Cubes – 19 Lorong 24A Geylang

19 Lorong 24A Geylang

Cubes Magazine Issue No. 63 Aug/Sep 2013

Unit 19 – HYLA Architects

Architecture as sculpture comes to the fore in HYLA’s interpretation of this shophouse.

Expressions of two eras sit side-by-side in unit 19, where a somewhat surreal play of forms slowly reveals itself behind a polite street façade of white and grey paint. Within the keenly preserved shophouse shell, HYLA Architects has inserted surprising new forms in steel and slatted aluminium that lean and dilate.

A spiral staircase slants forward toward the street, and thus its lean is only perceived as one moves through the shophouse and up alongside it. A bulging bathroom pushes out over a void near the rear, emerging above the kitchen. One’s journey through the home becomes a rather dramatic experience as a result of this formal play. With a little whimsy, one might even imagine these new forms negotiating their position via sheer physical force until reaching a state of static equilibrium with the existing 1920s-era architecture.

HYLA principal Han Loke Kwang explains how this unique environment of architectural coexistence emerged: “The brief for this project was very simple. Number one, there was a rather tight budget. Number two, the client wanted at least three bedrooms. And number three, he wanted ‘art’. I asked myself, what is the simplest way I can achieve all the spaces I need and create something sculptural? I ended up making two main insertions : the staircase and the bathroom element.”

The idea, Han explains, was to keep as much as possible of the shophouse (including the floorboards and the walls) and to express the existing elements as cleanly as he could. The new elements are placed away from the party walls and expressed separately from the existing architecture so the shophouse can be seen as a discrete form.

The staircase rises from a central position in the level-one ‘room’ to a mezzanine attic positioned centrally beneath the jack roof. The presence of the five-foot way (and the subsequent loss of space from the interior at level one) has the effect of shifting the centre point of the lowest floor back from the ridgeline of the roof. Thus, rising from spatial centre point to ridgeline, the staircase takes on a slight lean.

Aside from providing circulation, its insertion was also means of spatial division. It allowed Han to divide level one into a foyer and living room, and level two into a master bedroom and family room, with the mezzanine attic space above. “With one object, I divided this volume into five spaces,” he explains.

“I knew I needed two more bedrooms, so I created the extension at the rear,” he continues. (The level one rear dining space can also become a bedroom). In between, he inserted the bathroom feature (overlooking the original courtyard void) and a corridor that links front and rear. A partially glazed trellis of staggered aluminium tubes creates a changing display of light and shadow on the party wall.

A directness of expression is evident in Han’s new insertions, which he explains in terms of the Geylang context. “There’s a rawness about Geylang,” he says, “which I think is quite refreshing. In Singapore, most things are very beautiful and clean. In Geylang, what you see is what you get. So I wanted a raw aesthetic to permeate here as well.”

Constructing the staircase, however, was not a simple exercise. “Nobody in Singapore could roll a piece of steel on such a tight diameter,” he explains of the central stringer. “So the contractor got a piece of 20mm thick, 600mm diameter pipe, installed it, welded on all the treads, and then cut it. If we had cut the pipe first, it would have twisted.” Mild steel flat bars and aluminium flats create the enclosure.

On level two, the bulging bathroom emerged from the wish to incorporate a bathtub in a space that is too small for one. The tub and basin, both encased by a concrete kidney bean-shaped form, were pushed out as much as possible “to make just enough space,” says Han. As the bulging enclosure is not fully private, a shower curtain rail was also installed, and follows the curve of the steel and aluminium screen.

A final surprise awaits in the master bathroom, which sits on a raised floor around the spiral staircase. Frosted glass seals off the staircase and tiled walls enclose the room. The shower, toilet and basin occupy nooks of space in this inner sanctum, the experience of which could not be further from that of the shophouse as it once was.

Writer: Narelle Yabuka