Singapore Architect – Jalan Sedap

Singapore Architect Issue No. 214 – 2002

A Sens(e)-ible House:
Designing For Human Experience

IMAGE is everything in the world of fashion. The desire to create an image, stylish and temporal, all too often results in the seduction of architecture into the realm of fashion. And yet, for HYLA Architects, image is not what it is all about.

“This is not a photogenic house”, cautions Mr. Han Loke Kwang of HYLA Architects of his newly completed project – a 365 sq.m. semi-detached residence on Jalan Sedap. This statement might seem strange coming from the young, Australia-trained Singaporean. However in this case, “un-photogenic” in no way implies “unattractive”. In fact, the residence is very well designed, both in formal proportion as well as in its use of a contemporary palette. The concern that the house may not stand well under the lens is due to a shift in the design away from the visual pleasures of expensive veneers and ornate details common in current design trends, toward ambitions beyond the visual.

Many critics have deliberated over the preoccupation with image-making in current architectural practice. Some argue that this image-conscious culture of visual consumption can only lead to a reduction of values and meaning in architecture. This concern has led many architects to return to an emphasis on craft and imagination; an architecture of substance and more weight. (1)

Mr. Han is one such architect. The glitz and gloss of stylistic trends do not interest him or his team of young designers at HYLA. “Clarity of form and space, and how one experiences these qualities, are our interests,” Han affirms. Their architecture cannot be readily understood as an image but rather as a sequence of sensory-engaging experiences. For a photographer, representing such human encounters that engage all the senses is a challenging yet fascinating task. Perhaps it would be better stated, “This is not a house easily photographed”.

A pivotal figure in Scandinavian architecture and highly influential in 20th Century design since the 1930’s, Erik Gunnar Asplund reinforces this shift away from aesthetics and towards a multi-sensory architecture: “The idea that only design, which is comprehended visually, can be art is a narrow conception. No, everything grasped by our other senses through our whole human consciousness and which has the capacity to communicate desire, pleasure, or emotions can also be art.” (2)

In his sensitive pursuit, Han has undertaken a valuable architectural endeavor: designing for the human experience. Clearly, an authentic and sensitive architecture is one where the meaning is found in human interactions, evoked in the everyday acts of inhabiting and occupying. “The house is about the body and how it is expressed through people’s movement from space to space… how directions influence a person’s experience,” agrees Han. The house is not a showcase for novel design approaches or a selfish pursuit of vanity. It is about the people that interact with and within the house.

Engaging all our facilities, the house has been conceived as a sequence of multi-sensory occasions, with greater significance placed on the spatial, tactile, and auditory experiences than visual engagement alone. Architecture is normally understood from a predominantly visual perspective, but an architecture that can also be read through a thoughtful series of human interactions creates a more substantial and meaningful experience.

In an essay regarding sensuous architecture, Juhani Pallasmaa offers a provocative perspective on experiencing architecture: “Authentic architectural experiences derive from real or ideated bodily confrontations rather than visually observed entities. Authentic architectural experiences have more the essence of a verb than a noun. The visual image of a door is not an architectural image, for instance, whereas entering and exiting through a door are architectural experiences.” (3)

Han explores this concept of bodily confrontations in a distinctive central corridor element, located between the two rectilinear forms that make up the house design. The corridor defines a singular spine that becomes the primary source for such architectural experiences. “Quite simple really,” Han points out, “it’s just a series of sliding forms expressed at the corridor on all three levels. It is an interaction through movement.”

Moving through the house, we become aware that what would normally be considered secondary spaces for transit, such as hallways, entries, stairs, skylights, and decks, are celebrated as the primary mediating structure. These transitional spaces are orchestrated as a sequence of movements that not only direct us, but also directly involve us. The evidence of this involvement is clearly written on the walls. On one of the 230×230 steal columns along the central spine, we discover a children’s magnetic tic-tac-toe game in progress. Perhaps unintentionally, this child’s delightful discovery of the magnetic properties of his own house, revealed in the act of interacting with the architecture, demonstrates the emotive qualities evoked by its materiality.

