LIM SHING HUI
Company Founded in
Name of Founder
Lim Shing Hui
Founder Birth Year
M. Archi, NUS, 2008
Senior Arch. Associate, MKPL Architects, 2008-2013
West of S'pore
Period of Occupancy
Number of Staff
Graduated with M. Arch at National University of Spore
Started professional practice at MKPL Architects in Dec 2008
Left MKPL Architects in Dec after 5 years of practice and completion of 14 units of strata bungalow project in Crescent Road
Joined uncle's company to work on a feasibility project in Malaysia, resulting in the design of "A Series of Barns"
1st house project "The Living Grid House" in Singapore is an A&A to an existing Bungalow at Ocean Drive Sentosa, L Architects was formally incepted to accept the project
Started on "House of Trees", L Architects' 1st opportunity to do a new erection project
1st commercial commission to design a multi-label kitchen appliances shop
Completion of "House of Trees" and "A Brick & Motor Shop"
"A Brick & Mortar Shop" was conferred the highest accolade "Design of the Year" and "House of Trees" won a Merit Award at at the SIA Architectural Design Awards 2022
The Brick & Mortar Whisperer
By Kelley Cheng, 30 September 2022
Hi Shing Hui!
Hi Kelley, how are you?
Good! Thanks for being on Studio SML. We'll just dive right in now. And as usual, we like to start from the beginning, when did you first know that you wanted to be an architect? I read that your dad's actually an interior contractor, and his family is in the tile business. Is that something that had an influence on you wanting to be an architect?
I think I'm a classic example of someone that has gone through very mainstream education in Singapore, like the whole primary school, secondary school, JC and then University, but I've always loved the arts. But I went against that, and I got myself into a science stream just because I was told that I could get into better courses in university. In fact, when I was in JC, I just became particularly strong in chemistry as a subject. And I thought, I might just want to be a chemical engineer, and perhaps, work in a lab in some petroleum or pharmaceutical company my whole life, and not be truly happy. But when the time came to make that final decision, I actually intuitively flipped, and I applied to the School of Architecture. Back then, we had to put architecture as the first choice, otherwise, our chances of getting in would be close to none. And for the second choice, I chose Chem engineering. So when my dad found out, he was so mad at me, he didn't speak to me for a week, he felt I did it out of a whim. But the truth was, I was just very tired of continuing this whole mainstream education. And I wanted to start somewhere new, and develop this natural aptitude that I felt I might actually have, but was just completely untouched. So yes, it's true, I see that you've been digging. My dad is an interior contractor. In fact, my dad's family is either very artistic, or very entrepreneurial individuals. So my uncle was the first person that brought ceramic tiles into Singapore from Italy, because he saw it in the Milan Fair, and then apparently they installed it in my grandmother's house, to kind of test it out. And then slowly, we brought in natural stones from Europe, like marble and granite to supply to the local market. And then my dad himself is quite an artistic person himself. He actually loved to paint when he was young. We did a lot of craft work at home previously, also as kids, he actually wanted to study art overseas, but my grandfather just couldn't afford the tuition fees back then, they came from a really humble and poor family. There’s this Chinese saying, 耳濡目染, which actually means to be gradually and subtly influenced by what you hear and see, and what people say. And I guess that that was what happened to me.
Just curious, you said that when your dad found out that you wanted to do architecture, he was furious. But why?
Because all along, I was very set up to continue in this whole mainstream education. And I mean, because he's in the industry, he understands that it is no joke, you know, the path of an architect - what it entails, and what you have to do is very tough. And I think back then he felt that I didn't know what I was getting myself into. And so, he was like, “Are you sure you're going to do this? Why is it that all of a sudden, you flipped?” Yeah.. so he was kind of mad at me.
Okay, so it's for your own good. Okay, next question. You did your architecture degree in NUS. Looking back now, do you think there's anything you hope that the school syllabus could have included, to better equip you as a fresh grad architect?
Well, I thought about this before, and I actually belong to the camp where I feel like you can't teach architecture, really, you can't, you can only inspire. So if you would like to train graduates to be project architects, I think that school syllabus can be curtailed to that. But if you want to produce architects to do creative design work, then we need to provide the kind of environment to engage students in a deeper level of discourse. More rigour in developing students’ critical thinking skills. To me that's very valuable.
I actually belong to the camp where I feel like you can't teach architecture, really, you can't, you can only inspire.
I agree with you. I mean, it's very hard to teach design in general, but you can inspire. So on that note, for example, in AA (Architectural Association) London, they're known for inviting famous architects to give lectures regularly. And in fact, not just architects, they also invite artists and designers, etc. And that kind of inspiration, I think, it's very valuable for a lot of the AA students, as many have shared. So is that something along the line of what you think that NUS could have done? In terms of that source of inspiration that we talked about?
Definitely, because I have actually attended a presentation by Thomas Heatherwick before in person, I think he's coming down again for Singapore Design Week. But I heard him speak in person at one of the conferences at WAF, World Architecture Festival, that was held in Singapore. And I was very, very inspired by what he shared, and his thought processes. And because he was not trained as an architect, like the angle that he comes in to do design work is very creative. So I always welcome that kind of initiative whereby schools invite these people to give talks, whether they are architects or not, to come in and just do a simple sharing of how people actually do design work. I think it's always nice to have that.
