create a minimalist box is merely a tool. Maybe it allows you to demonstrate certain architectural moves or details, but it is not an end in itself. It is a means to something else.

Paring down is a discipline that achieves clarity. We believe in ideas. To make an idea visible, you cannot be distracted. So in that sense, minimalism creates a blank canvas for others to understand and interpret our ideas.

FROM HOUSE TO MOSQUE

RL:

Many firms stop designing houses once they reach a certain size, but you are still designing houses after growing well beyond 60 employees. Why are houses important?

GT:

No project is too small so long as you can explore ideas. Deep down, we are passionate about houses because we started with them. I don’t think we have exhausted our ideas yet.

AT:

We have always been known for houses. These projects come to us naturally and we get very understanding clients. As a familiar project type, houses let us experiment and stretch our ideas to pursue certain things. That is why we keep doing them even after expanding to larger projects. It is a lot to juggle.

SKL:

We will probably never give up on houses. It's what we like to do. The thing is, house clients are special. They are like another designer working with us. It's a different role and situation from corporate clients. We can really create something different with them. That thinking and experimentation is important. It keeps us alive.

AT:

You can do things with houses that you cannot do with other projects. It is an immediate relationship. You are speaking directly to the user, unlike for other projects.

SKL:

The client designed the brief and can shape it with us. Houses allow us to anticipate what is best for the final user.

RL:

Your houses all look different. What is the common thread running through them?

GT:

It’s the response to our tropical context. Every project responds to the same tropicality but uses a different vehicle. This explains why each house takes a different form and shape.

RL:

Could you speak about the Al-Islah Mosque project?

Al-Islah Mosque, Street View showing Massing Pieces. Photography by Albert Lim.

AT:

The mosque really excited us when we won the competition. For any young firm, it is exciting to break into the public sector. Unlike in the West, it's very difficult to do this in Singapore. Competitions are one way and we were lucky to win our first public commission that way.

SKL:

The mosque was something we really wanted to do. A local Singapore mosque is very unique. It is a community, a school, and religious building all in one.

AT:

The mosque type appeals more than the church type, whose trend has tended towards an auditorium (i.e. air-conditioned enclosure) rather than a chapel. Whereas the mosque still relies on natural ventilation. There is also ritual like ablution or removing shoes before entry. These rituals appeal to us because we see it as an extension of the house, which is already familiar to us. The scale merely expands from household to the community.

Understanding the faith and evolution of Islamic architecture was a steep learning curve since we were considered outsiders. The Singapore mosque supposedly evolved across 4 stages. Forum Architects' Assyafaah Mosque (completed 2004) was the third stage. That building itself broke new ground and departed from what came before. Ten years later, it would be our turn to investigate what should come next.

RL:

How did its form develop?

AT:

We always had the massing of 3 blocks. With an increasingly compact site, the Singapore mosque somehow always ends up as one big block. We wanted to reduce its scale so we pulled it apart into 3 distinct blocks housing separate functions - administration, classrooms, and prayer hall.

SKL:

MUIS wanted the mosque to be demystifying and to engage society so this formal and functional clarification was a good tool for us.

AT:

Instead of one ambiguous block, we break it into smaller digestible parts that are identifiable and easy to navigate.

SKL:

Exactly. We saw value in that strategy so we tried very hard to break this up despite its very tight site.

AT:

The mosque also sits on a huge platform. Elevated decks may be common to condominiums but we give it a new purpose here by making it a public piazza. Why is this piazza elevated? To make the ground holy. The ground then becomes an open prayer hall whose space is maximized and sheltered by a big roof - like a big void deck.

It was not easy to create this "void deck" prayer hall. It is open, but cannot be too open. That sense of threshold and protection of place is still important. The context was challenging because it was very close to these HDB high rises. Maintaining that porosity while adding screening layers to protect its function was a challenge.

RL:

Doing Islamic architecture in Singapore has great potential because we're both Southeast Asian and international.

AT:

There's always that aspect. The tropical climate is a reality. If you open the window it means the rain will come in, right?

STRATEGIC GROWTH

RL:

Does that project let you do more institutional work now? Are you actively looking to the public sector?

