KAR LIN & WENG HIN

Architecture Design

Studio Lapis

http://www.studiolapis.sg/

Studio Lapis has been a consummate storyteller of heritage and the historical past since it was established in 2009. As an architectural conservation specialist consultancy, husband-and-wife founders Ho Weng Hin and Tan Kar Lin peel away layer by layer of heritage structures to unravel the rich and colourful histories buried within. There are always many ways to tell a story. And to recreate the lost tales, Studio Lapis does not only apply multi-disciplinary knowledge, but also creativity and imagination, that persuades towards calls for preserving heritage. The path in conservation isn’t always easy but “there’s something reformative and quite existential”, says the couple, when dilapidated buildings are restored and given a new lease of life for the future generations.
  • Company Name

    Studio Lapis

  • Company Year Founded

    2009

  • Name of Founder(s)

    Ho Weng Hin + Tan Kar Lin

  • Founders Birth Year

    1974(Weng Hin) 1976(Kar Lin)

  • Education (Ho Weng Hin)

    Dip. Spec in Restauro dei Monumenti, Uni of Genova, Italy

  • Education (Ho Weng Hin)

    M.Arch, NUS; B.A.(Arch Studies), NUS

  • Education (Tan Kar Lin)

    M.A.(Arch), NUS

  • Education (Tan Kar Lin)

    M.Arch, NUS; B.A.(Arch Studies) NUS

  • 1st Job (Ho Weng Hin)

    Architectural Assistant, William Lim Associates (1998-99)

  • Previous Job (Ho Weng Hin)

    Research Writer, Our Modern Past, Singapore Heritage Society (2004-14)

  • 1st Job (Tan Kar Lin)

    Architectural Assistant, Point Architects (1998-99)

  • Previous Job (Tan Kar Lin)

    Research Writer, Our Modern Past, Singapore Heritage Society (2004-14)

  • Other Pursuits (Ho Weng Hin)

    Founding Chair, Docomomo Singapore Chapter

  • Other Pursuits (cont)

    Founding Director, ICOMOS Singapore National Committee

  • Other Pursuits (cont)

    Member, Heritage and Identity Partnership (HIP), Urban Redevelopment Authority

  • Other Pursuits (cont)

    Member, Singapore Heritage Society

  • Other Pursuits (Tan Kar Lin)

    Founding Exco Member, Docomomo Singapore Chapter

  • Other Pursuits (cont)

    Founding Director, ICOMOS Singapore National Committee

  • Other Pursuits (cont)

    Associate Member, Singapore Institute of Architects

  • Other Pursuits (cont)

    Member, Singapore Heritage Society

  • Location (current)

    Tanjong Pagar Complex

  • Period of Occupancy (current)

    4 years (& ongoing)

  • Space (current)

    108 sqm

  • Team Size (current)

    10-14

  • Location (3rd Office)

    Tanjong Pagar Complex

  • Period of Occupancy (3rd Office)

    4 years

  • Space (3rd Office)

    36 sqm

  • Team Size (3rd Office)

    4-10

  • Location (2nd Office)

    Cantonment Road

  • Period of Occupancy (2nd Office)

    3 Years

  • Space (2nd Office)

    25 sqm

  • Team Size (2nd Office)

    2

  • Location (1st Office)

    Toh Tuck Road

  • Period of Occupancy (1st Office)

    2 Years

  • Space (1st Office)

    25 sqm

  • Team Size (1st Office)

    2

  • 1998

    Ho Weng Hin worked as a Architectural Assistant at William Lim Associates

  • 1999

    Ho Weng Hin & Tan Kar Lin graduated with B.A. (Arch Studies), NUS

  • 2001

    Ho Weng Hin & Tan Kar Lin graduated with M.Arch, NUS

  • 2002

    Ho Weng Hin worked at NUS Centre for Advanced Studies in Architecture, as a Research Assistant.

  • 2002

    Tan Kar Lin started M.A.(Arch)

  • 2003

    Tan Kar Lin worked at NUS Department of Architecture, as Teaching Assistant.

  • 2004

    Tan Kar Lin completed M.A.(Arch), NUS

  • 2004

    Ho Weng Hin & Tan Kar Lin worked at the Singapore Architect journal as Editors.

  • 2004

    Both worked as Research Writers at Our Modern Past, Singapore Heritage Society until 2014.

  • 2008

    Ho Weng Hin graduated from University of Genova, Italy with a Dip. Spec in Restauro dei Monumenti

  • 2009

    Studio Lapis was founded, office located at Toh Tuck Road.

  • 2009

    Worked on South Beach Project. Obtained the office's first URA Architectural Heritage Award in 2016

  • 2011

    Began work on The Capitol. Obtained the office's first URA Architectural Heritage Award in 2016

  • 2012

    Began work on The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd. Obtained an Honourable Mention in the UNESCO Asia Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation (2017)

  • 2014

    Began work on Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. Project is still ongoing.

  • 2016

    Began work on St Teresa Church.

  • 2020

    Haw Par Villa Art Installation exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

Gatekeepers of Our Heritage

By Elaine Chan, 28 February 2022

Did you always want to be heritage conservation specialists?

Weng Hin How did we go on to this path? Yeah, we had our beginnings doing heritage advocacy work really, during our undergraduate days. We became student members of the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) and while I was interning with William Lim Associates. As you know, William Lim is the founding president of SHS. And it was quite an eye opener. He allowed the interns to sit in on some of the meetings and for me, I could see that it's a very interesting arena, outside of normal office, design work in the office, to participate in. So we could really see how civil society could play a role in determining the outcome of the urban environment and also the heritage conservation.