Talking about Thomas Heatherwick. So, a question comes to mind. I mean, it's something that I thought about, you know, we toiled through six years of architectural education, which is quite painful. So what are your thoughts about someone who is not trained in architecture practising architecture?
We go back to the first premise, where, I feel that you cannot teach architecture, you can only inspire. So, Thomas Heatherwick is actually not the only example, Tadao Ando also, he didn't have a formal education. But would you say his work is not good? Not really. Right. And, you know, how he is so hard working? If you read his story before, because he can't afford education, he would borrow all these books about Corbusier, and he would trace all the drawings at home, to understand spatial quality and why things are designed in certain ways. Yeah, so, for me, I just want to disregard the background of that particular designer, whether he had formal education or not, I think it's not important. Because, the truth is, we put our physical works out there. And it's so visible, and yet so vulnerable, right? And in the end, the work will speak for itself, whether it's good or not, whether it appeals to you or not.
We put our physical works out there. And it's so visible, and yet so vulnerable. In the end, the work will speak for itself, whether it's good or not, whether it appeals to you or not.
So then, another question about architecture education I have is, do you feel that it's better for the school to include sort of a broad based syllabus to allow for easier diversification in case one doesn't want to practice architecture? Or do you think that the school actually has to deepen it even more, to really inspire you to be a good architect?
This is a very tough question, by the way. But for me, I think that if you enrol yourself into the School of Architecture, you need to really want to do architecture more than anything else from the start. Otherwise, you will not have the determination to continue. And so to train students to have the option to pivot to do something else, just doesn't seem quite right to me. As if there's a second plan, basically, no, there is no second plan, like, do you really want to be an architect? And school has always been that place where there should be an intense mixture of having your designs and propositions going through discovery and doubt, breakthrough and dead ends, stagnation and progress, just so that we can evolve as better designers after going through this series of struggles and anxieties. I can't think of a better place to do this than in school.
Architecture school should be an intense mixture of having your designs and propositions going through discovery and doubt, breakthrough and dead ends, stagnation and progress, just so that we can evolve as better designers after going through this series of struggles and anxieties.
You graduated in 2008, which was when the Lehman Brothers collapsed. It was a time of doom and gloom for many, especially fresh grads. Can you share with us your memory of the year and what you went through?
I graduated in August 2008. Everything seemed okay then. But all of a sudden, within a month, they collapsed in September 2008. Then there was this financial uncertainty. And I was actually on a grad trip with some of my uni mates. And my other uni mates texted me and said that “you better start looking for a job. Because a lot of companies have started to freeze their headcount due to the impending financial uncertainty”. And then, Mr. Siew Man Kok, from MKPL Architects sent me an email, because he saw my thesis project back in NUS, and he offered me to come in for an interview and subsequently also offered me a job. And so I took it. And to be honest, the pay that he offered was higher than most.
Yeah, that's, that's actually very good during that time. And so, without hesitation, I took it.
It must be very flattering that someone headhunted you.
Yes, I guess. But I wanted to tell you that a lot of my thesis mates, a group of five or six of us, were taught by Prof. Erik L'Heureux, who still has a profound influence on me as a designer till today. I actually find it hard for me to articulate what he has taught me. But then, you know, his style of teaching is quite unique, because he would repeatedly try to make us drop all the formulas that we had learned so well in our undergrad years, but yet, keep a good balance of ensuring that our own interest in a particular subject is intact. He is a super, super, no-nonsense type of tutor, which I appreciate. So for example, instead of training you to communicate with drawings as a key presentation skill, he would force us to draw in a way where our drawings speak for itself. If we start rattling off and keep talking so much about our design, but our drawings do not show, then he's gonna say something like this, which is very classic of Erik, “This is not the Department of English, but the Department of Architecture, let your drawings communicate”. And then the best question he would throw at you is, “Where's the innovation in this project?” Then you wouldn't be able to explain.
And that's why that year - I don't know what happened the year before, the year after - but that year when we graduated, a lot of us were offered jobs, a lot of my thesis mates as well. So I wasn't a unique case. I guess, people out there saw that this group of thesis work seems to have a kind of rigour.
If we start rattling off and keep talking so much about our design, but our drawings do not show, then he's gonna say something like this, which is very classic of Erik (L'Heureux), “This is not the Department of English, but the Department of Architecture, let your drawings communicate”.
Oh, that sounds like a classic Erik to me. He's a very good designer himself. I Love his works. So, just sidetrack a little bit. You took a long trip to Europe? What do you think is the value of travel for a creative person?
To extend what we think we already know, in our own home grounds. And I think it's good to travel, to see what kind of things have been done. And you know how when we were in school, we would have all these magazines - back then it was physical magazines - of all these works done. And a lot of them were from MVRDV and you will see them, read about them, and I wanted to experience them myself. I wanted to see them in person. When I visited the Netherlands, one of the projects I saw was WoZoCo, it is this cantilever building. It's a very exaggerated cantilever and I went there and I saw and I was quite taken aback by it, like the scale and all. It's always good to experience it in person, right? Because I feel that works of architecture should be experienced in person.
Works of architecture should be experienced in person.
For you, did you have any moments of enlightenment in your travels?
