B.A. ARCHITECTURE, NUS
ALFRED WONG PARTNERSHIP
Founded Company in
Team Size - 1st Office
Team Size - 2nd Office
GOLDEN MILE TOWER
Current Team Size
Graduates from NUS with a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture. Joins Alfred Wong Partnership. Joins the art collective Plastique Kinetic Worms.
Founds Zarch Collaboratives.
Designs the Singapore Pavilion at the World Expo in Aichi, Japan.
Co-founds gallery-bar, Night & Day, with Kelley Cheng.
Linday Koay joins as a partner.
Wins the President’s Design Award for his collaborative artwork Building as a Body (2011). Moves into current office in Golden Mile Tower.
Curates Singapore: Inside Out in Beijing, London, New York and Singapore.
Designs the Warehouse Hotel, Singapore.
Collaborates with urban farming initiative, City Sprouts, for Archifest.
A Creative Ecology
By Amber Sim, 18 August 2021
Where did you work before starting Zarch?
Well, I was at Alfred Wong partnership for a long time. Alfred Wong is a firm held by Alfred Wong, of course, the one who designed the national theatre and many of our wonderful churches. This is where I had the intention of learning at that time—an idea of a masterclass. I thought Alfred’s firm would really suit me because I admired the work, especially the National Theatre, as one of his seminal works. I worked there for about two and a half years.
What made you decide to leave after those two years to start your own practice?
Well to begin with, I graduated in 97. It was the last wind when the economy was well and good. One year into working, there was the crisis, the so-called Asian financial crisis. That really hit hard. And for many of my contemporaries, for the first time, [we heard] the word retrenchment, which was quite foreign to us. The world was our oyster right?
97 was really the first time where you grew up, you got friends who got retrenched; we thought the word retrenched was only applicable for people in their mid-careers. So that change brought about scarcity of work, and I found myself not doing much. I was just doing a lot of back-end work doing toilets, playing a very supporting role doing tiling plans and things like that. So I took the plunge without any client in mind. I decided that I should venture out, because for the experience that I was holding onto at the firm, it wasn’t going in any way.
During such a difficult time, did you get a lot of help from the community or did you have to find your own way?
Architecture was a six-year course. It was still very much compartmentalized in terms of the various disciplines, and the idea of collaboration was still very traditional; architects just worked with engineers and whatnot. The scene in Singapore is quite important to take note of; the theatre scene was very vibrant, but the architecture scene was at the advent where nine years had passed since Suntec, when the market was opening up to foreign architects.
So just to describe the setting here a bit: At the time, there were only one or two magazines that were design related, locally produced as well—there wasn’t a vibrant scene, there wasn’t a Design Centre. Okay, so with that scene, instead of going into the architectural, so called, fraternity, I chanced upon this collective, this art collective called Plastique Kinetic Worms at Pagoda Lane. It was an artist-run gallery that was led by artists, run by artists, and wholly owned by artists. It was wandering in the city that I chanced upon them. The whole idea was really not going home, because there were moments at Alfred Wong where there was not really that much work, and Alfred would say, “Why don’t you just go home.” And simply put, I couldn’t just go home at half a day. My parents would be worried sick saying, “Are you just out of work?” or something like that. So I would just wander the streets for a good 6 hours, just to walk before I go home, just to not let them worry so much.
So that community has really shaped what Zarch is in terms of the encounter. It was very interesting; I found liberation, friendship in that little gallery at Pagoda. It became my hang out space. The artists of the day—you might know them—are Cultural Medallions like Vincent Leow, you know, Zul Mahmod, just to name some who I counted as friends. Back then, we were all poor, we were sharing beer... we were ideal, we had the idealism that was there. And as one of the only architects that mixed with this community, we had a great time.
Not only was it the companionship, but it allowed me to really think otherwise, that architecture—that practice of the mind—is a creative one. And mixing with the artists, my thought process was wired in such a way that I would think of the build and materiality. So the interaction becomes, I would call it, a beta version of collaboration. Working with artists became that breeding ground for me, and that really led to the DNA of what Zarch is: being able to collaborate, working with artists, and more than just artists, working with various disciplines. I enjoy it tremendously from the view of how you imagine the world. Of course every individual thinks differently, I mean through upbringing and whatnot; so my reference point is from pedagogy, from representation, from how they look at material, how they see the world, the narrative that comes from living in the city. It was the tremendous leap from that experience that I treasure.
