A tale of two cities: Dulux DIAlogue on Tour, Singapore

In Singapore, the 2019 Dulux DIAlogue on Tour group found a multi-faceted city seemingly always on the edge of her seat in active anticipation of change. Yet, the city revealed its grounding in multi-cultural heritage through the thoughtful design responses of locally based practices.

From the quiet restraint of Kerry Hill Architects’ shophouse studio to the new typology of integrated public housing at Kampung Admiralty by Woha, the high-rise towers of Pinnacle at Duxton to the beautifully conserved residential dwelling shophouse by Ong and Ong Group, the range of projects visited revealed a cross-section of the inherent diversity in Singapore’s design scene.

“Over these two days I feel like we’ve seen two sides to Singapore – the side that is socially conscious in community projects like Kampung Admiralty and also its affluent, consumerist side seen in many shopping malls,” Dulux DIAlogue on Tour winner Yasmine Ghoniem of Amber Road observed.

What does good design look like in a place this diverse?

The sky terrace of Oasia Downtown by Woha.

The sky terrace of Oasia Downtown by Woha.

Image: Felicia Toh

The study tour kicked off at Kerry Hill Architects, where demand for their design expertise on hospitality projects in Maldives, Bhutan, Japan and Shanghai has led to an enviable wait-list of clients. The tour winners dived deep into a discussion on approaches, firm structure and documentation and learning about the inner workings of an established design practice. Although the studio misses Kerry Hill after his passing – his personal office has been converted into a shared library – the practice is still highly sought after and continues his legacy on a daily basis.

The group received first-hand experience of Woha’s manifesto of “breathing architecture” led by Pavla Schneuwly from Jane’s Tour, taking in the impressive sights of the living, breathing Oasia Downtown Hotel, super-density residential development Pinnacle at Duxton and the balconies covered in tropical plants and contoured surfaces at the Parkroyal on Pickering.

More than eighty percent of Singaporeans live in public housing flats under the purview of the Housing Development Board, and the visit to Kampung Admiralty by Woha was eye-opening in its integration of elderly care and childcare facilities, a hawker centre, residential flats and shared amenities that bring community together. This visited showed that design can be a fluid tool that can effectively address a society’s felt needs.

Many community groups and national agencies were consulted to effect this ambitious collaboration, tackling the problem of an ageing society. As Claire Beale, Design Institute of Australia president, noted, “At the end of the day, design is too important to be left to the designers; it’s about connecting to the community you are impacting and involving them in the design process.”

Tour winner Pascale Gomes McNabb added that “the impressive housing initiative showed how good progressive design can enhance and change our lives.”

Fellow winner Christopher Furminger of James Russell Architect said: “Even in the small residential projects we do, there is always a civic aspiration – that it would benefit the city and bring something to the whole neighbourhood that wasn’t there before.”

Marina Bay Sands.

Marina Bay Sands.

Image: Christopher Furminger

In order to respond to the complexity of client briefs, site histories and context and forge solutions that go beyond to impact community, a designer’s folio of skillsets is necessarily broadened. Tour winner Jen Lowe of Ohlo Studio expressed her appreciation of what being a designer means, garnered from insights shared by DesignSingapore at the National Design Centre: to be “analytical, empathetic, transformative and trans-disciplinary.”

“Those are qualities I’ll be interviewing for when I hire,” she said.

It’s no secret that Singapore is one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Venturing to interior design practice Design Intervention near Dempsey Hill, the group were introduced to the Crazy Rich Asians side of design. For Singapore’s high society, rich is less about expensive and more the luxury of expressing extreme individuality.

Singapore is a city of stark contrasts. Near the foot of the towering residential public housing Pinnacle at Duxton, which boasts panoramic views of the city, sits a quaint enclave of cafes nestled in the low-rise, historical shophouse district of Bukit Pasoh. Straits Clan, a private members’ club designed by Takenouchi Webb, had the group exclaiming in delight over its inventive details. The learning was mutual as Webb shared that he loves looking up tour winner Fiona Lynch’s projects for inspiration in his design process. Referencing Peranakan architecture, a sensitive curation of Shanghai plaster, breeze blocks, rattan, terrazzo and handmade clay tiles formed a material palette that felt modern and authentic at the same time.

The Singapore leg concluded with a visit to an intricately conserved residential shophouse in Joo Chiat by Maria Arango, director at Ong and Ong. Featuring Malay inspired spandrel carvings, oriental windows and colonial Corinthian columns, the eclectic historical façade was an apt microcosm of Singapore’s diversity.

Woven into its narratives are multiple perspectives that the talented group has surfaced through their tour – a consciousness that will further inform their already vibrant, empathic body of work.

Felicia Toh travelled with the 2019 Dulux DIAlogue on Tour group in Singapore and was commissioned by the Design Institute of Australia to produce this report. Follow #DuluxDIAlogueonTour on Instagram.

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