What about Kar Lin?

Kar Lin At the time, it was actually our year-out. So that's like a gap year where we intern at firms. So after work, a few of us from the same batch of architecture school would gather at a restaurant in Chinatown. We would discuss about heritage issues. At the time, there was a controversy about STB (Singapore Tourism Board) trying to thematise Chinatown. One of our friends - being a Chinatown boy - was quite riled up. And so it started as a very informal chit-chat session, and we called this the yada yada sessions... it was just pure talk.

But gradually it became a bit more structured. I started taking minutes, and we started attending forums and writing to the press, and writing to Singapore Architect, and joining SHS as Weng Hin mentioned. So I guess at the time there was a very strong sense of frustration. Because of this imbalance in power, you feel that you cannot challenge the technical reasons that are presented by the authorities. So I guess that was one very strong imperative to you know, become the expert yourself.

During our year-out, a few of us would gather and discuss about heritage issues. At the time, there was a controversy about STB trying to thematise Chinatown. One of our friends - being a Chinatown boy - was quite riled up. And so it started as a very informal chit-chat session, and we called this the yada yada sessions… it was just pure talk.

So, that was the beginning of the journey. And how did it evolve into you doing this full time as a career and professionally. Can you share that experience?

Weng Hin Well, from this early exposure, you realise that heritage as a field is really quite different. And we were really more interested in how the urban environment can actually accommodate historic landscapes and, you know, retain these characteristics while still continuing to progress and evolve.

So, after graduation, I did not join an architecture firm, but I did a stint of research at the university into architectural history under Professor YC Wong. I was researching into the architectural heritage of the Public Works Department in the colonial era. So that is already one foot into a more serious, I suppose an academic engagement with architectural history. So that was my second step. Subsequently, we, I mean, Kar Lin was doing…

Kar Lin I was, yeah, I was doing… pursuing the Master's in architecture, I did a Master's in research on architectural history. My thesis topic was on the "Worlds" amusement parks. My interest was really in this urban entertainment and programming and you know, the underbelly of Singapore's architectural history.

We were really more interested in how the urban environment can actually accommodate historic landscapes and retain these characteristics while still continuing to progress and evolve.

Is it correct to say that you took a little bit of that academic route as well, to developing that career path?

Weng Hin Yeah, it wasn't really that conscious as in, we saw it as a career path. We were pursuing it as our interest in the field intensified. And also, as I guess, our eyes were open to these other aspects of architecture in the built environment. We just got deeper and deeper into the field because from early NGO-related work, right, to doing a stint in, in architectural history, research, it kind of helped to tune our eyeballs in a different way. We still appreciate architectural design and all that, but we found that we actually can look at it from a different lens.

And in those two years, we were also involved in various things. Such as…we started working on Modern Past (Our Modern Past: A Visual Survey of Singapore Architecture 1920s-1970s), which, again, is a SHS initiative project. And that became a 10-year-long journey for both of us and also a good friend Dinesh Naidu, and Jeremy San. And four of us really embarked on this amazing journey during our youth, you know, to hunt down, to track down whether those wonderful modernist buildings we see in old magazines are still standing or not.

We just got deeper and deeper into the field because from early NGO-related work, right, to doing a stint in, in architectural history, research, it kind of helped to tune our eyeballs in a different way.

10 years, not a short period of time.

Weng Hin Yeah, it's definitely the best years of our youth. And it went on during the time when I went to Italy to pursue a postgraduate course in architectural conservation.

Yeah, so I guess these few things converge, you know, and then we made a call to say, let's do it professionally… I decided to take up formal training in architectural conservation, at a postgraduate level.

Can you both share a little bit about that project…the definitive project that took up 10 years of your life?

Kar Lin I think I have to clarify that the 10 years is like, not full time 10 years. Yeah. In between, like life happened, studies happened.

So you started the project as students?

Weng Hin We've already graduated, young graduates. After the Master’s degree. We were at the university. So it was a part-time research and writing engagement. It started off with a brief, very simple, brief – 30 buildings. There was a previous writer that SHS engaged, who didn't continue with the project. So we came in, and as our research went on, we decided that 30 buildings will not do justice to the importance of this project. So we started to re-conceptualise the book to encompass the range and the complexity of the topic of modern architectural heritage in Singapore. It was actually a very fun process because we were driving around Singapore and all we had were photocopied photographs of the buildings as they were just built, completed many years ago. And we were trying very hard to decipher if, you know, these still remained.

The field work actually, trying to comb the island, really took up a lot of time. And of course, our dear Jeremy (San), he took tens of thousands of photos. Once we selected the buildings that we thought should be featured in the book, and again, the selection process for that took some time as well.

It was actually a very fun process because we were driving around Singapore and all we had were photocopied photographs of the buildings as they were just built, completed many years ago. And we were trying very hard to decipher if, you know, these are still remains.

Were the photos taken first or were they taken after you've picked the buildings to feature in the book?