AT:

We are trying aggressively but it doesn't pan out the way we hope. We are still struggling to tender successfully. Also, the number of competitions has diminished.

SKL:

We definitely want to do public sector work. However, as a firm transforming from one doing houses to one that does other projects, we do not fit the system directly. We just have to be patient, pro-active, and slowly build our capability.

AT:

We are of course contented with existing house projects and even the occasional large project. Our recent growth is partly strategic - to eventually realize more public buildings. It's a small step forward. We know that PSPC pre-qualifying requirements are intense but we are progressively working towards this goal.[3]

RL:

Public projects require a lot more administration, technical and compliance work. It's quite onerous.

AT:

I totally agree. In a public project - for how much creative energy you put in that translates to a creative outcome - the conversion yields very little. This explains why there are so few good public buildings. We really appreciate a good public building because the architect had to overcome many difficulties. The mosque was a good learning curve. We know the difficulties but there is no other way.

I once showed my timesheet to a lecture as a joke. It was a clear loss. We did not even break even for the amount of time spent. So it could be a business decision not to get involved. For us though, when we get involved we go all the way.

SKL:

These types of good projects need a lot of resources and energy. The only way to do that is to grow to a size where we can afford to expend these resources.

AT:

Our recent growth is both strategic and for survival. We realized that the world will not change for us. We have to adapt and play the game in order to realise our potential. To engage the world, you need to prepare for it by assembling the necessary skilled people to do the best job.

INTERNATIONAL PROJECTS

RL:

Do international projects give you more freedom?

AT:

Going overseas gives us bigger projects that we cannot get locally. The only difference is our limited grasp of context and reduced involvement during construction.

SKL:

Our market is small - a rough period could easily shake things up. It is difficult for us to build the practice without an alternative source of projects. The overseas projects help us stabilize the firm and recruit talent so that in future, when a local opportunity arises, we can take it on.

RL:

What kinds of international projects are you working on?

AT:

I'll give a few examples. We are doing a resort, villa and clubhouse development in Sanya, Hainan which is the only tropical part of China. This is up our alley and so we are really keen. Another interesting project that is not necessarily architecture is to co-curate and design a tech fair in Shenzhen. It's sort of a tech biennale.

GT:

I did a project for a supermarket client using technology. We eventually covered the range in scale from small to medium to large, assembling a team and developing a collaboration with the people behind the technology. We're now working together on something for Wechat. We have also done "man-less" convenience stores.

RL:

The cutting-edge of the technological revolution.

GT:

Technology carries a lot of design potential.

SKL:

For that to happen, we actually hired IT guys who can write software applications.

AT:

They fill in the gaps to support our work.

ADVICE FOR YOUNG ACHITECTS

RL:

Can you share some important lessons you learnt since starting the practice?

GT:

No pain no gain. *laughter*

AT:

The statistics say that you should prepare for a life of disappointment in architecture unless you are super lucky. We have had our fair share of those. There are roadblocks and constant disappointments. If you enter 20 competitions and win 1, it means you are upset 19 times. So looking at the statistics rationally, you must be nuts to go into architecture because the hours of sadness and frustration always exceed the hours of happiness.

SKL:

Is that what you tell your students?

*unanimous laughter*

GT:

While it's difficult, it's exciting as well. You get opportunities to do things you never thought you could deal with. You start to cross boundaries and be really involved in a critique, at a place you never imagined yourself to be.

RL:

Thank you for such an engaging conversation, and good luck with the next lap!

AT, GT, & SKL:

Thank you.

END OF INTERVIEW


Practice Information (as of April 2018):

Formwerkz Architects LLP

Directors:

- Alan Tay MSIA Partner

- Seetoh Kum Loon MSIA Partner

- Gwen Tan MSIA Partner

- Berlin Lee Partner

Founded in:

- 2004

Number of Employees:

- 113

[1] Aamer Taher MSIA - Founder of Aamer Architects - a mid-sized boutique practice known for its residential portfolio. [2] QP - Qualified Person. (i.e. registered architect) [3] PSPC - Public Sector Panel of Consultants. Architects must be registered on the panel to bid for Public Sector projects. The pre-qualifying criteria for listing on the panel includes the number of registered professionals, track record, number of staff that completed certain certification courses, etc.

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