I think you'll realise that back in year two, I actually did precedent studies on Mies van der Rohe, in particular the Barcelona Pavilion. Till today, I find that the building is amazing. You need to look from the lens of the context. It was built 90 years or 100 years ago, but when you look at the world today, it is still so timeless and beautiful. And if you read how he came up, the idea is very simple. Basically, he just questioned, “Can I create a room with three walls?” Traditionally, rooms are created and bounded by four walls with small fenestrations. And so when I realised that actually a design idea can actually be coined in such simple terms, and the design can still look so good. And the spatial experience is different, you know? That's what I took back from some of my travels.
Now, we will continue onto your early days of practice. You spent your first five years honing your skills at MKPL Architects, what were some of the highlights and low downs? And what are the most important lessons that you took away from these five years?
Highs was when we won design competitions, because at the start of my professional practice, a lot of times we young graduates will be tasked to work on design competitions with design directors. And sometimes we win. Sometimes we don't. But in general, when we win, the morale is high. Because we put in so much effort, many many hours were spent and sometimes even staying overnight in the office. But it came to a point when it became very tiring, and no longer sustainable. So, I would say that's a high point.
So it's kind of like a high and low point.
Yeah, correct. Because it's high, because you won but after that, it really does take a toll on you. And a lot of us will be like, “Oh we don't want to do these competitions anymore. Can we go to another team, to maybe run projects and stuff like that”.
You know, on the note of competition, I think it is kind of like a perennial trap for people to do free work.
Yes, you are big on that, right?
I mean, ethically, I'm really not for it, but I also understand that for a lot of, in particular, small firms, to have some kind of a breakthrough. You sometimes need to ride on this, because otherwise, how else is anybody else going to give you a big job, right? It’s not going to just fall on your lap, right? So in that sense, you have to fight for it. And my take is it's like a gladiator ring. Everybody goes in and just kills each other and then the winner emerges. What's your take on that? I mean, I am often perturbed about this whole issue about free proposals, whether it is outright calling for it or through competitions.
Through competitions, yes, everyone fights. And then they will shortlist the best five and this best five usually will be paid, not a lot but a nominal fee, but better than nothing, right? To me, I can accept that. You select the best five and you pay them for it. However, I'm very suspicious also; are you calling this competition just to gather free ideas? If so, then I'm against that. I don't do free work in my office. Around four years ago, I decided on that. Because I think it kills the morale of my staff as well. And I am also tired, really, to do free work and do free pitching. To be honest, if you want to do really good design work, you need to spend a lot of time. And if I do these free pitches that I I'm not even proud of, then I question, what's the point?
If you want to do really good design work, you need to spend a lot of time. And if I do these free pitches that I'm not even feel proud of. then I question, what's the point?
Yeah, so no competitions as well, for you?
I did take part in competitions, because like what you just said, young firms have no avenues to get big projects. Is it true that we can do big projects? I think it's not true. We can. Yeah, I think we can. It's just that the only way out of this is to join competitions. And hopefully, you win.
I don't do free work in my office. Around four years ago, I decided on that. Because I think it kills the morale of my staff as well. And I am also tired, really, to do free work and do free pitching. To be honest, if you want to do really good design work, you need to spend a lot of time.
It's interesting I was having this kind of same talk with ASOLIDPLAN guys. And they said, Yeah, small firms, we can do big projects. It's not that we can't, the only thing that's holding small firms back is track record. Clients always ask for track records. So, if you haven't done a condo, you cannot do a condo, then you will never do a condo.
I think on this front, maybe the government should do something about it. Our government has so many projects, right? Why don't they just farm out some projects for young architects? If you feel that the scope is too big, a few of us can collaborate, why not?
Yeah, so hopefully, we have some government people listening to our podcast. You did share in private earlier that you almost gave up after the first year of practice. Can you share a little on what were the fatal points that made you almost miss this wonderful journey that you're having now?
I think there's a complete drastic difference in what we were doing in school and in practice. The first year of work, I really wanted to throw in the towel, because I didn't expect the professional practice to be this demanding. Yet, I was in a dilemma because I really, truly like to do design work. At the back of my mind, I'll be thinking, “Okay, if I don't do design work. I also don't know what other talents I have”. So, exiting the profession was going to be a big headache for me as well, but the job itself was extremely challenging; the pace that we had to work at, and the intensity of endless design revisions, options after options really just didn't feel sustainable for me. Thankfully, I had a very good mentor at work, who was also one of the directors in MKPL, Mr. Chew Chee Kong.
Our government has so many projects, right? Why don't they just farm out some projects for young architects? If you feel that the scope is too big, a few of us can collaborate, why not?
I know him too. Decades ago, when I was interning at Andrew Tan Architects, he was one of the key draughtsmen. And he was so motivated, he went to do his degree.
Yes, great so you know him! So, I think you can understand. Actually a lot of us from NUS who joined MKPL that year were mentored by him. He is very good. He is such a patient mentor, and very willing to teach. He's exceptionally strong in construction detailing, contract and authority matters, which are things that we generally don't touch on in school. When I shared with him, "I can't do this anymore, I think I want to quit." He said, “How about this - you quit only after you complete your first project.”
Then I was in charge of doing this 14 units of strata bungalow project in Crescent Road. I don't know how or why I managed to stay for five years and managed to complete that job. That project was like my baby, I worked on the project right from start all the way till the end until it got TOP. So to call it quits in between, I just couldn’t let go of this baby. I just wanted to see its completion. True enough, when I completed that first built project, I tasted that bitter sweet success. Something that I cannot really describe, but you know, whatever you draw on a piece of paper really gets materialised. That kind of satisfaction is great. After that, I left. But shortly after, they entered this project for competition at the World Architecture Festival and it got shortlisted.