Kar Lin There were a few rounds. So we will go on what we call recce trips. These are the recce trips, and we will plan them out like, you know, one day we'll do Bukit Timah area. Another day, we'll do Seletar area. So on these recce trips, we will all take photos, including Jeremy. Yeah. So it's quite a messy process, I would say. And sometimes when we pass by a building that looks suspiciously like modern heritage, but which we are not even sure, we'll just stop and you know, take photo first and go back and research later. Yeah, so it was a, I would say, was very intensive fieldwork and research experience, and built up a very good database and helped to tune our eyeballs.

I assume you didn't have a database to work with at the beginning. So you actually built that database?

Weng Hin Yes, we were building it up. And we amassed a lot of research information. So it came in very useful during the writing of the book, as well as you know, trying to conceptualise how to present these buildings.

Kar Lin In a way the database was built up concurrently as I was doing my second Master's, and I was doing my own urban historical research and at the same time, Weng Hin was a research assistant to a project under NUS Prof. YC Wong on the PWD architectural heritage.

So in that 10-year period, you were doing various things, both of you?

Kar Lin Yes, it was our boho period!

What kind of work did you do primarily, say to make a living?

Weng Hin We edited, co-edited Singapore Architect magazine. We did it over the span of two years, while I was pursuing the postgraduate course. So thanks to the internet, email, we could still do that. We coordinated a team which was also based in Singapore, a team of translators, writers, and of course Jeremy (San) was the photographer during our editorship, so that kind of sustained our engagement with the local design scene as well as provided, you know, a source of income. But otherwise, I think it's more of really, freelance work, I would say, that got us along.

I would actually like to add that the book took 10 years. I mean, it started in 2004, and it was published in 2014. But by 2009, we already established Studio Lapis after my graduate studies were completed. I finished it in 2008. So that one was already five years into Studio Lapis, [when] we managed to get a book out. Along the way, there were also other issues like funding and book design and sponsorship, and things like that, that kind of lengthen the gestation process.

When you first started in the field, would it be right to assume that there weren't that many people doing the kind of work that you specialised in, in Singapore?

Weng Hin Yes, you can count them with one finger.

Kar Lin That means one.

Weng Hin There's only us and an American consultant, Garth Sheldon. He was kind of a monopoly in Singapore. Maybe not a monopoly, but I think, because you can see that architectural heritage conservation as a specialised discipline in the early days – meaning maybe 80s to 90s onwards – was really quite in its infancy. And even when this consultant was active, I think it was not automatically assumed that a conservation consultant is required for a heritage project.

It evolved really quite slowly, of course, and in the midst of it, URA also started its conservation journey, they also flew in overseas consultants like Didier Repellin, the French expert, to advise on projects like the Asian Civilisation Museum, or Empress Place Museum, and Chijmes later on. But it's really, you know, few and far in between, I would say... it was not a mainstay kind of work, you know, the work itself was not well-defined. And definitely, the opportunity wasn't really there yet.

Most of the architecture firms will undertake so-called conservation projects, but I suppose the attitude towards conservation in those days, was again, quite different in its early days. So, there was really not much distinction between an A&A (additions and alterations) job and a conservation job. Are you doing addition and alteration, or are you doing restoration and conservation? There wasn't really such a distinction yet.

Editor’s note: In a follow-up conversation with Studio SML, the interviewees also pointed out that conservation architect, Associate Professor Chan Yew Lih from NUS had also advised on the restoration of St Andrew's Cathedral and also St Andrew's School.

Architectural heritage conservation as a specialised discipline in the early days - meaning maybe 80s to 90s onwards – was really quite in its infancy. It was not automatically assumed that a conservation consultant is required for a heritage project.

How has that evolved?

Weng Hin It’s actually hard to say, because, I guess it was also at a point when URA started to request for more, or rather they attempted to raise the bar of the conservation requirements. For example, in some of the government land sales projects, where there are conserved buildings, they started to stipulate certain conservation standards to be met. But I will say it isn't really well mapped out how the landscape has changed, especially in a place like Singapore, where conservation is known to be, or seen as a top down process. Of course, we're also seeing that by the 80s, Singapore Heritage Society and other groups, citizen groups also entered into the arena. And I think together, when we started to have a critical mass of interests, then things started to happen. But I would say that when we came back from Italy in 2008, the playing field wasn't really that developed.

Kar Lin I think probably somebody needs to write out a more detailed history of how architectural conservation developed in Singapore. From the scraps and bits that we gathered, there was a period in the 80s, 90s when there was a surge in interest and URA even took on their own conservation projects, and they flew in European experts and trained local builders. But somehow the interest in the technical aspect of it petered off. And at the point when we returned, I think a lot of the emphasis was on like, you know, the design, the facade design, restoration, so like, what do you keep, what do you not keep and what is the design of this window, the design of the elevation that you should restore to.

Our first projects were like very tiny scopes that involved solving technical difficulties. I think at the point that there was also a loss of the craftsmanship and construction, technical knowledge. People have lost the skills to say, restore Shanghai plaster. That was actually like, one of our first assignments.

Our first projects were like very tiny scopes that involved solving technical difficulties. I think at the point that there was also a loss of the craftsmanship and construction, technical knowledge. People have lost the skills to say, restore Shanghai plaster. That was actually like, one of our first assignments.

What was your assignment, in more details?

