Cubes – Belimbing Avenue

Cubes Issue #68 June – July 2014
Of Volumes, Lines & Shadows

The lyrical arrangement of a restrained language creates a cool home for the warmth of family.

Often, the design brief to an architect is functional – a stated number of rooms and perhaps some preference for sizes and placement. However, an architect’s responsibility goes beyond the stated brief and includes the unexpressed desires of a homeowner that frequently includes intangibles such as the idea of “warmth” and also a space that will constantly delight over the course of time. This was the situation that Han Loke Kwang of HYLA Architects faced with the house at Belimbing Avenue.

Most architects draw inspiration from the particularity of the client, site, climate, and building materials in search for a muse to innovate. They then put their touch on these elements via a design process to gets close to the creation of a piece of architecture and in Han’s case, the process is a deeply personal one.

Just like the architect, a design observer too searches for innovation in every project and here, it was found in the approach towards a narrow, intermediate terrace typology. By looking at the site as a long and narrow plot, the architect is liberated from the confines of the shell and is able to create a composition of connected yet independent volumes that produced opportunities for pockets of relief.

Wind and light find their way into the depths of the house through these slices of spaces, making the possibility of all-round natural ventilation a feasible option in a long, narrow site. What was once dark and narrow is now airy and light and with this manipulation of volumes, a variety of spaces that belies the nature of a compact site is created.

Throughout the house, a restrained but clear language is seen. There is an economy of materials and lines, and with the carefully concealed services, the whole house exudes an almost austere aesthetic. Volumes of spaces crafted out of off-form concrete stand with modern proportions and despite the choice of concrete, this is a house that is cool, not cold. Rather, in its materiality, the building becomes a device for the warmth of life and nature to unfold.

Building surfaces become canvas for light and shadow while various spatial volumes hold the warmth of the multi-generational family. Each pocket of space holds a little bit of their lives. The house grows with its owners with the passing of time and will develop a unique patina – concrete surfaces will darken and take on a character all on their own. Memories and physical mementos transform the simple plain walls and empty shelves in these empty volumes of space into a repository of living.

“I believe in having a very simple and clear language for my designs,” said Han and these modernist values clearly held this house together.
With pure volumes identified as the strong foundational design language, it then became a matter of making poetry out of it.

While the playful volumetric manipulation resulted in meaningful delight, the pattern-making, which manifested itself in the shelving and facade openings seemed arbitrary and threatened to throw away the rigour that was on display. However, looking back, perhaps it may have been part of an ongoing exploration within the office to find ways to break from the grid as observed from recent projects or perhaps, this design curveball serves as a deliberate contrast to the composition.

Exploring the house, one is also reminded of Robert Powell and Tay Kheng Soon in their discourse of edges, lines and shadows. Varieties of
shaded spaces abound throughout the house. Streaks of light and shadow hang on the walls like a painting with the faint joint lines of the building in the background lending a delightful appreciation for a building that is well adapted to our tropical weather.

At the upper floors, a reimagined sun-shading device drapes overhead, casting gentle gradients
of shadow on the courtyard wall. As Han shares, “We added a special touch to the screens by stringing cables through the members and added spacers in between to create a draping effect. Also, depending on where it was fixed, we varied the sizes of the members to achieve the desired effect.” Indeed, the discourse is alive and ongoing in this design by HYLA.

By looking at things differently while being grounded in strong, simple values, HYLA has created a home at Belimbing Avenue that has done more than solve the functional brief and created a house that, as the owner hopes, will stand the test of time and be home for more than one generation.

Writer: Adib Jalal
Photographer: Derek Swalwell