At the back of my mind, I'll be thinking, “Okay, if I don't do design work. I also don't know what other talents I have”. So, exiting the profession was going to be a big headache for me as well, but the job itself was extremely challenging; the pace that we had to work at, and the intensity of endless design revisions, options after options really just didn't feel sustainable for me.
Wow. That's great. And also good that along the way, you passed your professional exams.
Yes, yes. I got my licence!
When I completed that first built project, I tasted that bitter sweet success. Something that I cannot really describe, but you know, whatever you draw on a piece of paper really gets materialised. That kind of satisfaction is great.
Yeah, that's great. So, I have a little bit of a controversial question here. Some architectural firms feel that there should be some kind of internship for fresh grads, as it takes a year or two, at least, to train a fresh grad architect to inaugurate them into the industry. You can see that it's sort of an excuse to pay a fresh grad less or whatever, what's your take on that, now that you also run your own practice, you know, you've been an employee, and now you're an employer.
I would say a complete no to this, because we would really just be killing more young architects. By doing that - I'll be a bit more sensitive on this topic because I've only worked in MKPL architects - but so I'll share what I know from those five years. Whoever said that has no inkling about how lowly architectural graduates are getting paid. And the long hours we worked. I mean, that is crazy, right? Can you imagine, whatever we are getting is already not great. And you're going to lower it even further, who's going to work for you? And if I got my research right, the current pay is probably the same as what I was getting back in 2008, maybe a couple $100 more, but the cost of living has been increasing. And if you truly want a real insight, I can tell you that at the earlier stage of our careers, a lot of us will be thrown into doing design competitions for the firm. Because it's just a natural path, as we could do nice presentation drawings, schematic diagrams, alongside with the design director, and I've witnessed how many of these competitions have been won. And then they translated into real projects, and that became bread and butter for the firm. So seriously, to say that we contribute little at the start is really not true. But of course, gradually, because we want to take our licence, the firm will also slowly give us local projects, where we can then be able to fulfil our exam requirements, and from there, pick up other critical skill sets, like understanding building codes, contract matters, etc. And I think the firm really should have that kind of patience to impart those skills.
Well said, I hope this is a very clear message to firms who are offering this type of “internships”. Okay, so in relation to that, you know, recently there is much talk about this mass exodus of young architects from our industry. What's your view on that? What do you think can be done to better the situation? Also, because you sit on the SIA committee now, are there some practical measures that could make the situation better?
Okay, my heart really goes out to them for real. I'm not saying this just because I want to say it, I am saying it because it is really very tough. And I can say that because I was once there. And I can understand why this happens because we compete with people who are doing free work all the time. You know, we often have to service clients who want design work to be done within a short span of time, doing multiple options. This whole equation is just wrong. So, if we don't change this and designers don't band together to stop doing free work and stop undercutting fees in order to win work, we will just be creating a culture of industry cannibalism. Look at it this way, low fee is what definitely trickles down and mostly it translates to many things like low remuneration for staff and having to load them with multiple projects at once. Because you're still running a business after all, right? So, I actually hope that architects, designers, we all can band together to try and change the situation.
At the earlier stage of our careers, a lot of us will be thrown into doing design competitions for the firm. Because it's just a natural path, as we could do nice presentation drawings, schematic diagrams, alongside with the design director, and I've witnessed how many of these competitions have been won. And then they translated into real projects, and that became bread and butter for the firm.
So it's really about saying no to low paying jobs, free proposals and changes.
Okay. I mean, it's not that I'm putting up a front in front of my staff. But when they go with me to meet with potential clients, I always say to the client, “I am sorry, but we do not do any work, any form of design work upfront before any formal engagement.” And my staff would hear me say this to the clients. And I think it helps with morale because I put myself in their shoes. Who wants to be in office doing free work after free work?
We often have to service clients who want design work to be done within a short span of time, doing multiple options. This whole equation is just wrong. So, if we don't change this and designers don't band together to stop doing free work and stop undercutting fees in order to win work, we will just be creating a culture of industry cannibalism.
I think this is also especially unsustainable for small firms, because we are really so strapped for manpower, there's too much to do already and to do free work. It's really just not workable.
I usually ask this question at the back. But I decided to bring it upfront, any advice for fresh grads, and archi students?
I think most importantly, is to pursue your own personal interests, and whatever natural aptitudes you feel that you might have. Because if you love what you do, even in those trying moments, say, for example, you have to service a nasty client, even if the product was heavily criticised, even if people do not like your project, and you didn't win any awards for it; at the end of the day, if you are exploring meaningful issues that you truly care about, then you have that kind of energy and momentum to carry on.
Really to find a purpose, right. Okay, so now we're gonna move on to the next section about starting out on your own. What made you decide to start out on your own? After having practised, you have seen all the pain and the sweat and all that; and being on your own, you're now without any form of support. So tell us about that.
I started my own practice, because I want to do more experimentative work at a smaller scale. Because as with most artists, I think we all yearn for that creative freedom, which I find it hard to get when I was doing large scale condominium projects. And the truth is, I don't even know who I'm designing for… I mean, I don't even know the people living in the unit, the client and all that. I felt like that was missing, so when the opportunity presented itself, I just couldn't say no.