Weng Hin It's the old Victoria school, which now houses The People’s Association headquarters. We were helping the contractors to come up with a satisfactory way to restore the Shanghai plaster finish. They couldn't actually complete the project, because their solutions kept getting rejected. Just so happens, my graduation thesis in Italy was on the Shanghai plaster diagnostics and restoration. I studied the Old Supreme Court, which at that time was being converted into the National Gallery. One of my old friends approached me and asked, are you able to advise? So I think that really started us off, but it was already at the tail end, it was towards the project completion when that came in. And slowly through the decade, our projects diversified and we got to be involved earlier and earlier. And now we get involved sometimes in a feasibility study stage, right before even design or any kind of development proposal is drawn up.

How important is it to be involved in from the very beginning, say from the upstream?

Weng Hin It’s definitely very important, because a lot of decision-making... from a conservation, heritage viewpoint, if decision-making is informed by more perspectives, more input from various disciplines, it will actually help to shape a more balanced outcome in the end. So for example, if you’ve already determined you’re going to build a four-storey basement below this building, and without doing thorough conservation investigation and evaluation of whether this is even technically viable, that could actually lead the project towards a path that is quite difficult, and fraught with uncertainty. But if, say, enough is found out about the building before a certain major decision is made, it’d definitely help to steer the project in, I would say, a better direction.

From a conservation, heritage viewpoint, if decision-making is informed by more perspectives, more input from various disciplines, it will actually help to shape a more balanced outcome in the end.

What is your most memorable assignment to date?

Weng Hin Memorable? Actually all of them are very memorable to us because no two historic buildings are the same.

Kar Lin In a way, we're like a spokesman for the old building. These silent walls - how do they speak to the architects? So we study the buildings quite intensively, both in terms of archival research, as well as doing fieldwork as in like, you know, staring at the walls at the cracks, what's happening to it materially and physically and trying to figure out the stories about the building and try to tell these stories to the other consultants on board, including the architects, engineers, the client, allowing them to appreciate the full value. Yeah, and the significance that is embodied in this building that they have on hand. So that, you know, when they make design decisions to – oh, let's remove this column for a bigger space… so that they know what they are doing, what kind of heritage impact it has.

Knowing each building is almost like knowing people, 'cos every building has its own character, personality, difference and has its own story. So I would say we have learned a lot from these buildings as well. Each building teaches us a lot more about conservation than what we could ever learn from books.

In a way, we're like a spokesman for the old building. These silent walls - how do they speak to the architects? So we study these buildings quite intensively, both in terms of archival research, as well as doing fieldwork, and try to figure out the stories about these building and tell the stories to the other consultants on board.

I'm quite fascinated, intrigued. When you look at your buildings, do pictures come into your mind, like visuals or how you visualise it to become. Or you know, pictures of the past?

Kar Lin You do need a very empathic kind of imagination because most of the time when we start on a project, the building is either very rundown, cobwebs, and you know, windows that are hoarded up and cockroaches everywhere, and bedsheets bat droppings on the floor. Or they are renovated beyond recognition - false ceiling and Corinthian columns slapped onto modernist facades, that kind of thing. Yeah, so you do need to get behind all these superficial appearances. Understand the building through your research, the little bits and pieces of hints and signs that you see on the field work. We will go around peeling off this vinyl and see whether there's mosaic floor underneath. And when we make these discoveries, it sends a thrill down your spine.

Weng Hin It’s a bit like forensic science.

Kar Lin Yeah, or archaeology.

Weng Hin And one of my favourite ways to explain what we do is a mixture of being a forensic scientist or diagnostician and advocate, you know, you really need both, because like Kar Lin said, if you are the only person, only team member who can make a connection with the building, without judging it, without prejudging it first.

This is something I also learned in Italy, which was quite eye opening. My professor told me, you are trained as an architect to make things better to improve things. But we are teaching you to think like a conservator first, where you do not jump to conclusions before you understand what you are looking at and what you're experiencing. And that was quite eye opening. Because many, I think, don't really make that distinction. And once you make the distinction, you can actually see all kinds of conflicts and potential issues that arise because sometimes it will be more favourable towards thinking like a conservator, when coming across very significant spaces, or very important, you know, elements that commemorated very important events. On the other hand, when you come across places that are heavily modified, and maybe of less significance, you're able to think like a designer, and recommend that maybe the intervention should come here so that it doesn't disrupt the appreciation and also the experience of the historical character.

I think being design literate and trained in design does help us in doing this heritage conservation work as well, as just as being trained in the scientific aspects as well as the philosophical aspect of conservation.

Knowing each building is almost like knowing people, 'cos every building has its own character, personality, difference and has its own story. So I would say we have learned a lot from these buildings as well. Each building teaches us a lot more about conservation than what we could ever learn from books.

Seems to involve many facets of disciplines and learnings.

Weng Hin Yes, it does. Actually in Europe, or not just in Europe... they actually approach it from a multidisciplinary angle, so there are actually all kinds of people in the team in a conservation project, from a chemist, to a structural engineer, to an architect to a geologist - to understand the nature of stone material, even a botanist. That was the kind of training I was exposed to in Italy. And again, that was something quite eye opening. And, but it really set the bar for us when we came back to Singapore.

So, it was challenging – having that kind of exposure and these thresholds that you want to meet, and then be in a reality where I suppose the world of conservation is still in its, probably, infancy.

Weng Hin It’s definitely challenging because we don’t have any clear benchmark in Singapore, except for the conversation guidelines which basically safeguards what the façade looks like, historically. What happens beyond the facade or how do we preserve, not just the brick and mortar but also the whole mood, ambience, significance and other intangible things, is really quite a challenge. We also have to explain what value-add we can bring to the project, why can’t architects do what we do. Therefore, we have to describe what we specialise in, as compared to the usual design scope.

