The house designed by Colin Seah of MOD could be considered as the most low-key of the six houses. It is low-key in the literal sense that it is the only single storey building in the development, albeit one with a fairly large semi-basement.
From the front, everything is either in shades of white or of various levels of transparency. Volumetrically, the house is a simple slab sitting on top of a rectangular frame. It seems so low-key in that it appears to have no obvious façade. That is until one looks at the house from the second level of its adjacent buildings. One would then notice that it has a “green” roof, i.e. one covered in artificial turf. One may perhaps call this, following Louis Kahn, a “façade to the sky.” Low-key here becomes a positive attribute as the “green” roof provides visual relief for the neighbouring houses in the rather densely built-up development. What started out partly as an attempt to return to, what Colin described as, “the romance of the single storey bungalow” and a reaction to the “grotesque scale” of most houses in Singapore as their owners and architects seek to maximise the floor area and attendant real estate value ended up as a low-key but most sensitive site intervention.
Low-key does not equate uninterestingness. Far from it, the house is in fact a very intriguing architectural artifact as there are many inherent spatial ambiguities.
First, there is the ambiguity in the overall massing and configuration. On first impression, it is likely to be read as a continuous zigzag strip that weaves itself around and defines the three courtyards. Yet, if one examines the plan more closely, the zigzag strip could also be read as the remaining massing when three courtyards are subtracted from a solid block that follows more or less the edges that would be formed if one subtracts the setback stipulation from the site boundary.
Second, within the strip itself, the spaces are arranged such that there are ambiguities in terms of the boundaries between the different rooms. At some parts of the house, it is not distinctively clear where does one space end and another begin. Instead of the clear delineation of spaces through physical walls, spaces here are sometimes subtly defined by how the strip turns and weaves around the courtyards.
In addition, there are further ambiguities between the inside and the outside. The transparency of the boundaries between the inside and the outside at many parts of the house, especially those surrounding the courtyards, means that the interior spaces are visually continuous with the exterior spaces. Because of the unusual zigzag geometry of the house, the visual continuity between the interior and exterior produces interesting layered transparencies from certain angles, whereby one sees the interior extending into the exterior courtyard which in turn is linked to another interior space beyond. As the transparent boundaries between the interior and the exterior consist primarily of sliding glass doors, the visual continuity becomes physical spatial continuity when the glass doors are slid open.
In contrast to the spatial complexity, the materiality and the poetics of construction are very much suppressed. There appears to be only two “materials” – the solid white “mass”, which could be anything from plastered reinforced concrete structure, to plastered brick wall, to plasterboard, and the transparent “planes”, i.e. glass doors and walls. This house is a-tectonic in the sense that one would not be able to find any expressive articulation of the junctions when the different building elements meet and thus one could not get any hint of how the building is constructed.
Colin explicitly stated that he is “not interested” in materiality or the tectonic culture for this project. He would even have the current timber flooring painted white or articulated as a white surface if not for the practical considerations. The materials were intentionally treated as abstract spatial elements rather than as concrete constructional components. Not being tectonic does not necessarily mean the architecture is striving for scenographic effects, as Kenneth Frampton would have us assumed. In this case, the tectonic is denied so as to not detract from, what Colin called, a “typological investigation.”
The use of typological here is not similar to the many loaded ways it has been used historically in architectural discourse. Rather, the word typological here refers specifically to the more common uses of typological concept,connoting the morphological and functional aspects of architecture. More specifically, Colin uses it to refer to the spatial and programmatic configuration of the single-family house, especially when it is reduced to its diagrammatic essence.
Colin’s interest in the typological investigation arises partly out of how, at the diagrammatic level, his design could creatively deviate from the standard spatial/programmatic configuration of houses in Singapore. His typological investigation is, however, not generic but site specific. Colin was intrigued by the possibilities offered by the site’s changes in level. The site suggests the possibility of entering the house from the semi-basement and articulating a sectional relationship between the “served” and “servant” space, with the “servant” space, which consists of the garage, the wet kitchen, stores, utility areas and the maid’s room, tucked into the semi-basement and the “served” space appearing as a slab above. Similar typological investigation is also evident in the other houses Colin designed.
For example, in a proposed design for Sentosa Cove Residence, he inverted the standard public-private spatial arrangement in a house in which the more public communal spaces typically occupy the first storey and the more private bedrooms and studies are placed on the second storey. Colin’s inversion created a more solid mass containing the private spaces on the first storey and a very transparent space covered with floating roof on second storey. This inversion was not governed by whim. It was based on the study of site conditions and the understanding that placing the living and dining spaces on the second storey would allow the inhabitants to better capitalise on the stunning sea view.
Colin’s typological investigation could be said to bear some affiliation to the way architects such as Rem Koolhaas and OMA, and MVRDV analyse the programmatic needs of specific building type and use that as a basis to creatively generate a new spatial and programmatic configuration. Alongside this interest in programmatic interpretation, here appears in typological investigation also the desire to strive for certain spatial legibility or clarity that is diagrammatic in its simplicity, which brings to mind architects such as SANAA.
Colin also described the design process as a “rational” one. Perhaps the notion of “hyper-rationality” as coined by Joshua Prince-Ramus, the president of REX and the former founding partner of OMA New York in charge of Seattle Public Library, is a more accurate term. While rationality in design frequently becomes dogmatic and is more often than not an alibi for conformist functionalism, hyper-rationality pushes logic and rationality to their limits to create surprising yet appropriate design solutions. The approach taken here might not be as radical as that of Prince-Ramus but the outcome is similarly surprising, delightful and appropriate.
Written by Chang Jiat Hwee
Architect: Colin Seah – Ministry Of Design
Area: 600 m2