If you love what you do, even in those trying moments, say, for example, you have to service a nasty client, even if the product was heavily criticised, even if people do not like your project, and you didn't win any awards for it; at the end of the day, if you are exploring meaningful issues that you truly care about, then you have that kind of energy and momentum to carry on.
And what was that opportunity?
So the opportunity came sometime, early 2016. And it’s the project I called the “Living Grid House”, it is actually an A&A work. The client wanted to do some A&A work and spruce up the interior, because it was old. Back then in 2016, L Architects wasn't Incorporated yet. And so some time in March 2016, I decided that if I wanted to do this project - so it was more like circumstantial - then I would have to set up a company to do this project. So, that was how we started.
Was that the very first project or was it “A Series of Barns”?
For “A Series of Barns”, we were only operating as a design consultant. I left MKPL in 2014. Between 2014 to 2016 I was actually helping my uncle. And so the project “A Series of Barns” was actually initiated by him, it's actually in Malaysia. He bought this piece of land and he wanted to do some feasibility study for residential. In the end, he also wanted to build an office there to kickstart this project, and I found these abandoned buildings on the site. They are two-storey, and they are already sitting in a very nice and quaint site context, so I didn't really want to make it too commercial. That was how I created “A Series of Barns”.
So did you build from scratch or?
No, it's adaptive reuse, I made use of the abandoned structures. I think they were meant to be shophouses, I didn't really dig further. But I think someone was building something there, and maybe subsequently, the site was then sold to my uncle. So, it just came with those half-built structures. Actually, my uncle was very nice, he said “If you don't want to use these structures, you can just remove them and start anew.” but I said, No, I want to keep those structures and I want to turn them into something.
It's a beautiful project. Really nice. So, talking about starting a firm, just out of curiosity, so the hastily set up firm, the 'L' is it just your surname, Lim? For L architects ya?
Yes. So I am secretly attributing it to my dad's family who has influenced me quite a bit.
Right. Okay. That's cool, very understated. So, on both ends - on running a business or running your studio - what's the best thing about it? And what's the most difficult thing?
So the best thing is I get a lot of creative freedom now. And I'm not just talking about design aspects. But I can be a bit more innovative in terms of my working routines, and also being creative with staff benefits. I shared it with a few industry friends and I get mixed reviews for it. I think the most difficult part is to handle a difficult client on my own. In the past, I had supervisors and directors, superiors, so let's say if the client wants to remove something in this design, or the client is not happy with something, I'd be like, “Man Kok (from MKPL Architects), the client said this, can you speak to the client about it?” But now, I have to attend to all these myself. So, in short, opening my own firm is definitely a roller coaster ride. And I think on the best days, it feels like the greatest thing that I have ever done for myself; but on the worst, it gives me sleepless nights. I don't know if you have experienced that before? But it's really true. And I'm a Christian, so this journey has seen me going down on my knees praying many times in church. Yeah, I just want to say this.
Yeah, I can fully understand, the beginning is always tough. For every small studio, but you will come to a point where you are able to have some trustworthy deputies, then you can spread out the stress. Now you're handling all the clients’ stress on your own, that’s why it’s tough. But when you have deputies, the stress is spread out, and it will be a bit more manageable, so just hang in there, it will get better.
I think the most difficult part is to handle a difficult client on my own. Opening my own firm is definitely a roller coaster ride. And I think on the best days, it feels like the greatest thing that I have ever done for myself; but on the worse, it gives me sleepless nights.
Now I want to talk a bit about your projects, because it's the heart of your practice, right? I really appreciate that, while there's an underlying "form follows function" kind of sensibility, which is quite clear in your design, but there is always also kind of like a clear effort to create an identity for every space and building that you do, a certain considered effort to add a sprinkling of beauty? You know, something quite frivolous, but they look good. And for me, there's nothing wrong with that, because artists and designers, a big part of our job is to create beauty in this world after all right? So, that's my interpretation of your works. But can you share with us your design philosophy, your design process?
Okay, so let's start with the design process. To be honest, I don't pick up the pencil immediately after site visits and start sketching away in my office. The first step really is to craft an interesting brief. I actually spend a lot of my time at the beginning thinking about project strategies, and to re-interpret and re-imagine the brief in different ways. But of course still bearing in mind the current context variants. And why I say that is because certain context brings about certain thinking during that moment or era. In short, I try to tease out the actual question that I want to address in each project. But before that, I actually would run through in my mind, “What have other designers done to solve this problem? And why did they do it in that manner?” All these questions will run through my head. And so to me, I've always felt that determining the brief is the most creative moment in my whole design process. Because we will always have the client’s brief, and all the things that we need to address, but I think that the design can become very superficial if we simply just address all the immediate needs and the pragmatic things. I'm a firm believer of having that layer of poetry over a very utilitarian programme. I think that sense of wonder and delight does add an artistic dimension to a piece of work. And that usually is what connects stronger with people's emotions. And to me, that is architecture.
Well said.. as Louis Kahn had said, architecture is about creating wonder. You cited Mies van der Rohe's work as an inspiration, in particular, the Barcelona Pavilion, when you were a student. Has that changed? Are there any other architects who have inspired you or influenced you in your way of designing, now that you've been in industry for a few years?