The intangible bits of the architectural conservation process…how would you communicate that to the stakeholders? How do you get people’s buy-in… recommending something intangible the layman can’t see?

Kar Lin Actually communication is quite a fundamental part of our practice. I always like to say that there’s an undercurrent of advocacy in what we are doing. We are trying to do it in a way that is not so in your face. Not like we have to go on the streets and protest, hug the building that we don’t want you to demolish, not in that way. We are trying to persuade you to see the building the way we do. To appreciate its value and its beauty the way we do.

It’s a lot to do with storytelling. It’s not good enough to just present a Wikipedia page, history of this building. So our very first reports were very text-intensive with technical jargons.

Weng Hin We think they probably end up as doorstops.

Kar Lin So gradually we develop a report format that is visually intensive. If you ask our team, we are quite particular about how we take photographs of the buildings. And we how select images to showcase. Look, this very special door with its features – timber mouldings, nice details – don’t take blurred shots…

Weng Hin And cropped off the corners you’re not supposed to crop.

Kar Lin … off-coloured . We try to do a lot of visual storytelling in our reports; we do mapping, we show where you can find these special heritage elements, all over your building. And we find the different aspects of the storytelling on the team [audience].

Let’s say we have a church client. They’d like to read about how the church came about, you know there was this old priest… so personality-driven stories and how they relate to the building. Or how this person donated these floor tiles… so you relate immediately to the material aspect of the building to the human interest stories.

For the architects, we try to present it in terms of design. Like look, there’s this axis, how they placed this door in synchronisation; there’s this rhythm that we should respect although it’s not so clear now due to insensitive A&A in the past. Let’s try to restore that. So present it in design terms, to help them along, to imagine what it should look like and what it will be when it’s restored.

Through the years we have gained a lot of skills in communication.

Weng Hin I think the visual… I guess our publication experience also came in quite handy. When you know what message you want to convey, you need to do it really carefully and strategically so that you can convey the message clearly and with persuasion. We sometimes even work with photographers to photograph the very run-down buildings and if they can capture the soul of the building in the pictures, we will use these images to our advantage, and use them to help in our case to present the team, that this is worthwhile to restore and not to over modify. These are the ends that we go to communicate this heritage advocacy, almost on a day-to-day basis.

Actually communication is quite a fundamental part of our practice. I always like to say that there’s an undercurrent of advocacy in what we are doing.

Can you tell me a bit about Studio Lapis? How did the name come about?

Kar Lin Our usual line is – it allows for a plan B, if it doesn’t work out!

It’s always a favourite – kueh lapis.

Weng Hin We had a few names in mind. But it was the favourite because it is quite meaningful for us. Lapis means layers in Malay. To us, we really want to understand the layers in history, in the heritage of the building. At the same time, lapis in Latin is actually stone, one of the meanings. As in - stone in a monument, one of the precious stones. It’s to acknowledge the Italian postgraduate training, the philosophy and the values that got ingrained in us. So to us, it has dual meaning and it sounded quite catchy. People can remember kueh lapis quite easily. That’s why we decided on it.

Why did you decide to set up Studio Lapis?

Weng Hin It really started when we took part in a project bid. It was for the Victoria Concert Hall and Theatre A&A in the early 2010s. We were approached to team up with an architectural firm. One of the requirements was that it must be a registered company; we couldn’t operate on a freelance basis. Therefore we took the leap. That was the starting point. After that we moved on into other projects. We weren’t involved in that project; another firm got the commission.

You were working together before the studio was established, right?

Weng Hin Yes we were. On "Our Modern Past", that was the longest collaboration. Of course working as co-editors at Singapore Architect (magazine).

Have you always worked together as partners professionally? Were you partners professionally or in life first?

Weng Hin It kind of… we were in the same year in Archi school. Yes, I guess you can say concurrently.

What are the pros and cons of being partners professionally and partners in life?

Weng Hin I won’t put it as pros and cons, but definitely it’s not straightforward. We have to be quite conscious whether we are giving a personal opinion or a professional opinion because we can’t possibly agree on every single thing as individuals. We do have different professional positions but once you start a company, an office, you definitely have to have a clear professional direction and position.

I suppose that process becomes a little more structured. In the beginning it was not easy, especially when it was co-operating more on a freelance basis where we can get into arguments. But we need to actually say that - is it a difference in personal opinion or because professionally you don’t agree? So there is always something you need to negotiate.

Kar Lin In a way, it forces you to look into yourself and sharpen your own values, to be very clear-headed and analytical about the issue at hand.

Can you share about a few projects you’ve done?

Weng Hin Probably we can start with… I would say South Beach.

Kar Lin That would be our first commercial…

Weng Hin Start-to-end project. And it was really fortunate that we got commissioned for the work. This was 2009. In fact, it started in 2007 but we were not involved yet. And in 2008 it was shelved for a while. When it was revived, the client was advised by the architects Aedas to engage a heritage consultant to assist with some of the approvals for conservation. It was a good project to start off with because the building scale was probably manageable for a two-person set-up. And it also got us… because the old NCO club, the 1950 structure, and we were already somewhat familiar with it, as well as the drill hall next door through "Our Modern Past" research project. We could actually bring in our background knowledge of these two buildings and it allowed us to immerse in the environment quite quickly. It was also, I think, a very important process of understanding how a large commercial project of this scale worked, in terms of the client’s prerogative and also working with a large architecture firm like Aedas and Foster and Partners who were the design architects, to kind of see how to balance different interests when we were making our recommendations to the team. It was really an important training ground for us and it’s also one of our longest projects because it was only completed in 2015. It was almost seven years in total. So we really learned a lot through that, not just how to apply the skills and knowledge, but also through theory in the postgrad course, but also learn how to navigate across the different interests and also play a constructive role in moving the project forward, especially the conservation aspects of it.