It allowed me to really think otherwise, that architecture—that practice of the mind—is a creative one. And mixing with artists, my thought process was wired in such a way that I would think of the built and materiality
Being surrounded by such a diverse group of creative people, did you then create Zarch planning to go into multiple disciplines?
I guess it’s not about which one came first, it was very much about how I was exposed. And being a personality myself, my thesis work was very much a narrative one, which I fared rather badly in because the school at the time, well the pedagogy was not about narratives. That was the way NUS taught and how they levelled up what a thesis work was. I struggled, but that was a good struggle looking back. I was doing the Thieves’ Market, and my work was very much routed in a very artistic way. I had a Panofsky machine, a machine that read a work of art as part and parcel of my submission.
So just tying back to what is today a makeup of many factors; it’s not just the encounter, I’ve also been fortunate to have good mentors. I have mentioned Alfred, but another person who shaped me was Tang Guan Bee Architects. He is a third-generation architect, someone who I interned with before. In my internship—a one-year internship—I was taught that architecture is about certain attitudes, architecture is about life, and architecture is about a certain way of looking at things. And from that, I felt I had learnt a certain informal part of what architecture should be.
And then of course, there was a year where I did an outing under Japan Airlines Scholarship, where I took year four out and spent my time in Japan. That really shaped me; it’s a whole concoction of travel, seeing the world, mixing with the right people, getting directed by a mentor; and it all came together to shape what Zarch is.
What were some of the first few jobs you got at Zarch?
Oh yeah, well I started out from my room basically, with a printer. I mean once I quit the job (At Alfred Wong Partnership), I was doing measure drawing for people. I had to go to rooftops to measure water tanks; it was $500, 3 days. It was a dangerous job, I had to produce a set of drawings. That’s all I did in the day-to-day. And of course for my first house, actually a HDB terrace in Jalan Bahagia, I was looking for an opportunity to do something more than just the interior. For everybody, normally when you start out, you do your own house interior, but the HDB terrace allowed me to do something to the facade; that was a really enjoyable process. I kind of added an architectural element, a screening, a mobile screening that shaded the sun as well as gave a certain porosity. It was featured in iSh magazine. Everyone was surprised that you could do such work in a HDB property. So that was my starting point.
There was also the art commission that was a continuity to my relationship with the arts community. I was part of that collective that went under Plastique (Plastique Kinetic Worms) that even went to Thailand; we had a group exhibition, we had taken part in the Nokia Art Festival as well. So those were the kind of work that didn’t pay much, but it kept me going.
As a very artistic person, do you find more creative freedom in art and curatorial projects compared to traditional architecture projects?
Well, it wasn’t intended. Life is strange right, it just gyrated because it was a propelling of that interest and the passion. To begin with, it was that I was interested, it’s not that the work was moving in that direction so you should go in that direction. I wasn’t focusing on that, I was focusing on what I wanted to do as an interesting work itself, whether I had a firm or not. So that has always been the premise of it.
To begin with, it was that I was interested, it’s not that the work was moving in that direction so you should go in that direction. I wasn’t focusing on that, I was focusing on what I wanted to do as an interesting work itself, whether I had a firm or not.
Was it difficult for you to familiarise yourself with the business aspect of your work?
Definitely. It was a huge learning curve. You have to deal with it, and we dealt with it differently; at different stages of your life you learn different things right? As part of the learning journey, you learn to afford the business. Of course, sometimes you overrun, you just want to do good, you forgot to bill, you never ask for deadlines, you sometimes do things for free.
And then there was the other stage of life where I decided to partner with someone who is still with Zarch up to today, her name is Linda; she helps with the business part of it. And I guess the trajectory here is, as you begin to grow with the firm, I think it is important that one sees this question as a journey. Because the perspective is, when you are a two-man or a single practice with only one person and an intern, versus a five person team and so on—right now we are 20 strong—the system has to be there, because Singapore is an expensive city.
as you begin to grow with the firm, I think it is important that one sees this question as a journey.