So I told you about my experience at the Barcelona Pavilion, which I won't go into here. I like works that have a strong emotional connection, I don't really have a particular architect that I follow very closely. But I prefer works that when I look at them, and I'm like, “Wow, this feels different!” Some projects you look at, and you're like, “Wow, this is a non-referential work.” As opposed to when you see a work and you feel, “I've seen this before.” Some ideas just keep getting repeated in different ways. So in short, I don't really follow anyone closely.
I've always felt that determining the brief is the most creative moment in my whole design process. Because we will always have the client’s brief, and all the things that we need to address, but I think that the design can become very superficial if we simply just address all the immediate needs and the pragmatic things.
So how about some of the buildings that you love? Or that you consider as non-referential works?
Oh, some of them… for example, I really love Peter Zumthor's work. But I have not had the chance to visit. I always see them in books and magazines, and I read a lot about him. I really want to visit Therme Vals in Switzerland one day. I hope I get to do that. So that's what I can share for now.
I'm a firm believer of having that layer of poetry over a very utilitarian programme. I think that sense of wonder and delight does add an artistic dimension to a piece of work. And that usually is what connects stronger with people's emotions. And to me, that is architecture.
Yeah, you can do a spa treatment there.
Yeah, apparently you can stay there too. I think there's like a hotel and stuff like that.
I'm sure it costs an arm and a leg, but it's worth the experience. Back to your projects - they seem to come from a central idea of which you actually mentioned just now. I want to understand a bit more about the driving force behind some of these projects, which I thought were beautifully done. Maybe you can share a little bit about “Living Grid House” and “House of Trees”, which won the merit prize at the SIA (Singapore Institute of Architects) Design Awards. Let's zoom in.
Okay. I am a person who likes the purity of design ideas. So perhaps that's why you picked up that there's a central idea, because I find that when I put in too many ideas into a project, it often dilutes the scheme. So, let's talk about the “Living Grid House”, which was our first A&A project. You know what Sentosa Cove is like, right? All these very ostentatious houses that are fighting for attention, attention-seeking pieces of work. And so for the “Living Grid House”, I wanted to do the reverse. I just wanted to use very simple aluminium hollow sections to do up a facade. And of course, to also incorporate all these greenery within the grids. Actually, I was trying to hide the house behind the greenery and not make it stand out so much. You know, like doing the reverse. Apparently, in doing that, it actually created more interest when people walked past. If you look at how the master plan of Sentosa Cove is done, most houses do not have a wide frontage. Each house would either be fronting the man-made river, or would be facing the sea view. But actually, a big part of the house does not have views. So I wanted to create views for rooms which are facing other houses. That was the starting point. As for “House of Trees”, it is our first new erection work. When I first went down to the site, I was overwhelmed, because immediately in front of the house is a six-lane carriage traffic - so there is much noise and traffic, you get double decker buses, lorries passing by and all that. It's not like my client picked this site, but because this piece of land was actually gifted by their parents. They handed down this house to the brothers to redevelop into a pair of semi-detached houses. But you know the typical qualities of what we want for our house - we want it to be livable, we want tranquility, and these qualities will never change irregardless of where you build this house. So, I formulated a question for myself, “Can I create an interior space where I feel like it's more livable, more tranquil, despite the bad context?” So, I created this frontal frame, where we will house trees. For me, I am quite a nature loving person. And I've always felt that the structure of trees is really beautiful. I don't want to just put potted plants and all that, I wanted that kind of intervention of putting real trees on the facade. When you move into the interior space… which I wish I could bring you…
I am a person who likes the purity of design ideas.
Why not? One of these days!
Actually, we were going to have Archi-tours in September for “House of Trees”, in conjunction with Archifest. When you move into the interior space, you will feel that all of a sudden you've forgotten about the context of the house. I think these emotional aspects are what I like to search for in each of my projects.
Looking at the “Living Grid House” and “House of Trees”, you do put quite a lot of greenery in your facades. I want to touch a bit about the responsibility of an architect on sustainability. Of course, we know that plants do keep the temperature of a building down. But with new materials and new research, using greenery is kind of like first level sustainability. What more can an architect do in facilitating sustainability in buildings? And also going one step back, how you can facilitate sustainability in construction itself.
I am gonna be very honest. I really didn't start the project from a sustainability angle. But of course, it's always at the back of my mind when I do projects. To me all these Green Mark and its point system, which I'm not subjected to because I'm doing landed house, but I do use it as a point of discussion. I feel that the Green Mark point system cannot fully measure or quantify the emotional aspect and delightfulness of a design. Looking at “House of Trees”, I do know that perhaps a lot of designers would probably just screen up the whole facade, and maybe channel whatever views internally via a courtyard. This has been done many times for context like this. These are row houses, so you can see the things that neighbouring houses have done. To me, if I did that, I find that the spaces inside would be very depressing. Again, I want to reiterate, my point is that the emotional aspects of a design - or in particular in this house - cannot be created if I simply use Green Mark as my checklist. However, because of these three years of pandemic, because we couldn't go out, people actually wanted to go out even more to engage with nature. There's somehow a renewed interest in the natural world again. And so maybe very timely, this house was built during COVID, and then handed over during COVID. And because we can't travel, and there were lockdowns, my client would have to spend quite a lot of time inside the house itself. And so can you imagine if I just screened up everything, and they had no views, or just view to a six-lane traffic, I think it will make the living conditions not sustainable.