Of course, midway through we got to work on Capitol, which was another conservation project because it was Singapore’s only art deco cinema that’s still standing. We used to have much more of these but sadly they are all gone, except for this, the pre-war one.

That was really fun because it’s very rare that URA guidelines say that you must preserve the use as a cultural performance venue. So that kind of set the tone for the conversation and restoration approach. Let’s go all out and discover what’s there and what it originally looked like, and whether we can still resuscitate its art deco interior. So we were thrilled when they peeled away these acoustic linings on the wall and found that these mouldings were by and large intact, and could be restored. It was actually, I would say, one of the high points early in our career. It’s definitely very satisfying to see it being used as a multi-functional venue. It introduced this floor system which allows the chairs to disappear and becomes a flat surface so you can put dining tables in.

That was our next project, that was really quite long-lasting to us.

How long did the Capitol project take?

Weng Hin It's also quite long, five years. Most of these large commercial projects, because they are so complex and because there are a lot of change-of-use, so the A&A work approval process takes a really long time. Construction-wise, in conservation work, if you want to do it properly, it is quite painstaking and it takes time to complete.

I would say these two are, kind of, our important starting projects that really gave us a lot of experience to tackle a range of projects later on. Like the Good Shepherd Cathedral which again, we call it a textbook case of how all the bad things that can happen to a building.

So that building actually had a serious structural issue, something that we have not encountered [until then]. We usually don’t encounter that.

Most of these large commercial projects, because they are so complex and because there are a lot of change-of-use, so the A&A work approval process takes a really long time.

Why is that?

Weng Hin Because of some tunneling work when they were building the MRT line, the station, and SMU was also being constructed in the vicinity.

The building kind of cracked up in a few pieces, and had to undergo emergency rescue. It was, again, quite an important project that taught us a lot, technical issues in dealing with such buildings. It’s also a much older building.

Yes, 19th century, 1847. And it's much, much older than Capitol and South Beach buildings. So that gave us again technical experience dealing with 19th century buildings and we had the good fortune to work on similar 19th century buildings later on because of this project experience. Like the Raffles Hotel, even an overseas hotel project like the Peninsula Hotel in Yangon, former Burma Railways Headquarters Buildings in Yangon.

So we learned that different builders in different eras, they tried to build [in] the best way that they know how. But as inheritors of these buildings now, we have to find ways to maintain and prolong their lives so that they can actually survive the future generations.

Sustainability and inheritance I would say really are at the core of what we try to do.

Sustainability and inheritance I would say really are at the core of what we try to do.

It’s so fascinating… what you were talking about [with] the Good Shepherd Cathedral. How modern infrastructure being built can affect existing heritage buildings and how urban planners have to think about that.

Weng Hin Yes, in fact I think experiences like these… probably made the authorities more aware because later on, when they were building the Circle Line, at the last stage, stage six, the line was supposed to go underneath a number of historical buildings including the Tanjong Pagar railway station, they actually introduced a heritage impact assessment brief within the development project. So the consultant actually needed to get a study done on what’s the possible impact so certain vulnerabilities of the historical structure can be identified upstream and maybe the design can be tweaked to address that or sidestep, maybe to not go so near the building or if it’s unavoidable, how to strengthen the building temporarily while the infrastructure work is carried out.

What’s the experience like for you working overseas, working on overseas projects? Dealing with different cultures, histories and environments.

Weng Hin One thing we realised is - it is a very big responsibility because we are dealing with heritage that, strictly speaking, doesn't belong to us, not Singaporean heritage. And that’s actually a very important thing for us because we know that we have to try even harder to understand and establish the significance of the building so that we can give the best possible advice regarding the development or alterations that are proposed for the building. Different countries have different jurisdictions, heritage laws. Singapore, amongst many Asian countries, I suppose, has the most established heritage laws for the built environment. Being very used to that… we have to change the way we think when we work overseas, because overseas is not like that at all. It’s almost quite ambiguous what you can or cannot do, whether it’s reconstruction, tearing down, or if reconstructing is even acceptable. These kinds of things are not spelt out. Definitely we have to deal with a lot more uncertainties in terms of the legislation, and in a certain sense because we feel quite responsible for doing the right thing, we tend to try to cover a lot more, understand more.

Kar Lin One of the things we try to do is to engage a local historian. So that we can… partly because they can access local sources in their respective vernacular languages, but also because they would have a much more nuanced understanding of not just the built heritage but how the people perceive or value these buildings. We want to be able to understand and respond to how much they treasure or value these buildings.

Weng Hin Just to give you an example working on the Yangon project. It was a very interesting situation, or very challenging situation. As you know the colonial heritage over there is not very quite resolved and the colonisation of Burma is nowhere as smooth as it was in Singapore.

Kar Lin Yeah, they experienced a very aggressive colonisation.