Do you recall the first big project that really launched Zarch to success?
Well there were two I would say. Definitely the World Expo 2005 in Aichi japan. There was a phone call from Glen Goei, someone that I know, and it was an innocent phone call in the morning. He said, “Randy, do you know the history of the World Expo?” I said, “yeah, I studied [it] for exams in NUS.” “Tell me.” Little did I know that Glen was actually testing me. I mean I love history and I explained to Glen that it is kind of like a mini Olympics for the country in terms of political culture and social culture. Back then the first one was the Crystal Palace back in 1837 or something like that. After hearing what I had said about World Expo, he said, “Hey, let’s make a pitch together for the World Expo for the Singapore pavilion.”
So for the first time, well, we collaborated and we won. Again, just a perspective on how the Singapore entry had been; it had always been pretty third world. Back then we had participated in the three previous World Expos. Our Singapore pavilion had been just a very fairly recent participation, and it had always been the Satay man, the Merlion, and the standard cardboard shophouse and trishaw. Our presentation to the world had been that colonial past with those icons. And how we really won the World Expo at that time was ... We were pitching against a lot of exhibitors. It's not so much of an architectural job because of the way the brief goes; it was very much an exhibition. Our presentation was architectural, it was an immersive experience. We brought our tropical rain into the pavilion, just to cite an example, and they really loved it as it was something new. The commissioner bravely awarded us, but they were very uncertain. We fought many battles to change perception, and that project really was that starting point, not just as a big work that led to other works, but it provided also that cumulative process of all the struggle we had been through. It vindicated how architecture, art, immersive experience, everything could all come through in this particular programme itself.
How do you decide what projects are worth taking on now?
Well, Zarch is 20 years old. You know, I always believe in the fact that for some of the guys that have been with me—the oldest is about 18 years, most of them average seven to nine years. It is about, at this moment, training them for that eventual takeover. I’m not interested in the legacy to be very clear about that, neither is this taking over an overnight thing. We have seen many examples of first, second, third generation architecture firms where they do not have a sufficient plan. I was very cautious that I do not fall into that. I started seven years ago to give space for the younger ones to identify themselves, and hopefully they find meaning and let it be as natural as it can be. If they are keen to take over the reins, it will come, when they are ready. And it doesn’t need any prompting, I feel that it doesn’t need any case to make a pitch to. And this is where Zarch is.
When you talk about how all these works have been, we have been blessed. Like I said, from this interview you can see that it’s still a journey; with this Covid, again, there is that new narrative of what Zarch will be. But for the last seven years, we’ve had a good run in terms of how the world has moved. The whole idea of multi-disciplinary collaboration, the idea of collaboration not just in architecture but many aspects of it—we are the first movers. And sometimes people ask, “How did you predict that?” You know, we didn’t predict that, it just came, because like I shared with you, it started with who I am, what I was interested in, and it just gyrated. You are attracted to people along the way based on that direction. Where Zarch is is that we are at the part where we are doing landscape projects, urban projects as well; we are doing placemaking in recent times, we are curators as well. We were invited as a curator in some of the public art projects. And of course architecturally we have done hospitality (Warehouse Hotel), we are involved in national projects, like National Day ...
So just to name that few, if choosing had been that luxury, I would also say we choose projects to participate in; no project has been bestowed to us on our feet without a presentation. We all have to pitch to win the job, and that’s what it is. The good side is that we have a wide-ranging portfolio, we don’t have to start from zero. I always tell people I’m like a zi char stall; I can cook many dishes, but my wastage is high, I have a big fridge. Whereas if I could have just concentrated on conservation—which we do as well—and do it well, and just do conservation as a main keep, it’s like a chicken rice stall just selling chicken rice and being good at that. But we are not. I enjoy the variety, I enjoy the diversity for that matter, so I couldn't find myself looking at one genre of work and just doing it. It’s not a criticism, it’s just not my personality. I’m someone who loves to try different genres.
I enjoy the variety, I enjoy the diversity for that matter, so I couldn't find myself looking at one genre of work and just doing it. It’s not a criticism, it’s just not my personality. I’m someone who loves to try different genres.
