Published August 29, 2009

Personal space

Perfect refuge

Glen Goei's two-storey house is an example of 1960s Modernist architecture which is relatively uncommon here. By Geoffrey Eu,00.html?

AS A theatre director and filmmaker, Glen Goei has a definite flair for the dramatic, but he also has a strong appreciation of history - a subject he studied as a university student in England - and it's surely no coincidence that he is especially interested in historical themes and places that evoke the past. Take his new movie, for example. The Blue Mansion, which opens in Singapore on October 22, is a murder-mystery ensemble piece filmed almost entirely in Penang's Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, the late-19th century home of a prominent Chinese merchant that was restored in the 1990s and converted into a boutique hotel. Goei and his cast and crew spent two months filming in the elaborate Chinese courtyard house, apparently one of just two such houses outside China.

Or the house in Singapore he recently moved into - an example of 1960s Modernist architecture that was relatively uncommon here to begin with and is now an even rarer species, thanks to decades of redevelopment. The two-storey house, on a large elevated plot in a prime residential neighbourhood, has a significant personal story to tell as well - it was the home of Lim Kim San, one of the founding fathers of modern Singapore and the man credited as the architect of the country's public housing programme.

Mr Lim, a former minister who handled several portfolios and was also a chairman of the HDB and PSA, passed away in 2006 but the house, which he built in 1965 and which is managed by his estate, is still in remarkably original condition. An extension was built several years ago, but it is sensitively integrated with the original building.

The house sits on 56,000 square feet of land, which allows for a sense of open space and balance in proportion that is rarely possible in new houses these days. A narrow driveway leads up a hill and opens out to a generous arrival area. Beside the front door, a small rock pool extends into the entrance lobby, which is dominated by an antique carved timber staircase that seems somewhat incongruous with the rest of the house.

According to Ong Eng Hung, the original architect of the house, the staircase was bought by Mr Lim during a period when many old houses were being torn down to make way for the HDB programme. 'He asked if we could incorporate the staircase so we specially designed a concrete spine to hold it - the staircase turned out to be a good idea,' says Mr Ong, 83, an MIT-trained architect who retired in the 1980s.

Mr Ong says that the design of the house was a reflection of his personal style, in concert with Mr Lim's brief. 'The main influence was the climate - to build a house that was suited to the tropics,' he says. 'I think he liked living there, because we remained good friends thereafter - it doesn't always turn out that way with your clients.'

With its terrazzo floors, mosaic tiles, slanted ceilings and large granite wall at the entryway, the house retains a period feel. It features excellent ventilation throughout, with aluminium panels that can be manually opened to allow natural breezes to flow through the building. There are six en-suite bedrooms spread over two floors, a large dining room and a living room that opens out to a garden that is filled with a variety of fruit trees. Each of the upstairs bedrooms has a balcony that also serves as a shade for the space below. There is a small swimming pool and a wooden deck in the back garden.

'What I love about the house is the cross-ventilation, which is so appropriate to the tropical climate,' says Goei. The design is indisputably Western but the addition of the annex resulted in a small garden courtyard in the middle of the house. 'By putting the annex, it reminds me of a courtyard house,' he says.

'Being a historian, I am naturally drawn to places with a story, with history and character like the Cheong Fatt Tze house, and I'm also pleasantly surprised to find a house like this one in Singapore.'

Goei has turned the living area into a white-themed room, which is decorated with comfortable sofas and contemporary work by both foreign and local artists. 'I'm big on local artists and I believe in supporting the local arts community,' says Goei, who is assistant artistic director at theatre company Wild Rice.

He is currently promoting his new movie - the first since his debut feature film Forever Fever in 1998 - while his next project will be a musical based on an epic Chinese poem.

'I needed time to listen, observe, acclimatise to the Singapore that I returned to after spending 18 years in England,' says Goei, who came back to live in Singapore about eight years ago. 'It does take time to come up with an original story that I could connect with on a personal and artistic level.'

He now intends to take an extended sabbatical and the house, with its sense of space and plentiful views of the sky, is a perfect refuge for him. 'I put so much into that film - I'm going to take a year off to read the old classics and watch movies from the past five or 10 years,' says Goei. 'I want to take time to get inspired, be entertained and challenged by other people's works. I feel very fortunate to be able to live in something like this - it's just so well thought through.'

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