Weng Hin So we found out through meetings with the authorities, they have ambivalence towards the building, which they have to regard as heritage, but I think with a historical baggage, they probably look at it in a different way. We can’t really assume that everybody takes colonial heritage as part of their own, recognised and reconciled with it. It helped us to rethink what are boundaries and the parameters that we are operating within, in terms of giving advice or intervention.

What would be your ideal project? Is it too abstract? Or, at this point, what would you like to work on?

Kar Lin The restoration of Haw Par Villa.

Weng Hin Yeah, that’s a good one.

Has it ever been restored?

Kar Lin A few times if you call those…

It’s not a thorough one right?

Weng Hin No, no, it’s more of a painting job. The recent one they went through a round of emergency repairs to some really, a small number of structures that were seriously dilapidated. But so far there hasn’t been a concerted effort.

Kar Lin One of the main reasons is that it’s not gazetted yet.

Weng Hin Yes, it’s not protected legally so it’s hard to marshal resources I suppose, among the stakeholders, especially the agencies and to dedicate the resources, and look at the different terms of reference if it was not just a tourist attraction but a heritage site.

Kar Lin That was one of our few non-building projects. So we were commissioned by NHB to carry out a heritage survey – the state of conservation, the condition itself and… essentially it’s an auditing of what is there left in Haw Par Villa. That was one of our most intensive projects in a strange way although it doesn’t involve climbing scaffolds, going to construction sites, arguing with other consultants. Because of its sheer complexity and the complicated history of the park itself.

Weng Hin We have a long fascination after the project. We even tried to develop an art installation for the Venice Biennale which just ended in Italy, which was actually inspired by this conservation study. We worked with two very talented artists – Jerome Ng and Eugene Tan who’s a Lego artist. Jerome Ng is a digital creative. We set the challenge for them to reinterpret the missing fragments of Haw Par Villa in their own mediums.

So we were commissioned by NHB to carry out a heritage survey – the state of conservation, the condition itself and… essentially it’s an auditing of what is there left in Haw Par Villa. That was one of our most intensive projects in a strange way although it doesn’t involve climbing scaffolds, going to construction sites, arguing with other consultants.

Kar Lin you said you are very interested to work on Haw Par Villa, are there particular reasons? What fascinated you so much?

Kar Lin When we were carrying out the research on the park itself, there many issues that we faced because it wasn’t, in a way, defied as a mainstream kind of heritage with a capital H. In fact, there’s a lot of misunderstanding that Haw Par Villa is just about the hell, dioramas … but it’s actually a physical manifestation of a very rich cultural storytelling tradition, about a period of mass media, mass communication, old movies and radio storytelling. A lot of this informal history was lost.

We were actually documenting not just the physical structures like the arches, but also the dioramas, trying to understand their symbolisms, trying to understand where these stories were. So some of them were traceable, but some of them, because of the way they were shifted around, broken up… there was a scene where there were many sea creatures, but they were broken up and you have some prawns stranded here and some crabs stranded there.

Weng Hin It became quite incoherent, if you look at it today.

So you can imagine very interesting, multi-facet stories… you have to put in really a lot of effort to understand what the stories are… because it’s actually the dioramas that tried to inculcate some virtues, some morals, and ethics in the post-war years. But today, it’s very much submerged beneath the quite garish-looking paint.

In fact, there’s a lot of misunderstanding that Haw Par Villa is just about the hell, dioramas… but it’s actually a physical manifestation of a very rich cultural storytelling tradition, about a period of mass media, mass communication, old movies and radio storytelling.

It could be a very rich destination, not just for tourists.

Kar Lin Exactly. I think the strongest resonance will actually be for the locals.

Weng Hin Because it’s very eclectic, it’s not just about the Chinese or anything. Even the Aw brothers, they were Burmese Chinese. A lot of the elements, if you look at it quite closely, they are actually depicting multi-ethnic society in post-war Singapore. You can see the policeman, the cabaret girls and all these other interesting characters which try to flesh out what’s the world view of the builders of the park.

Kar Lin I guess it doesn’t help that there’s a lot of political incorrectness – a lot of the depictions like the naked nymphs frolicking in the water. At one point, they offended the religious organisations that they had to paint bikinis over them.

Weng Hin They had to dress up the nudes and we found that out while studying the old historical records. They were really different in the past compared to what we see today.

We’d have to try and tell them this is Asian Manet.

Kar Lin The unfortunate thing about Haw Par Villa is that in the past few rounds of major development, whether it is converting it into a theme park, into a centre for overseas Chinese and so on and so forth, I think it’s people imposing their stories onto the park, rather than trying to listen to and appreciate what the park’s stories are.

Weng Hin There’s a missed opportunity there, definitely.

It could be that many people here had different impressions of the park

Weng Hin Different impressions and different agendas I would say…

Kar Lin And biases.

Weng Hin Some people feel that it’s not even heritage.

Is there any way that there can be some advocacy towards restoring this park?

Weng Hin Actually there is. Currently, months ago…

Kar Lin There has been advocacy on and off from different NGOs, and the public even, writing in. I think the problem is that there’s no… it’s like no one’s baby.

No one has taken ownership… I suppose there are many buildings in Singapore that need to be conserved too?

Weng Hin Yes definitely. Now that we are moving beyond the colonial heritage, definitely the post-independence era is the next frontier. We also started Docomomo Singapore with a few like-minded friends last year, actually a few years ago, but last year we got formally established to champion this area of heritage that’s actually [being] more threatened. In a certain sense, it’s again one full round – from doing research for "Our Modern Past" to working on projects that deal with modern architecture and conservation… to now, forming this group to advocate for the appreciation and conservation.

