Singapore has an eclectic mix of architectural styles, but the Palladian porticos, the arcades of the shophouses and the deep eaves of the Chinese temples all have a common purpose: to provide shelter from the intense heat and rain. The island’s climate is equatorial, with high levels of rainfall, high humidity and two monsoon seasons. Saturated and surrounded by water, land is at a premium, so some 90 per cent of the population lives in high-rise apartments. A detached garden property is as much an indicator of prosperity today as it was in the 1880s, when Chinese merchants constructed their impressive houses.
This large family house in Leedon Park was commissioned by Liong Tek Kwee, Foster + Partners’ client for Capella Resort on the nearby Sentosa Island. It combines discreet family accommodation with an elegant sequence of spaces for entertaining. ‘Singapore is unique, not just for its climate, but for the strong focus on using landscape. Half of the island is green – it is about living in a garden’, explains David Nelson, Head of Design at Foster + Partners, who led the project. The tropical climate is exploited in the planting of the garden, while the deep overhang of the roof, raised above a layer of clerestory windows, offers protection from the sun and monsoon rains.
Leedon Park is a wealthy district of Singapore, characterised by detached, typically low-rise houses set back from the road. The design of the house owes more to the simplicity of a Thai sala and the concept of an adapted architecture than any local style. Echoing the combination of Chinese, Malay, Indian and western influences that define the cultural life of modern Singapore, the house is similarly international in its outlook. As Nelson explains: ‘Singapore’s black-and-white houses of the 1920s look very Tudor, though this is superficial, purely stylistic. They have more in common with Malay kampong houses – they are elevated to allow air to flow through them, it is a climatic response. In Leedon Park we have combined some of these vernacular traditions with very modern techniques and materials. It is of its place and the subtleties of its plan are down to a very elegant, very particular way of living that is unique to this family.’
The house is U-shaped, occupying the perimeter of the site to enclose a central garden. Arranged over a single level, the building deepens to two-storeys as the land slopes towards the road. Less prominent is a slight incline from east to west, which defines the scale of the parents’ wing relative to the smaller children’s suites. Spatially, this establishes a hierarchy of privacy, which extends from the communal centre into the strands of private accommodation. Unifying the overall composition is the roof line, which remains constant.
The Kwee’s ‘house-within-a-house’ is a four-roomed retreat with its own living area and a sense of autonomy that is reinforced by its own garden entrance. Their accommodation is reached via an elevated walkway that runs through a break in the line of the building, sheltered by the roof and open on one side. At its base is a shallow pool, lined with dark granite rocks and dug into the slope so that the water line and floor level seamlessly align on either side of the glass facade. A second path, which appears to float on the water, leads to a family gym, library and mahjong room on the ground floor. Across the garden, a parallel wing contains two further suites for the couple’s daughters and guests and a flexible semi-private apartment for their son, spread over two levels and connected by a helical stair.
Landscape is a central theme, from the garden setting to the choice of materials. There is a relationship between nature and the natural – the stone walls feel like stone, rusticated to contrast with the smooth floors and cut into deep bands. An offset arrangement of external walls continues inside from the garden – these intersect the long glass facade of the central living space to define natural partitions. The richness of the interior spaces derives from the subtle combination of textures and finishes, including segments of onyx embedded in the walls. The rooms are conceived as a sequence of spatial experiences, tactile and animated by the changing light.
Each glazed opening captures the best view of the garden. In this respect, the planning of the house and grounds reinterprets a traditional Japanese approach to landscape. The 300-year-old Tawaraya ryokan in Kyoto is cited by David Nelson as an influence: ‘though every room faces the same garden, the sense is created that the scene belongs exclusively to each.’ The scene is carefully orchestrated – the point at which each wall or screen ends defines a view. The translucent screens, fine slivers of stone coated with glass, are a domestic adaptation of the veneers created for the Singapore Supreme Court and allow the changing shadows of trees to permeate the interiors, once again drawing the garden into the house.
Like the house, the garden has a private and public face. While a vegetable patch is incorporated at the rear of the building, to the front, the formal lawns climb towards the long glass facade of the living space. Trees obscure the view between the two wings, protecting the private realm; the guest suites overlook an ornamental garden; and the swimming pool, lined with green Balinese stone, is close to the road, yet screened by trees and illuminated at night to provide a distant focal point for the composition.
At the main entrance, the heavy patinated metal double doors are an intriguing contradiction within the glass wall of the lobby. Just as these oriental features refer to a more traditional architectural language, the dimensions and layout of the adjacent guest cloakroom relate to the climate – it is an open and flexible space designed for a country where people don’t need bulky overcoats.
The guest is directed through the lobby, turning into the corridor and turning again into the living space, presented with a carefully constructed view at every step. Looking into the garden, the eye is similarly guided by a careful arrangement of trees and stones. This indirect movement between spaces is encouraged by an oblique arrangement of rooms. A traditional device, it follows the principles of feng shui in symbolically slowing the flow of energy as it passes through the house. Doors are used only where privacy or acoustic insulation is required, such as at the threshold to the different wings or the grand entrance to the dining room. The light, open living area is designed for entertaining and the furniture is arranged into ‘sub spaces’, groupings that allow large parties to occupy the space as comfortably as intimate gatherings.
‘One of the big drivers was a very large painting’, says David Nelson. ‘To some extent the whole house was designed around it.’ In a synthesis of art and its architectural setting, the dimensions of the rear wall of the living space and precise depth of the recess above is calculated to frame ‘The Betrothal in Santo Domingo’ by Frank Stella, a polyptych of four 10×10-foot panels. The dining room projects from this space into the garden, enclosed within a glass box. This functions almost as a pavilion, another experience of the landscape, as well as a further opportunity to exhibit pieces from an extensive collection of art and sculpture. As in the Capella Resort, works of art can be found throughout the house in carefully illuminated recesses. The placement of objects is carefully considered, both inside and outside, where an informal sculpture trail weaves through the garden.
“One of the big drivers was a very large painting. To some extent, the whole house was designed around it.”David Nelson, Foster + Partners
Two geometric rills cut into the stone floor of the lobby introduce water as unifying natural element; its treatment throughout is deft, varying in depth, movement and illumination to complement the tone and function of the different parts of the house. Behind the living area, the ripples of a koi pond are reflected in the overhang of the roof canopy and this line of water traces a delicate path through the building in a series of slender rills, before cascading over a waterfall. The art of its manipulation is as much a question of perception as design, according to David Nelson: ‘The water seems to originate in the pond and flow beneath the house – it was important that we gave the impression of a source. This is an illusion – part created, part imagined, and forms a visual link between the different parts of the building.’
Water also has a symbolic presence in the house, mediating between its different cultural influences, past and present. Its use represents one of the many aesthetic, structural and spatial decisions taken to balance the constraints of the site and climate with the contradictory demands of shelter, privacy and transparency. This is perhaps the most compelling aspect of the design – that despite this underlying complexity, the house is gracefully articulated as a simple composition of water, light and stone.
This is an archived essay commissioned for the Foster Works series, reproduced here with permission. All images copyright Nigel Young/Foster + Partners.