So on the topic of sustainability, that leads us to your epic project, “A Brick & Mortar Shop”, which seems to be a lot about reduce and reuse. And also congratulations on winning the highest accolade at the SIA awards, “Design of the Year”!
Thank you. Thank you.
So, how did this project come about? The project looks quite sustainable to me and very clever because you play with very basic materials that are not expensive, and actually through the constraints, you come up with a very unique design. You recycled broken tiles, which is very sustainable. Because those are the off-cuts, right? As an onlooker, it looks a bit as though the budget constraint has given rise to a very clever design solution. Can you share with us more about this project? And how did you come up with this idea of cutting up cement blocks and using off-cut natural stones? And how do you even convince the client of such an unfinished look?
“Brick & Mortar” is our first commercial project. I mean, by now, you know, my background, right? I was doing mostly residential projects in MKPL Architects. And when I started my own practice, I was once again landed houses, and apartment interiors. It was a very comfortable programme for me, perhaps even too comfortable. It usually is like that too when your portfolio shows that you seem to be an expert at a particular genre, it's hard for you to jump to another genre. So, when someone finally gave me the opportunity to do a commercial interior, I was so excited. However, I started having anxieties as well, because I don't know how to start on a commercial project. So I did a few field studies by visiting some kitchen appliances showroom and shops, and navigated my own design direction. In fact, some of these shops that I visited have very poor retail experiences. And I felt like they carry off a very ubiquitous presence, seems like… typical kitchen appliances shop, with hardly any experience at all, but I don't agree with that. So then, all of a sudden I got inspired by the term 'brick and mortar' which actually means the physical presence of a business. And actually coupled with my own personal curiosity with the cross section of things. I don't know if you have seen it, but the cross section of fruits and vegetables, they usually have so much variations, textures and details, to give you a few examples, if you've seen the cross section of a fig, or the cross section of an artichoke, or strawberry, they are so intricate. I would even say, perhaps more interesting than what you see on the external. So, I was very curious to see what's inside a hollow brick. I actually took a brick back to my office from some random site. I told the workers, can you give me this brick? And I started looking at it from many angles. So you know, all these hollow bricks actually have holes on their sides... And so actually, the first concept that we pitched for “A brick and Mortar Shop” was to have the bricks being laid to reveal that side. And so we can reveal the exposed holes. But one of the product managers said, “Oh, this is going to be a maintenance nightmare. Can you imagine dust and dirt being trapped within these cavities?”
I took it well, and so I said, “Okay, never mind, I'm gonna think of another way on how I can detail this brick wall.” Material wise, there are only three elements if you've seen the project. There's the cement brick, unadorned plywood, and off-cut stones. Each of them have varying levels of intricacies and narrative. So there, brick and mortar explained. I'm using unadorned plywood, not just for the sake of using it, because if you understand the mechanics of how these kitchen appliance showrooms work, you will know that actually they do have some problems that you have to resolve for them. Otherwise, over the years, they have a lot of appliances that keep coming in and it needs to be updated. So, they will need to change the counters. Once they change the counters, if that particular laminate or veneer that you specified before is discontinued, then they're just going to anyhow use something else to replace it. And that's why over the years, you would see that, “Hey, how come the design looks like a patchwork?” So to prevent that from happening, I had to use something that I know would have longevity.
Since I can't control the business aspect of how the shop works, if they have to change the carcass, they have to change, but I want to ensure that perhaps for the next 5 to 10 years, the client would still be able to manage the materials. So that's the reason why we use plywood. Off-cut stones were used because I'm essentially doing residential projects and I've seen how so much waste is being created. I feel it's quite sad, people want to use natural materials, but they don't want to accept natural blemishes or uneven tonalities. This is really the characteristics of natural materials. Anyway. I decided to just salvage all these and then lay it on the floor to create a crazy paving pattern. I feel the equation really worked well on all fronts, because the supplier is really happy that they have somewhere to offload this. Traditionally, they will collect all these wasted off-cuts and throw them into the landfill. In Singapore, if you throw something in the landfill, you will have to pay the government money, you cannot just throw for free. So now they have somewhere to throw, and perhaps make a small profit out of it. And for us as designers, the floor is beautiful. I love it. I don't think it's even a design compromise, all of a sudden all these natural blemishes and uneven tonalities no longer matter in that whole design scheme. For the client, they are also happy, right? Because clients are always cost conscious. The synergy and the equation works really beautifully here. Maybe that's also why this piece of work has appealed to many. I'm not sure, but that's what I'm guessing.
When you first proposed the idea to your client, were they okay with the unfinished look, or did it take them a while to accept it, or how was the reaction from them?
Honestly, they didn't question this aspect. We did renderings of it and they've seen the visuals. They also understood what we're gearing up for. I genuinely just wanted to create a different retail experience. And I realised that if I wanted to do that, I had to try something new. And I'm very glad the client is with me on this, so we just took that step together.
Cool… do you think that the outcome will be any different? Let's just say the budget for this project is double?
This is very good question. I think no, because I usually put up a challenge for myself for each project that I do. And for this one, the challenge that I put up for myself was, I just wanted to use the most ubiquitous and commonplace material. And so there are different types of bricks, right? There is cement bricks, and there's also red bricks. I was just thinking to myself, 'No, I opted for cement brick and not red brick, because cement brick is twenty cents cheaper than red brick.
And you have already done red bricks with “A Series of Barns”.
