Cubes – Enduring Calm

Issue #91 May/June 2018
The Space Between Walls, by HYLA Architects
Words by Luo Jingmei
Photography Derek Swalwell (courtesy of HYLA Architects)

“The dependable courtyard, enclosed by robust brick, is the main motif in a house by HYLA Architects that proves simple solutions applied in thoughtful ways can create engaging, enduring and contextually appropriate spaces.”

The courtyard has existed in HYLA Architects’ residential projects in various permutations. In one house, it sits in the middle of the living space, looked into from rooms above. In another, it is endowed by a calming water body and spirited by the play of light, shadow and reflection all around.

Despite the different ways the courtyards are positioned, they all serve similar functions -to bring natural light, ventilation and views of the external environment into an enclosed space, hence blurring the boundaries between indoors and out.

“Houses in Singapore typically have no views. Our relatively high densities mean that houses look into each other, and this gives them little privacy,” says Han Loke Kwang, founder of HYLA Architects of the dilemma of landed property in Singapore. The courtyard provides the solution of creating a private outdoor space within the house – a focal point for an inward-looking house that can also enhance lighting and ventilation. “Enclosing and covering the space makes it more amenable,” Han adds.

A recently completed project continuing this thesis is The Space Between Walls- a house in Singapore with not one but three courtyards within. The result is a well-illuminated, thermally comfortable and delightful interior.

An experiential, sequenced approach characterises the entrance to the semi-detached house. Beyond a detailed gate of Chengal · screens is a tall, windowless facade of charcoal-coloured clay bricks’ with just one opening leading to a secondary wall behind. The latter is clad with Chengal timber, with the main door (frameless and lacking a handle) camouflaged within its surface. A dramatic, double-volume outdoor threshold rises between these two walls and a bridge crosses over a water body and garden, encouraging a contemplative pause.

“It’s a very simple and blank frontage, so we had a bit of fun with the facade,” says Han, referring to the hide-and-seek game of entry and the composition he created with the brick. “The brick was laid in a stretcher bond pattern. However, instead of staggering the bricks by half their length, we staggered them by the width of the brick. We popped out the bricks and gradually receded them back as you go higher, which has given the facade richness and texture.”

This stoic front facade is an anomaly among the more traditionally decorated neighbours. “In relation to other houses, I see this home as a pause in the visual cacophony of different styles, forms and heights within Singapore’s residential areas. Its simple, pure form is like a blank page that makes a strong and calm statement,” he says.

Yet, within is an unexpected openness that one would not predict from the exterior. The pond at the threshold turns the corner to become the lap pool, which run the length of the house alongside the living, dining and kitchen. This is the first courtyard, which rises up three stories and is capped by an airy staircase. Above, a glass and timber pergola provides shelter.

This courtyard detaches· the house from the party wall, providing an interior view of nature for the occupant. It is a view that Han has crafted carefully with the scenery of water and greenery, backed by the graphic expression of the brick patterning on the parti wall and the structural components expressed in a pebblewash finish.

A second landscaped courtyard on the second-storey staircase landing extends the lushness and softens the dark tonality of the party wall. A third, situated between a bedroom and the study area on the second storey, allows for a good balance of privacy and connectivity between family members.

The abundance of outdoor spaces within the home means that all the positive qualities of the courtyard provides are felt throughout and at all times of the day, whether the occupants are in their private zones or simply traversing from one point to another. Such a simple datum manifested in thoughtful ways frees the semi-detached house from its stigma of dark, interiorized spaces and creates a perennially liveable abode.