There are many other examples where concrete, metal, glass and stone elements of the house enhance our experiences at a human-scale. The most obvious of these is the network of precast concrete flooring, found only at the main corridors and stairs, which connect all the rooms on all three levels. As soon as you step onto one of the 1050mm wide panels, that span between steel frames, Han continues, “there is a slight springing sensation as you walk along the corridor and up the stairs.” The sensation reverberates up my legs and enhances an awareness of my body movements.

The architect’s thoughtful selection of natural materials engages the body’s network of senses. Upon re-entering the house from the roof deck jacuzzi, for instance, our wet bare feet immediately react to the concrete floor. We welcome its tactile, non-slip surface that absorbs the wetness of our skin while leaving delightful but temporal patterning – footprints. These experiences offer further evidence of human contact.

“When else do you get to have an experience that is at once intellectual and sensual?” (4), jazz pianist, Brad Mehldau appropriately points out regarding one’s experience of music. In well-composed music, higher thinking and basic instincts work symbiotically. The creation of this symbiosis posses a similar challenge to architects in today’s virtual world dominated by the computer-aided image. Striking a balance between rational thought and sensual engagement is becoming increasingly difficult as high-tech stimuli gradually replace our innate abilities for greater imagination and natural connection to the physical world.

An architecture of bodily experiences reaches beyond mere visual compositions. Architecture has, as Asplund affirms, “the capacity to communicate desire, pleasure, or emotions. “A multi-sensory architecture can incite and heighten images of life. With another house currently on the drawing board, HYLA Architects continues their sensitive pursuit of a more human experience in design.

HYLA Architects
HYLA is a maturing, enthusiastic architectural, planning and interior design firm.

Formed in December 1993, the partners (all ex-Rafflesians) bring together over 30 years of experience in the fields of architecture, interior design and urban planning. We have worked on a wide range of projects – residential, public housing, corporate offices, tenancy fitouts, hotels, commercial buildings, retail and urban design, to the masterplanning of comprehensive developments. Projects have been undertaken both in Singapore and overseas including Indonesia, Bhutan, Australia and China. Developing close working relationships with our clients and fellow professional consultants is very important to us. Together we have helped our clients to realize their aspirations with affordable design solutions which are distinctive, but more importantly, absolutely fit for their purpose and function.

Together we can contribute expertise in the fields of project management, feasibility studies and all the other disciplines necessary for you to realize your project on time and on budget. With the firm’s major emphasis on computerization, we will provide you the level of service that you deserve.

Han Loke Kwang
A Colombo Plan graduate from the University of Newcastle (Australia 1980-85). He worked in HDB (1987-92), Cesma International (secondment 1990-91), RSP Architects, Planners and Engineers Pte Ltd (1992-93) before forming HYLA with Vincent Lee. Besides playing a key role in the firm’s design commitment and philosophy, he is responsible in HYLA’s continued thrust in information technology, computer visualisation and presentation.

1. “Our vacillations between technological positivism and nostalgia are actually manifestations of the identical desire, the desire for what Kundera calls (Milan Kundera’s novel, Unbearable Lightness of Being) “lightness”. As they are played out in architecture, each of the apparent contradictory values produce the identical effect, they withdraw weight from architecture by ignoring the question of materiality.” Daniel Willis, Emerald City, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1999.

2. A lecture given by Erik Gunnar Asplund, “Konst och Teknik” (Art and Technology), Byggmastaren, 1936. Stuart Wrede, The Architecture of Erik Gunnar Asplund, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1980, p. 153. As quoted from Juhani Pallasmaa, “Hapticity and Time: Notes on Fragile Architecture”, Architectural Review, May 2000

3. A paper delivered for the 1999 RIBA Discourse Lecture by Juhani Pallasmaa. As quoted from Juhani Pallasmaa, “Hapticity and Time: Notes on Fragile Architecture”, Architectural Review, May 2000

4. Jazz pianist, Brad Mehldau, Compact Disc Live at the Village Vanguard, The Art of the Trio, Volume Two, Matt Pierson (Producer), Warner Bros. Records, 1998. As quoted from Javier Mozas, “Arquitectura Feeling Architecture”, a+t #15: Sensitive Materials (II), 2000

Writer: Alan Yeung Woo
Photographs: Albert Lim K.S.