Transcript of a Presentation by the ARC Studio Architecture & Urbanism, URA Centre, 7 May 2002


Question: [A question about the orientation of the blocks:] You say that only three out of fourteen blocks face west. That is over 20%. I think in any public housing estate, if not in private housing, that would constitute a very high percentage. How do you resolve that? I saw your earlier diagram of a zigzag sort of east-west orientated blocks. I thought that was quite interesting because you’d probably get maybe 100% north-south facing and yet your end result was over 20% of west-facing. So that is one aspect I could not reconcile.

Khoo Peng Beng: When we started looking at the blocks, the first thing we did was to do the number crunching. And if you look at the typical floor plan, it’ll be one court to six units. We found this to be the most efficient typical block plan and then we started to lay that out onto the site. After much trial and error, we arrived at this particular layout. Basically, now we have to look at the criteria for choosing this scheme. We looked at the block-to-block facing and west-facing. Obviously we chose a more open scheme in favour of one that would have been denser. When it came to the west-facing, we looked at our site analysis. Actually, the third face is semi-protected by the other blocks. Half of the year it’s actually protected, so we thought ok, that’s quite good. But for the two faces we were most concerned about we proposed sunscreens. So the sunscreens are intended to cut off the heat gained from the wall up onto the glass, and the wall is actually fully insulated. In the first stage the jury’s comment was to ask us to look into devices that could prevent the heat gain. So the screen actually adds a new dimension to the façade and we are basically developing that.

Question: I’ve noticed that you have paid a lot of attention to people and units. Can you show us how your plan will accommodate 1200 cars?

Belinda Huang: One of the criteria which we didn’t mention was that we didn’t want a very deep, very dark basement. So what you have are actually three levels of car-parks and we have a service route along the periphery of the blocks; that means along the edge of Duxton Plain, round the back and past the CC. So that takes care of the service zone and the central part. Basically, we planned the car park according to the most efficient car parking grid. So we were able to put the numbers of required car parks on three levels. And talking about the levels, we go up on one level and then down three levels, so there’s more room.

Goh Hup Chor: Basically the buildings are in the South, so in the central areas, there are very big spaces. They can develop very efficient car-parks.

Question: I’d like you to tell us something about your position on the wards in brief. How do you think this development will blend in with the rest of the city and could bring alive to us something different at certain point maybe.

Khoo Peng Beng: We are actually very happy with the brief. Because it’s full of restrictions and at the same time it allows and calls for innovation. We tried to comply hundred percent, react to every requirement, and we even tried to provide solutions that answer to requirements of the same type and thereby pushing our solutions further and further. So, when the technical comments came back for stage two, we made sure that we attacked a hundred percent. And then we even set further restrictions on ourselves. We told ourselves, “Don’t dig too deep, okay.” If you win this competition you have to think trees. So I suppose you’re going to be in trouble. So we said, “Don’t dig too deep.” Try to provide natural ventilation to the car-park, you know. And provide natural lighting to the car-park as well.

Question: I wonder whether you could clarify something: In your dimpled block, you have six units to a floor and there’s a central courtyard and there is also a bridge. So it’s not apparent to me from the drawing, how much daylight you would get for buildings in the middle, which are facing the bridge as compared to the two end-blocks.

Khoo Peng Beng: Quite an interesting question. When we drew out this core, those areas were exactly the areas we felt quite uncomfortable about. So what we tried to do was to balance the efficiency of the core and try to push the blocks as far apart as possible. We achieved 7.5m. And the next move we did was to make the link-ways as thin as possible and all the vertical elements to be as porous as possible so that we could gain maximum ventilation and also maximum light penetration. In fact, the windows facing the internal courtyard are actually from the kitchen and the toilets. We felt that the amount of windows we gave to the front aspect is sufficient for the unit - for all the main rooms. So, I think in any high-density kind of housing there will be trade-offs and for us it is basically to control this deficient element and to make it workable and still acceptable.

Question: I also noticed that in one-third of all units you have to pass through this so-called void, which is actually along the kitchen windows. Now that is not a very happy solution, I believe. The next thing is also within the apartment right, two-thirds of all units you’ll have pretty long corridors. Apart from the bed room corridors, the entrance corridor must be amounting to 3 or 4 m in length. This in either public housing or private housing is generally not acceptable because you throw away a lot of the useable space. Would you promise to review this?

