Cubes – HYLA

Issue #79,  APRIL/ MAY 2016



“There wasn’t any grand objective to change the world or do something to make a statement,” says Han Loke Kwang, Principal Architect of HYLA Architects, on the founding of the practice. “I have always believed that architecture is a personal expression. That has always been a driving force in what I do,” he adds.

To observers of modern architecture and its lineage of influencers, most famously including Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright with their visions of citywide transformation, Han’s statement is strikingly modest. Sporting round black-rimmed glasses and a quiet demeanour, he veers away from grandiose projections and prefers to allow his work to speak for itself.

While HYLA Architects’ body of work includes some commercial projects, the portfolio gravitates heavily towards residential architecture, which, Han believes, allows more room for expression. He founded the studio (with Yip Yuen Hong and Vincent Lee, both of whom have since moved on with their own pursuits) in 1993. The moment, says Han, that he found his voice in architecture was upon the completion of additions to a corner terrace house at Capricorn Drive in 2003.

A bold timber-clad volume cantilevers over a steep eight-metre slope, the strong trapezoidal form and clean lines of the timber-screen facade reflecting the approach that he has consistently employed for his subsequent works. “One thing I value in architecture is simplicity. I keep the forms very simple, usually with only one recognisable profile… The second thing I value is clarity – to make it very clear what the building is meant to do,” Han offers.

This singular approach of refining forms to achieve clarity has threaded through all of HYLA’s work. Thoughtful detailing is integral to this process of distillation. “I think it is important to have details that disappear and don’t call attention to themselves. It’s not about how clever the architect is. If details are done wrong, they are glaring. But it is not easy to design details that are subsumed into the overall concept so you don’t even notice them,” he says. What observers may notice about HYLA’s work, however, is the resonant consistency and the clean, modern aesthetic that encapsulates it.

The shophouse project at Lorong 24A Geylang was awarded an Architectural Heritage Award in 2011 by the Urban Redevelopment Authority and also clinched the Singapore Institute of Architects Design Award (Conservation Category) in 2012. Other projects including the Belimbing Avenue inter-terrace, Jalan Angin Laut bungalow, Faber Avenue corner terrace and Toh Crescent cluster housing have been showcased frequently in design magazines.

Notably, all of HYLA’s projects seek a balance in the interplay of exterior forms and fluid interior experiences. “When I say I try to make the forms simple, I mean that I try to make the external form stable and powerful; but my spaces tend to be very dynamic,” Han muses. “I think it is important for spaces to flow and not be static – [they should hint at] where to go next, where light is coming from,” he says as he sketches a section of one of the houses.

The intermediate terrace at Belimbing Avenue is a stellar example of this dynamism at play. An open-tread staircase along the party wall lets light in from the skylight above. Daylight thus drenches the interior of the home despite it being an inter-terrace. The light is softly modulated by a suspended timber pergola overhead, gracefully arching with a natural camber. The house is organised into two volumes with intervening bridges that are staggered across the airspace. Explains Han, “The bridge is never at same place. The staggering gives a better sense of the void space, so as you walk on the upper levels you can always look down and see the person below.”

HYLA’s houses are essentially treated as spaces of private retreat. While fluid and availing movement, the spaces also possess an introspective quality. Within the Belimbing Avenue dwelling, privacy is carved out through the allocation of separate zones for each occupant. “We arranged it such that everyone has their own space; the child is in the front volume, separated from the master bedroom by a family room and bridge,” Han notes. Care was also taken to retain the privacy of the abode through the calibration of views towards the exterior. Instead of large window openings, interior courtyards or skylights are preferred elements to let light and breezes in.

The bungalow at Jalan Angin Laut blurs the transition between exterior and interior through a surprising twist. One pushes past the front doors and the calm facade to find a pool that is partially open to the sky. A glass bridge hovers above the water and connects one to the living and dining spaces at the rear of the site. Han suggests that the pool was used help insulate against noise from nearby train tracks. Openings in the side walls are cut at 1.8 metres in height to reveal lush planting along the perimeter boundary walls. The result is an intimate swimming pool surrounded by greenery and offering views of the sky, set within the heart of the abode.

The blurring of boundaries ties in with another key aspect of HYLA’s work: an exploration of ‘tropical Asian living’. This is especially evident in the studio’s recent works. “In the genre of housing in Singapore, the urban environment is very compact and high in density. We explore the different typologies that can be applied here in the moderation of weather between indoors and outdoors.” Han informs. Some of these involve the integration of automated systems such as a proprietary motorised screen in the Lorong J Telok Kurau corner terrace. Other typologies of modulation inform integral aspects of the design, such as the use of a reflective pool on the ground floor of Belimbing Avenue which helps to passively cool the house. The gently lilting timber pergola above the staircase shades the interior courtyard, and demonstrates an ingeniously simple resolution of details.

Without the use of any screws, the timber struts are strung on cables and separated by copper  pipe spacers. “Typically people use metal-framed timber pergolas, but we always try to think of different ways to do things. At Belimbing Avenue, there is a heaviness to the off-form concrete, so I wanted a way to lighten it up slightly.” Han enthuses. The idea of omitting nails was extended to all timber screens within the house, with timber screen panels slotted in with spacers and held in place by metal frames. The lightweight staircase meets the ground with an intricate feature wall, which cleverly conceals the staircase supports while providing a viewing aperture for the living room. The space under the staircase is a pool washed with natural light due to the openness of the treads above. Indeed, the experience of moving through HYLA’s houses involves delightful transitions between indoors and outdoors, always within the private sanctuary.

On a larger scale, HYLA’s cluster residential project at Toh Crescent possesses a similar quality of quiet introspection, which offers a refreshing measure of privacy within a typically dense setting. Han observed that privacy is the main issue with most cluster housing projects, and sought to find a solution in HYLA’s first attempt at the cluster housing typology. “Many cluster housing developments have glass facades that look into the pool area. If everyone can see what I’m doing in the living room, it’s too intrusive. I felt that the concept of all residents looking into a pool was a Californian typology, and not a very Asian thing to do. So I was very interested in how to layer the private and public spaces by turning all the living spaces away from the pool,” Han explains. An internal street was created instead, featuring a central court with three cascading pools, flanked by monolithic grey walls with seemingly random openings. The street feels like a Chinese walled courtyard, crafted at an intimate pedestrian scale.

When asked where he finds his inspiration, Han reveals that his chief influence is an interest in art. “I don’t look much at modern architecture. Art is a key passion for me, from the Italian Renaissance to the modern American Abstract Expressionists. I’m attracted to art that is similar to what I try to do: powerful, but very controlled.” The selftermed audiophile confesses that he stumbled into architecture based on the university prospectus – “the architecture course was the only one with pictures of students in studio or at site… I chose it on the basis that it was the most interesting thing to study. Good thing it turned out okay in the end,” he quips.

Perhaps it is fitting then, that Han’s philosophy in architecture is that “it is very important to have a happy ending. If there is no happy ending, no matter what good work you did at the beginning, it won’t be remembered. But if you have a happy ending, and the clients are happy, whatever happens during the process is fine.”


Text: Felicia Toh
Project images: Courtesy of HYLA
Portrait and Studio Photographs: Justin Loh