Yeah, I was really bent on using the cheapest of the cheapest. Cement brick is everywhere, not just in Singapore, but all over the world and easily available. It is not something special, but I felt like I could create a unique piece of work out of it, using an ordinary material in a way that nobody else has done before. And so when I look back, if let's say you have given me more budget, double, triple, I would still want to put up this challenge for myself.
Cement brick is everywhere all over the world and easily available. It is not something special, but I felt like I could create a unique piece of work out of it, using an ordinary material in a way that nobody else has done before.
That's cool. The outcome was great. So with this big win at the SIA awards, which has traditionally been won by more established architects. Is your phone now ringing with requests? And what to you - is the value of awards for designers?
Yes, we do get more visibility now. Was that how you know us?
Yeah, and that actually does translate to us getting more inquiries. But moving forward, I actually do want to put this award aside and just continue our path to search for more non-transferable ideas. I do feel that these accolades can get to you, and perhaps make you feel more special than you think you really are. It's just a self check, I don't want to fall into those traps. But of course, there is really no way I can accurately articulate how happy I am to have received this recognition in my 30s. Yeah, because even when you are in your 40s right, people still say you are a young architect.
Yes… architecture is a profession that takes a long time to succeed.
Shortly after the awards, I flew to Melbourne, and Mr. Mok Wei Wei was very kind to have linked me up with Ms. Kerstin Thompson. Both of them were the jurors for this year's SIA awards. When I met her in person, she shared with me the backend discussions. One of the things she brought up has stuck with me. So, we were actually given only a stipulated eight minutes to do the presentation if your project got shortlisted. She told me that there were actually a few architects who struggled to explain their designs within eight minutes. She told me, “If the design direction had good clarity, it definitely can be communicated within those eight minutes. And if it can't, then it's quite telling.” So, when I went back, and pondered about what she said, I think what she said made sense. So maybe it's also something that I should constantly check in with myself that whatever design direction I'm proposing, I must be able to relate it within that short amount of time.
I think clarity always leads to good design.
I would like to share something to encourage young archi bosses - as there are a few people in their 30s who are setting up their own companies - it is to not wait for the perfect project to do good work. The truth is, it is unlikely you will get a museum or art gallery commission at the start of your practice. That's the cold hard truth. Not sure if anyone even noticed, but of the two projects that won us awards, one didn't have the best site and one didn’t have the best programme. For “House of Trees”, I do believe that people might actually have turned down the job thinking that a better site will come along. The other that won the “Design of the Year” had a perfunctory programme and brief, that is “A Brick & Mortar Shop”. To put it plainly, it really is just a kitchen appliances showroom, not a very exciting programme, but I say take it and seize the opportunity to still attempt to do good work and push for some meaningful boundaries.
Don't wait for the perfect project to do good work. The truth is, it is unlikely you will get a museum or art gallery commission at the start of your practice. That's the cold hard truth. Take any project and attempt to do good work and push for some meaningful boundaries.
On that note, I always tell younger designers that there are no dream projects, there are only dream clients. Which is why I asked you about the reaction of the client for “A Brick & Motar Shop”, when you proposed it. Because from my experience, sometimes when you have a brilliant idea, the client might say no, it's not for me. And that's the end of the story. So to find a client who is completely with you in spirit and is supportive of your design, it's almost like finding a patron. Someone who will leave it up to you. And having the dream client really comes down to a little bit of luck.
I do have those kinds of roadblocks, like what you have described. It is quite sad. So, I would then take this idea and just keep it somewhere hoping that I can use it at an appropriate time and situation again.
Yeah, absolutely. Okay, so that's the end of the official interview. Now we are going to have a fun quick fire round, so keep it spontaneous! Don't think too much, whatever that comes to mind. Okay, question one, favourite book?
Peter Zumthor's "Atmospheres".
A Beautiful Mind.
Okay, cool. Favourite musician?
I really don't have one.
This is a tough one. I don't have!
Favourite pair of shoes?
Oh, I like Hereu, it's actually a Spanish brand. It's my recent obsession.
Okay, cool. Next question. You're at the tail end of being a millennial, and is considered one anyway. So is there anything that is unique to millennials’ lifestyle?
Ah, yes. I think we are very into social media. Our era is very into social media, very into all these pretty pictures and all. I actually sometimes get very sucked into this whole Instagram thing myself. I can look at the image and think, “Wow, so nice! Can be an interior..” And I have to try very hard to draw myself back. Because sometimes they are just seductive but they have no real meaning in them.
Okay, next one. What do you value most in life?
Your favourite villain in reel or real life?
Oh, this caught me by surprise, I don't have one.
Okay, last question. What revolution do you hope to see in the world?
We are in the era where digitalisation is coming on board quite strong, and people want to do prefabrication and all that, we are in an era of fast consumption. And I find that a lot of things - not just architecture - have lost the personal touch. I hope that we can bring them back. Yes, I understand that we want to be a progressive society, we want to find efficient ways to build and design things. But we mustn't forget the emotional aspect of human beings, which is so important. To me, I really don't believe in a world like that. Because every one of us is so unique. We have different experiences, and we have different backgrounds and to say that everyone would stay in a standard kind of house, I just don't believe in a world like that.
So hopefully we can bring back the human touch of many things in life. And that marks the end of our interview! Thank you so much, Shing Hui. That was a very enjoyable and insightful interview of your work and personal life.
Thank you, thank you.