By Tina Perinotto
In 1989 Richard Hassell had just graduated as an architect in Australia and he dropped in on Singapore for a short visit to an aunt when he was offered a short term job in an architectural practice.
Twenty years later he is still there, having stayed to form one of the most innovative architectural practices in the region.
With partner, Singaporean Wong Mun Summ, Hassell created WOHA architects with the idea that its work would be based on creative industries, rather than traditional construction services.
The firm’s design philosophy is to “explore the intersections of culture, context, history, nature, climate, sustainability and social behaviour to inform innovative design,” according to an entry in World Architecture. Today it has nearly 80 staff and a string of innovative projects under its belt.
Among them are hotels such as the Crowne Plaza at Changi Airport where the client happily went along with some playful elements in the design, a new underground train station topped with a transparent reflection pool to allow light to seep into the underground passageways below, a building in the entertainment sector whose facade is a digital screen for high and low resolution images and patterns, and a string of apartment and public buildings – each of which bear the trademark WOHA originality.
Last month Hassell was in Sydney as a jury member for the Australian Institute of Architects NSW annual awards and for a presentation of his firm’s work at the University of Technology Sydney in May.
The contrast with many Australian buildings is powerful and at times even shocking. But the work shows what is possible with an approach that steps away from the usual – by both designer and client.
Partly some of these designs are possiblebecause the planning system in Singapore allows it, Hassell told The Fifth Estate during hsi Sydney visit.
For instance the Iluma, one of the most stunning buildings in his UTS presentation, with a confronting facade of “jewelled” polycarbonate cells that “glitter in the day and glow in the night” was possible because its location is in the entertainment district, where deferment to the usual residential sensitivities need not apply.
Contributing the digital and technical expertise on Iluma was realities:united, a German communicative architecture specialist firm, which “collaborated with us on the media part of Iluma facade,” Hassell said.
“They did the concept development, detailed design, prototyping, CAD simulation and programming etc of the diamonds.”
The other key factor that allows a much freer approach in design is a playful attitude by the client, Hassell said. This was evident in the Crowne Plaza Hotel project, pictured here.
Key to WOHA’s work today, Hassell explained, is to maximise a sustainability agenda, demonstrated through features such as vertical gardens and sky terraces.
Following are a sample of recent work and WOHA’s architect’s statements on Iluma and the Newton Suites.
The Bugis area, a designated entertainment district in Singapore, is an entertainment complex designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of society, both local and foreign, by gathering diverse state-of-the-art entertainment activities within a memorable urban object, Iluma.
This large urban object will invigorate the city with an interactive media façade composed of faceted jewel-like fixtures that glitter in the day and glow in the night.
The façade is stacked as undulating strips that overlap and recede to create gardens and terraces overhanging the street.
The media façade will be a canvas for the media artist to display their works, enabling creatives and even the public to make city-scaled interventions in light and sound.
It is intended to work closely with the surrounding creative educational institutions with ongoing curating and award programs to produce art and content to animate the façade.
By instantly incorporating the living popular culture in its façade, Iluma will focus and amplify the energy and profile of the Arts, Culture, Learning and Entertainment hub and present to the city an immediate snapshot of the spirit of the times.
The design contrasts a rectilinear mass against a curved one. The rectilinear rear block accommodates large, regular components like car park, retail anchor tenants, cinema and performance spaces, while the curved front block accommodates smaller retail and entertainment activities along curvilinear paths for a stimulating shopping and entertainment experience.
The dialogue between the two elements is heightened by the architectural treatment, with vibrant hot colors animating the rectilinear block and monochrome shades of grey and white cladding the curvilinear block.
Activities are zoned in three strata with interlinked atrium spaces: At ground level, the retail zone overlooking a vibrant public arena that draws in pedestrians from the busy networks around the site; above, a large internal arena abuzz with themed restaurants is surrounded by cinemas and entertainment facilities; and flexible performance spaces with lush landscaped decks crown the building for a unique indoor-outdoor tropical entertainment experience – Ibiza meets Bali on the Singapore rooftops.
This 36-storey development is a study in environmental solutions to tropical high-rise living. The design integrates several sustainable devices into a contemporary architectural composition, creating a sustainable, contemporary addition to the city skyline.
The building sits at the edge of a high-rise zone and fronts a height-controlled area that affords expansive views of the central nature reserves, a rare luxury in densely built Singapore.
The exterior of the tower uses sunshading elements, patterned planes of textured panels and protruding balconies to create a facade that is functional yet expressive. The horizontal, metal expanded mesh sunshading screens the strong tropical sunlight.
The angled mesh prevents insulation while permitting visual connection to the ground. The angled expanded mesh changes appearance with viewpoint, appearing anywhere between solid and transparent.
This, combined with the cast shadows and interference patterns between the shadows and the mesh, gives the building a constantly shifting, blurred appearance depending on angle and time of day.
The layers of sunshading screens also changes the reading of the projections of the bay windows, a standard applied feature of Singapore apartments due to their contribution to developer profit and prescriptive regulations, embedding them in the language of the building.
Landscape is used as a material – rooftop planting, skygardens and green walls were incorporated into the design from the very beginning.
Creeper screens are applied to otherwise blank walls to create visual delight, absorb sunlight and carbon and create oxygen in the dense environment.
Most available horizontal and vertical surfaces are landscaped, creating an area of landscaping that is 130 per cent (110 per cent planted) of the total site.
Trees cover the carpark, project from the skygardens at every four levels and crown the building at the penthouse roof decks. The above ground carpark uses far less energy than an underground carpark and is fully enclosed with creepers, absorbing exhaust emissions.
The carpark roof houses a substantial clubhouse with gym, steam room, party areas and 25m swimming pool with a glass overflow edge.
The end user experiences panoramic views foregrounded by sky gardens and greenery, bringing the indoor-outdoor potential of living in the tropics into the sky, and bring this to a sector of the community who cannot afford landed housing.
Common skygardens create delight at every lift lobby, turning the wait for the lift in the rush to work into a brief contact with fresh air, trees and sky. The two penthouses include swimming pools with double volume mesh pergolas.
The environmental elements added to liveable apartments and extensive communal areas combine to make a unique tropical building that achieves both Singapore’s national vision for a green city and an improved living environment for the inhabitants.