Published October 10, 2009


The commune

One parcel of land, one client, six houses, six architects. An unpredented project for the Lien family results in an architectural first for Singapore. By Geoffrey Eu

BEFORE he passed away in 2004, pioneer banker and philanthropist Lien Ying Chow had spent time discussing with his heirs different ways in which to redevelop his longtime residence off Holland Road and the large plot of land (about 120,000 square feet) on which it stood.

From far left, designs by Randy Chan, Zarch; Ko Shiou-kee, K2LD; the original Lien house; and a design by Colin Seah, Ministry of Design

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Those initial discussions have led to a unique resolution, one that was inspired in part by a modern housing development along the Great Wall of China. Lien's former home has now been turned into a compound with six additional houses in different contemporary styles, including a major extension to the original house. But here's the twist: each of the new buildings was designed by a different architect, working in concert with each other. It was a deliberate move for every house to have a distinct identity, but also to be part of a greater whole, with a shared garden and no fencing between the houses.

The project - the only one of its kind here - was led by local architect Ko Shiou-hee of K2LD, who developed a master plan and worked with Vincent Lien, a grandson of the patriarch, to come up with the concept. Ko was also the architect for a neighboring plot which was redeveloped by the Lien family about two years ago.

Franklin Po of Tierra Design was brought in to conceive the landscaping, but instead of coming up with conventional plot shapes, he proposed a plan in which the axis of the main house formed a central spine, along which the new houses would be built. This made for an interesting theme but also presented a greater architectural challenge as some of the plots would end up being odd-shaped.

The idea to shortlist a few young Singapore architects and invite them to design the houses was based on The Commune by the Great Wall, where a dozen Asian architects were each commissioned to design a contemporary house in a valley outside Beijing, right next to a section of The Great Wall.

Ko and Po each selected a difficult plot to work with, but the other pieces of land were parceled out to young local architects who were given the freedom to express their creativity, within the established design boundaries. Terence Chan of Terre was picked to redesign the interior of the original house and also the new extension but in yet another unusual move, the remaining plots were selected by lucky dip.

The other architects - Randy Chan of Zarch Collaboratives, Colin Seah of Ministry of Design and Edmund Ng of Metropolitan Office eXperimental - designed their houses based on the luck of the draw. Along the way, a design by Chang Yong Ter of Chang Architects was deemed to be a little too radical for the project.

Construction on each of the houses began simultaneously in 2007 and was completed recently. According to Vincent Lien, the multi-architect concept came about because it wouldn't have been feasible for one architect to come up with six different designs, so after he set some broad criteria - such as a minimum number of bedrooms - the architects were given free reign.

Expressions of interest

'We looked around for young architects and said these guys should be at the start of their careers and given a chance to express themselves,' says Lien, a former investment banker with extensive experience in real estate lending. 'I said to do what they want, based on a certain cost, and to be sensitive to the specific site.' He adds: 'They bought into the concept of the shared view - it takes a bit of getting used to, the idea of no internal fences. In the old days, there was no gate to my grandfather's house until the 1970s - if you put fences and gates, you don't get the visual impact.

'There was an element of risk, of course, but we were not building to sell the properties, only to lease them out,' he says. 'Even when my grandfather was alive, we were exploring ways to intensify the land use - my cousin and I were asked to think of what to do. Building a house is straightforward if you don't intend to live in it. We both worked as expats abroad and were career renters so we're familiar with what goes in and what doesn't.'

He adds: 'We didn't want it to become an ego project, so there was no need for marble and gold taps - what you need is 7,000 square feet of balanced space, and three-plus one bedrooms.'

The main house, which was bought by Lien Ying Chow in 1947 for the then-princely sum of $94,000, has been converted to a clubhouse with facilities to cater for various types of events, while the extension - a contemporary block intended to serve as a screen and an architectural counterpoint - is available to the dozens of family members who may be visiting from their homes in other parts of the world.

'We learned from projects in Japan and the Commune by the Great Wall,' says Ko, 45, who together with Franklin Po, 63, acted as chaperones to the younger architects and to ensure that there would be a synergy among the new houses as well as with the original house. 'I was worried that they would be too expressive - the younger architects were a lot more eager to express than to blend in.'

The architects were divided into two groups with periodic review sessions. As the overall plan began to take shape, the sessions were more intense but with the exception of Chang's design - a reinterpretation of a moongate - the collaborative process worked out well. 'We were afraid that it would compete too much with the old house,' says Ko, who chose the plot next to the original house. 'The idea was to respect the old house, to do something simple and understated that would mediate the scale between the old house and the new one.'

This kind of collaborative mode doesn't happen in Singapore but the Liens had a fantastic vision, he adds. 'They really wanted a unique product, and I believe the result is something that won't happen again in Singapore. The result, he says, is 'a little too modernistic - the architectural gesture is fine but it could have been more subdued.

'You have six architects all with big egos,' says Po. 'It's doing architecture in the company of other architecture, not the same with single houses - everybody did their own thing and we tried to mediate the process.' His design, in a wedge-shaped lot at the bottom of the property, is an intentional series of stacked boxes that have been rotated and twisted, with no corridors or hallways but also with plenty of natural light.

Po says the shared garden will need some time to grow, fit in and provide proper shade and screened views among the houses. Still, he says the process was an enjoyable one. 'It's one of the smoothest projects I've ever been associated with,' he says.

The houses on either side of Po's were designed by Colin Seah, 37, and Randy Chan, 39, with Seah's house a multi-kinked single-storey structure in a long, narrow and irregular-shaped plot. 'Our design was fairly site specific - we wanted to go back to the romantic notion of the single-storey detached bungalow,' says Seah.

'We wanted to create a house that was about indoor-outdoor living - instead of compartmentalized rooms, everything is one seamless passage, like an unfolded house. I was striving to abstract the form so that it doesn't have the typical connotation of a residential house.'

Chan says he was skeptical of the project at first. 'A patron who wanted six architects - you never have this kind of arrangement in Singapore,' he says. His plot was rectangular, with no existing vegetation. 'I said, 'how come so flat and no mature trees to work with?' So I perceived the plot like a clearing in the forest and created a cluster of six pavilions, like a series of layers that lead to the spine.'

In response to a plot that overlooked a busy main road, Edmund Ng, 37, came up with a design that features a solid black-painted concrete wall that screens the house from traffic. 'The client gave an open-ended brief - it's a dream project when there are no boundaries,' says Ng.

During the design process, it became apparent that Ng's house, along with the extension to the main house by Terence Chan, shared a similar design language. 'Both Terence's and mine had a pure, clean and linear look,' says Ng. 'The busy main road was a negative parameter so I used the natural terrain and tried to lift up the house as high as possible - it was a natural response to the site.'

Says Chan, 38: 'The other five houses were designed purely for rental; I originally designed mine as a two-storey slab to shield the old wing - it has an internal courtyard with a full view of the original house - but the finished design turned out a bit different because I had to accommodate extra facilities such as the M & E services for both houses.' He adds: 'The old house is now designed for entertaining, with function rooms, lounge area and kitchen facilities.'

In the end, the Lien collective can be said to have benefited the client and provided a platform for some young local architects to strut their creative stuff. It was a risk worth taking, says Vincent Lien. 'Along the way, we just had to ensure that they put things in perspective.' Adds Ng: 'This was an interesting exercise because it was a friendly competition where we weren't competing against each other - the competition was really within yourself.'

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