Meet the Minds – WOHA

November 21, 2017
WOHA partners Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell

Photos: Recent Projects

Richard Hassell launched the Singapore-based architecture practice WOHA in 1994 with Wong Mun Summ, following their tenure together at Kerry Hill Architects. The pair’s practice has since evolved into a globally minded firm with its finger on the pulse of civic demand and environmental despair. Here, Hassell discusses community-oriented design, the vitality of sustainability, and his vision of a self-sufficient future.

Did you always know you wanted to be a designer? 
I actually wanted to be an artist, but I realized that being an artist is a very lonely experience and I wanted to work with other people, so I became an architect.

What are some of your first memories of design? 
My dad was putting up a solar-powered air-conditioning system at his office—this was in Perth, Australia in the ’70s—and I watched the entire process. They put mirrored parabolic collectors on the roof that tracked the sun. Everything was designed and built from scratch and I was blown away by the whole process and the way problems were being solved.

Did where you grew up influence your career path? 
I grew up in Perth, in Australia. I believe that Australians generally don’t feel to weighed down by history or culture, and that they’re fairly good at adapting and accepting other cultures and traditions. This adaptability and acceptance makes them pretty open-minded and it has helped me build my career here in Singapore.

What did you and Mun Summ learn while at Kerry Hill Architects?
We had an incredible learning experience at Kerry Hill, working on over 30 projects in four years. Kerry has this ability to generate commitment and passion from a constantly changing group of young architects. We learned from him that architecture has to sail above all else, and if you believe this, somehow everyone, and everything else, will come along for the ride.

Why did you two start your own firm in 1994? 
We really wanted to get things built ourselves. All of our previous work had been overseas, so we were never actually involved with the daily “making” of the building. We wanted to get out and do some small houses—and do them beautifully. We wanted to be in control of everything. After we had completed several private homes, we felt we were ready to take on larger-scale projects. We always aimed to one day do public projects that had a larger impact and entered a competition for two MRT stations here in Singapore, which we ended up winning. That opened the door for us, and we have been able to work on many large-scale projects since.

How would you describe your working relationship? 
We used to collaborate very closely when our firm and the number of projects was much smaller. As we grew busier, the volume of work demanded that we work more independently from each other as we took on additional staff. We still know what is happening on the other person’s desk, and we chime in on the other’s group discussions. Neither one of us is possessive of our own ideas, and we’re both able to stay objective about the design in our projects. A good idea is a good idea, no matter who thought of it.

What are you currently working on?
We recently finished the Oasia Hotel Downtown, which is a living and breathing green tower in the middle of Singapore’s Central Business District. It’s a skyscraper that we enveloped in red aluminum mesh cladding that serves as a backdrop for more than 20 different species of creeper plants—a façade that basically grows itself. We wanted to bring back biodiversity and greenery into the city and the “living screen” not only attracts animals and insects and allows people to reconnect with nature in a very dense urban environment, it also serves as a sun screen and actually absorbs heat.

Another project is the extension of the Crowne Plaza Hotel at Changi Airport. We designed the main structure and the hotel needed additional room capacity. Due to the airport context we were very limited in what we could do—the new building sits on what used to be a small triangular traffic island—so we opted to use PPVC as a way to save time and resources. The rooms are basically rectangular modules that were manufactured abroad and shipped to Singapore. After the building base had been completed, the hotel was assembled like Lego blocks in 26 days. It’s the first time we’ve used this method, and we are really happy with the outcome. The rooms are fully customized to our design and specifications and we were able to put in a lot of nice details like a spa-like bathroom, and handmade tiles that were inspired by the green bamboo forests that we love.

What about Kampung Admiralty?
It’s an integrated development that combines public housing for senior citizens with various services and amenities like a clinic, child and senior care, a pharmacy, retail, F&B options, a community plaza and community garden, direct access to the MRT system, outdoor gym, playground and even an urban farm. We aimed to create a space that emphasizes inclusion and intergenerational exchange, a place that really adds to the community life of the neighborhood.

Is there a challenging project that you are especially proud of? 
One of my favorite projects is another public housing development, SkyVille@Dawson. It’s a massive development with around 960 apartments, but we managed to reduce its footprint by building skywards and retaining a big park with old raintrees. To break down this massive scale, we basically divided the building into sky villages, each one is 11 stories high and comprises 80 units, like a real village. Each village has a common sky terrace that functions as a community garden. People use these spaces to chat with neighbors, let their kids play with each other, and enjoy some time with fresh air and a nice breeze. Since it’s a public building, the whole neighborhood can enjoy these spaces and they really help to foster community.

How do you find a way to integrate sustainability into your designs?
Sustainability is an urgent issue. Our environment and climate is impacted by our actions, and we want to do what we can as architects to help to improve the situation. We believe that design shouldn’t just look good and feel good, but that it should do good too. It’s a bit like the orchestra on the Titanic, playing beautiful music as the ship is sinking. As designers, we can’t just be concerned with aesthetics, so we’ve come up with our strategies to integrate greenery into our design and to reduce the amount of resources that our structures need to be comfortable places for people to spend time in. Sustainability is not just and environmental issue, it’s a social one too, so we work hard to create ‘friendly’ buildings that help to build community. We think it’s important to find a positive vision for the future, instead of focusing on all the things that make people feel bad and saying “no” to everything.

What are you looking forward to at your office? 
We outlined our positive vision of the future—the self-sufficient city—in our book Garden City Mega City. We are currently working on two major projects here in Singapore that allow us to realize a portion of that vision. We’ve implemented our strategies in buildings, and now we’re excited to be able to design a whole new part of the city.

What is the most important thing to remember when designing a hotel—both in terms of branding and interiors??
We’ve noticed that customer profiles can give you a good direction, but they’re not real people. Real people enjoy being surprised and delighted by design, and for us the most important thing is to achieve a great architectural and interior experience for the guest. The design can be tuned to the brand and customer profile, but the brand and customer profile do not necessarily prompt the design idea.

What would be your dream project and why?
A self-sufficient district in a self-sufficient city.

If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
I’d like to have dinner with Sir David Attenborough. He is one of the strongest voices making people realize how beautiful and fragile the ecology of planet earth is. Also, he’s a good storyteller.

Where would you eat and what would you be having? 
Well, if he ever come to Singapore, [we would] eat some fresh organic vegetables from our urban farm on our office’s roof terrace.

If you weren’t a designer, what would you be? 
I’d be a biologist and asking Sir David Attenborough for a job.