ID Magazine – 36 Everton Road

ID Magazine Issue Vol. 16 No. 3 Jun/Jul 1998

Communicating Through a Void

Shophouse conservation jobs always make interesting study. Every architect would have a different way of tackling the typical shell of a longish space sandwiched by two party walls. Given the limitations of such a space, elaborate fantasy-land structures are usually out of the question. When a design is consolidated into an essence, the expression of this essence is what makes every conservation job an exciting journey into a piece of history recreated.

In its 21 Elite Park project (see story ‘IN A VERTICAL ORDER’), HYLA Architects used the idea of ‘vertical zoning’, housing all the services in a contrived ‘service alley’ which is sectioned out by a wall running along the long axis. The same concept is used in this Everton Road house. Han Loke Kwang, one of three partners of the firm and the architect for the project, is confident that the zoning feature might even become a kind of ‘trademark’ for the firm’s future residential projects.

Such a systematic approach in the planning of spaces is usually and suitably used in commercial buildings such as offices, hotels, condominiums or shopping centres. A regimental and uniform service zone in big buildings is almost always unavoidable as it is the most systematic, practical and economical in big buildings. Although the application is unusual for smaller houses, grouping all the services in one area does seem like a logical and feasible thing to do. Regardless of the size of the project, it is the method that can reduce construction cost proportionately, although it usually forces certain rigidity upon the planning of the layout. Yet, in the case if this Everton Road shophouse, the ‘rigidity’ has been reversed into a provocative ‘flexibility’.

However, although functionally the ‘wall’ works the same way in both projects, the angle of application is different in each. In 21 Elite Park, the long wall is viewed as a compositional element in the space, whereas in 36 Everton Park it is a functional element that frees the space for a dramatic ‘centrepiece’ in the three-and-half storey void. It pretends to be a parti wall, and is the ruling element in the space.

The central feature that marks the scheme are choreographed flights of stairs that, besides serving their purpose, doubles up as the key circulation path, bridging one space with another. The stairs are, in fact, the only way of getting into each autonomous space. If they are taken away, the spaces will all have no access to each other. Metaphorically, they form the ‘communication path’ for the individual spaces. Said Han: ” The idea for the stairs is to allow the spaces to ‘talk’ to each other.”

In this ‘communication path’, the bridge-like staircases criss-cross each other in the central void which consequently becomes the compositional fulcrum and architectural connection of the whole project. And with this void opportunities are created for the design of ‘internal facades’ that provide backdrops to the staircase.

Another distinctive feature is the layering of spaces. The many openings in the house are positioned such that they frame the spaces; hence, one looks through one room into another, one space into the next. The spaces visually flow from one frame into the next.

Whilst 21 Elite Park is a “shophouse’ implanted amongst a row of terrace houses in a conventional residential district, 36 Everton Park is in fact a shophouse. Essentially, a shophouse is almost like a terrace house – both types have long spaces contained by two party walls – except that the former does not have external areas like a garden or car porch. The two projects were approached similarly – a wall divides the house along the long axis with the services all tucked on the left side of the wall.

These layers are not developed though a confusing multiple staggering of walls, but are an ‘illusion’ brought about by the multiple framing of spaces. Ascending the ‘bridging stairs’ thus becomes also a journey of spatial experiences in which one is visually treated to a series of framed perspectives defines by the internal doors and windows.

A study of the sectional plan reveals that house is physically broken up into two, with a front and rear portion linked by the ‘bridging stairs’ which zigzag through the skylight-capped three-storey void over an ornamental pool on the lowest floor that is the semi-basement. Due to the 1,550 mm difference between the road level along Everton Road and the backlane, the floor levels are staggered from front to back, which explains why the ”bridges” are stepped with risers and treads (see sectional plan).

Apart from the front facade which remains faithful to the original state (probably as a result of the strict conservation rules which are getting stricter as conservation projects get fewer), everything else inside are ripped out. Due to the already existing parti walls, it would be very troublesome and uneconomical to load new structures on these walls. Hence a new concrete post-and -beam structural system is introduced that worked independently from the part walls which, by now, serves nothing more than dividing walls between each unit.

The sub-structural systems such as that of the roof and the secondary floor beams are all of timber. However, some of these exposed timber structures have been painted over, diluting that familiar warm ‘shophouse feel’ of the place, as they blend in with the painted concrete walls and structures.

Apart from the painted timber structures, this house has deviated in other ways from the language of conventional shophouses. The traditional airwell that is devised to facilitate the internal circulation of the long space has been sealed up with a skylight to maximise GFA (Gross Floor Area). By incorporating the openness of the airwell as part of the interior architecture, the internal spaces are subsequently expanded with the void as the heart of containing the ‘soul;’ (or sole staircase) of the house.

The enormous sense of openness that permeates the house is accentuated by the presence of the skylight above the void which, apart from brightening and lightening up the spaces, serves as a natural spotlight for the dramatic staircase in the day a sunlight streams through the glass roof and throws beautiful shadows on the colourful walls. Luminosity is further enhanced by daylight passing down to the first storey through glass panels installed on the second-storey floor, bringing about a feeling of transparency and lightness to the interior.

Metaphorically speaking, 36 Everton Road embodies ‘movement’. In this house, movement rules and makes the space; without which, the scheme fails. 21 Elite Park’s is one of stillness, where walls stand firm before the spaces are made – the spaces area accommodated around a predominant stillness. The two projects started out similarly in the location of their service alleys, but ended up very differently in scheme and concept. Yet, each is a triumph in its own right.

Writer: Kelly Cheng
Photography: C I & A