Is the most rewarding part of your work the creative fulfilment you get from doing such a variety of projects?
First and foremost, we are an architecture firm for sure. And that fulfilment is like any architect; those who have hung on to it have always been in this whole condition; being able to see the progress from a simple idea to a drawing, to really seeing it built—I think that is one of the greatest joys this profession brings to the table, that means from its whole conception to seeing it grow from the ground. So architecturally, that has definitely been one of the most fulfilling things.
The other aspect is, you meet people. You must enjoy meeting people, it is important. One of the key things in this profession is that you meet all sorts of people, whether from the upstream or downstream; when I say downstream I’m not relating to people in the low but people in the building industry where they work with their hands, like the plumbers, the electricians. And conversely, on the way up you got to work with all the consultants and developers, the experts in their own fields. So these two aspects have kept me going, and that itself, if I were to further articulate it, it’s how you really can affect lives through your work. You can make a city or destroy a city by your own creation, and you’ve got to be very careful about that.
being able to see the progress from a simple idea to a drawing, to really seeing it built—I think that is one of the greatest joys this profession brings to the table.
At this point, are you quite content with the scale of your company or are you looking to expand in the future?
The scale in my mind has never been about how big, how many computers, how many ISO certs you must have, so on and so forth. The current office is about 20, it’s a good size, a good fit to do a certain range of work and a certain scale of work. Like all firms, we are still a small firm, our market is primarily still in Singapore. The last two years, of course with Covid, we kind of derailed. We wanted to look beyond Singapore and hoped to go regional. I am quite interested in doing work around this part of the world itself.
And this sense of where the firm is in terms of the scale as well as the direction, I would say it is about still, a continued journey of wanting to do a varied programming. We hope that we are able to be invited to do any range of work. I think this is still that DNA, the ability to be able to collaborate, very importantly, and to be able to contribute to the community. In recent times of course we’ve been dealing with quite a few bits of placemaking. So the idea of bigness doesn't come across my mind. But bigness in terms of the range and diversity of the work; this is what we want to be.
The idea of bigness doesn't come across my mind. But bigness in terms of the range and diversity of the work; this is what we want to be.
Do you have any advice for young designers and creatives looking to start their own practice in Singapore?
Not so much advice. I’m still young (laughs) so as part of the sharing it’s really...it’s hard work, definitely. And don’t be too hurried; I guess it takes time, run your own race. And it’s very important to really bring the perspective of the environment into it. I mean back then in our days, environmental issues, sustainability—as in right now the climate and all this—has not been so, well, so profound as compared to right now. There’s an urgency. I feel that they should contribute as much; they should be aware of how their practice can play a part to influence that.
You seem as though you have always remained fairly aligned with your creative philosophy since you were a young. In your profession, do you think to become successful it is enough to stay true to your personal beliefs?
There must be conviction. I think let’s start with that. A conviction, a wanting of not just a skill set, not just a big job, not just chasing for that last dollar. I think the parameters that I have been subscribing to is, as much as it’s the attitude part, it’s the aptitude part of looking at your own life.
As much as we are in the business of architecture, it really varies from person to person. And as I said, we go through different stages. When you’re in your late 20s to 35, you are career building, you’re getting to know people, and then 35 to 45 you are able to have a little confidence and you start to do certain work; and then when you hit 50s, which is where I am, in what you pursue you may have a different priority; it could be family ... but for me, it’s definitely not the next big job, it’s about bringing up the office’s next generation of people, continuing to perhaps guide them, and continuing to in fact be useful and be relevant within this premise and the community.
For me I’m deeply interested, of late, of course in community work. I would say City Sprouts for example, which was a social urban farming program that dealt with the elderly as well as a nursery, bringing people together to do urban farming and to do good in Henderson. I’m involved in the Wild Rice Theatre as a board member—I hope to be able to continue to do that. And really as a next step, to spend more time doing more community based work.
For me it’s definitely not the next big job, it’s about bringing up the office’s next generation of people, continuing to perhaps guide them, and continuing to in fact be useful and be relevant within this premise and the community