d+a – Surprising Seclusion

Issue #110 June 2019


Lined with exposed and off-form concrete, this terrace house by HYLA Architects turns its focus inwards to create a calm, light-filled family oasis.

The question of how architecture should respond to the environment and climate may never be definitively answered, but the latest project from Singaporean studio HYLA Architects is an absorbing case study in just how sophisticated the dialogue has become.

Code-named “Surprising Seclusion”, the two-storey corner terrace house on Binchang Rise presented what principal and lead architect Han Loke Kwang describes as a “challenging environmental context”.

Specifically, both the front and back of the trapezoidal plot face busy roads, while the side adjoins an older house. There are no views to speak of, and ambient traffic noise was an issue. Han notes that the site constraints of this project are par for the course, “In Singapore, most houses have no views because of the semi-urban context and plots tend to be small.”

Which explains why his studio, established in 1994 with two other partners who have since moved on, has tended to turn the perspectives of its architectural plans inwards – to whit, spacious inner courtyards that are layered with interlocking voids and an abundance of internal landscaping.

It is a modus operandi that works particularly well here, as Han orchestrates light and ventilation to flow up through the house’s five bedrooms and communal spaces. It helped, too, that the client, an old friend, trusted the architect so much that the brief was a fairly open-ended one.

“It was a very functional brief in the sense that it stated how many rooms there would be, what type of kitchen she needed, and so on. Beyond that, she was very trusting.”

On every metric, that trust was rewarded. For starters, the façade of the house is arresting. Here, Han wields a palette of off-form concrete and grey-face brick to create a swathe of subdivided panels where their outlines follow the external elevation of beams and columns.

Normally, these outlines are subsequently covered with plaster and paint, but Han saw a beauty in the geometry. Leaving that exposed allows one, he says, to “see the true nature of the underlying materials”.

The same philosophy informs the interiors. There is a pleasing ruggedness to the spaces, a note of rawness that is neatly and consistently imprinted on every space.

These include the central air-well around which principal rooms like the kitchen, dining room and lounge rooms are arranged, to the ziggurat-like sculptural form of the staircase’s underbelly up to the second level, which contains bedrooms, family room and spacious terrace.

The third floor is essentially an attic with two smaller bedrooms and another terrace. Of course, Han is a canny architect, and experienced enough to temper all those hard surfaces with liberal lashings of timber veneer, say, in the living room, and flashes of galvanised tin sheeting for the built-in shoe cabinetry.

The overall effect is cohesive to a surprising degree, a result Han puts down to a process of repeated iterations over the years.

“I’ve always liked off-form concrete and fair-face brick, but in the beginning, I wasn’t confident that our local contractors would be able to work with these materials. But we’ve now done so many projects and there is a level of comfort. Also, the market is also much more accepting.”

For a house that turns inwards to the degree that the Binchang Rise House does, what is unexpected is just how much light Han and his team have managed to pull in. Of course, the capacious central airwell – itself anchored by a shallow tile-lined pond – helps, but equally, what might otherwise have been dark corners are softened with diffuse light that filters in through clerestories and apertures in ceilings and walls, especially in the bathrooms.

It is a particularly effective sleight-of-hand you cannot help but reference as an astute homage to Geoffrey Bawa. All this diffused lighting also explains how interior landscapers Green Forest was able to install such an abundance of low maintenance indoor plants, the profusion of greenery most evident in the long rows of bathroom planters, and stepped planters along the edge of one of the staircases.

For Han, the Binchang Rise House is a handy semaphore of the approach his 16-strong firm takes to architecture. “Our work is very much influenced from the inside out,” he says. “In particular, we work from certain core values. There must be clarity in what the design expresses. There must be simplicity and strength in the form. Spaces must be dynamic. And there must be honesty in the design.”

Words Daven Wu