We also started Docomomo Singapore with a few like-minded friends last year, actually a few years ago, but last year we got formally established to champion this area of heritage that’s actually [being] more threatened.

Even when people were advocating for preserving colonial buildings, there were also many challenges. With the passage of time, we are now facing another set of challenges, with buildings from another era.

Weng Hin I think each generation will have their own challenges set up for them. Just like William Lim’s generation, they were really behind getting the conservation movement off the ground, talking about shophouses, heritage. And 40 years on, nobody will disagree that shophouse conservation makes a lot of economic sense because they are so unaffordable! And hopefully, with such hindsight, we can persuade stakeholders and developers that likewise, just as they were sceptics out there 30 years ago, a brave few who ventured out and kind of took the leap are now reaping the rewards.

Are you getting positive vibes, with the benefit of hindsight?

Kar Lin From the younger generation, I would say. So it’s really a generational thing. You have a younger generation that’s actually appreciative of your 70s, 80s, HDB neighbourhoods for example. But for people, say like 10, 20 years older, they’d say like – these are just functional, nondescript, equalitarian utilitarian.

Weng Hin I think the interesting thing that history teaches us is really, there are cycles of this kind of issue. It’s of course not in a straight line, how things evolve. In a sense, the success of the early conservation movement gives us some direction and some optimism that we just have to really think about what would work for this particular building stock, given their different characteristics, challenges and real estate value and how people perceive them.

Of course we are not the only ones doing this advocacy work. There are also many other people in their own capacities, doing things in different ways. We feel that there is a good thing that we can get momentum going so that there’s a critical mass to really try and make a difference.

You want to make sure that projects are of a certain quality so that it doesn’t end up as a botched job. In heritage conservation, it can mean a lot of things are irreversibly lost. The stakes are high.

Two last questions. What do you foresee for Studio Lapis in 5 and 10 years?

Kar Lin Even actually, thus far, we have been feeling our way forward.

Weng Hin We are not the entrepreneur type to be very honest.

Kar Lin We don’t have 10-year plans!

Weng Hin We very much like to continue doing the work we are doing but with maybe more enlightened audience or even… I would say that [in] the next few years, the variety of work probably will grow, as you heard, heritage impact assessment and things like that, things that people have championed for many years will be formally be introduced in important projects.

In a sense, we can see the heritage field and industry is expanding, and there’s definitely opportunities there. We also see that because NUS has started a local conservation course to start producing graduates. Once that reaches a certain critical mass of graduates, there’ll probably be other outfits – don’t know whether they will be modelled along the lines of Studio Lapis, but definitely there will be more heritage consultants in the field. Which I guess is normal, in any healthy and mature industry because you can’t do all the work, but definitely you want to make sure that given that heritage resources are very limited, you want to make sure that projects are of a certain quality so that it doesn’t end up as a botched job. In heritage conservation, it can mean a lot of things are irreversibly lost. The stakes are high.

We’d like to see more quality work even if there are more players in the field. It’s similar with conservation contractors. In Italy, it’s not just about conservation architects, but the whole industry of craftsmen, skills, contractors, patrons and owners of heritage properties who know and acknowledge the significance and responsibility of owning historical properties, and to really be able to maintain them for the future generations.

So I would say probably Studio Lapis will have to work within these kinds of different scenarios in the few years down the road.

We are not the entrepreneur type to be very honest. We don’t have 10-year plans!

Anything to add, Kar Lin?

Kar Lin I think rather than a vision of what we will become, we are hoping for the ecology, conservation market, the networks, the practitioners, the builders… we are hoping that it will thrive, develop, become more diversified. As it is now, it’s already tough to find builders who are interested in heritage work, or who have the capabilities or interest to develop these skills. And it’s also an ageing skilled labour force.

We are also hoping that there will be more young people coming into this aspect of the heritage industry. You know, even like skilled carpenters to restore…

Weng Hin One thing that I absolutely agree, because one thing that really struck me when I was in Italy… I spoke with this very young mural art conservator in her mid-20s. She looked like she was just out of high school and maybe had a few years of practical training, She was doing less than one square foot a day of restoration, and she has one whole ceiling to finish. She’s very patiently doing it, and she’s so dedicated. Also we found out that actually artisans, conservator artisan’s pay is so many times higher than what the unskilled workers are getting in Singapore.

So there is the ecology, like Kar Lin mentioned, that should create the condition that people feel is worthwhile to make a livelihood out of it. You have this very famous thing that people like to say that – if you don’t study hard, you’d end up as such and such a profession. I think it’s time to really remove the stigma from working with your hands and as long as… it’s like if you’re working in a restaurant.

I think there’s something reformative when you restore a building from a dilapidated state to a very liveable condition or even active state that can actually inspire pride in the community. I think there’s something reformative and quite existential about this process.

When I was in Italy… I spoke with this very young mural art conservator in her mid-20s. She looked like she was just out of high school and maybe had a few years of practical training, She was doing less than one square foot a day of restoration, and she has one whole ceiling to finish. She’s very patiently doing it, and she’s so dedicated.

What do you do for fun, out of work?

Kar Lin Play with our kids!

Weng Hin Yeah, it kind of transports us to another planet. It’s a totally different thing!

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