Khoo Peng Beng: Yes.

Question: The next thing is your “flying green”. All your perspectives show very beautiful open-sided views of the city. But I think more than sixty percent of the time you are actually behind the gigantic columns. Is this space really conducive? On one side big columns, on the other side lift lobbies, M&E rooms, and all that you consider as sixty percent of your running track.

Khoo Peng Beng: First the corridor:. Okay, in the core area, our corridors are bounded by screens. Obviously, when we try to develop these screens, we will be keeping in mind the view angles. The intention was actually to allow air and light in, but to prevent views of the units. We’ve also tilted these screens to have a sense of space, you know, a bigger perceived space. Within the units, I’ll promise to look into this corridor. We’ll definitely be developing the units further. Belinda has something to add.

Belinda Huang: I think when we first set out the hybrid-block solution, we also tried to maximise the gaps between the end to end of the blocks, so that on the corridor, we felt that, yes, on the left and on the right as you walk you will see the screens but that in itself would be an aesthetic element. But it also means that at the end of the corridor and beyond, you will see light coming through if you don’t see an enclosed space or a dark courtyard. So that’s what I want to add. And on the corridors within the units itself, I think one of the criteria that we kept very, very close to was that flexible space. That very regular band within the main unit and that’s why some of these corridors have appeared.

Khoo Peng Beng: Next, the jogging tracks: The floor height at this area is 6 m. The column basically occurs at regular intervals. So, if you’ve been to the Vatican City, the columns are in front. You have the columns on two sides and a very high area. Here, if you imagine running every 30m, you come out into an opening. You run another 30m in the colonnade and you come out to another opening. Then you make a U[-turn], then you run through 30m of colonnade again. And through the colonnade, you see the city. I don’t think it’s too bad an experience.

Question: The questions that arise are these: All of us struggle with the brief, and the double loaded corridors are major issues because by double-loading you could minimise the length and therefore you can play with the block. But the trade-off as you said is the quality of the internal space in between units and there are also subsequent dilemmas with the unit. Now, the question is: How would you reflect on the competition now – about your joy in winning – for us? When you read the citation by the two external judges, it would appear that many of us and practicing architects in Singapore are not aware of this issue. That is that we all assume the technocratic role in the production of the design, that we are the “masters” and people will have to live with what we produce. Despite your concerns with the different elements and the layering and the exploitation of possible interlinks in between different kinds of programmatic spaces and so on. The fact is that you are deciding these things, right? For example, the balconies that you distribute into the façade: Some people would not want have a balcony and others would and that is the decision that you made and they have no say. So this is the type of technocratic top-down kind of situation. I just wonder how you’ll fight with this when you read the comments regarding this because the Alsop scheme was a counter-thesis which says that the variety and the options for choice should arise from the bottom-up and not from the top-down. How do you fight that now?

Question: [From another member of the audience.] This will help you in the meanwhile, while you’re thinking. I’m not sure whether you know about the Byker Wall in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the UK. Your space is probably a split up Byker Wall. Kheng Soon is talking about the bottom up approach. Byker Wall was reputed to have run the risk of getting the tenants involved and those are tenanted public housing involved on the ground and the added-on balconies and ledges here and there and different colours to the walls via citizens’ participation from the ground up. I presume you could say you can ballot for the unit with balcony. But it’s something worth thinking about; how you have this so-called plug in plug out approach and fully explore this opportunity for the people to take over these spaces.

Khoo Peng Beng: I think it’ll be great if you could just log-on to the Internet and click the items that you want and send. And then one of the big contractors will put these up. I think you can do that for bicycles. Sometimes, I think if you’re talking about cars basically customised mass production. Essentially, the website is linked to the factory and the factory produces, so the cars coming out of the production plant will have your name on it and red seats for this car, black seats for that car. I suppose eventually public housing might happen like that. Reading the brief, we also read some technical and basically practical reasons that stop us from presenting something like that. And I suppose, if you look at our plug-in system, we could quite easily allow the people to choose. I think that that decision has many levels of consideration which maybe we should continue to think about. At this stage of development, I think what we are proposing is moving closer to something like that. As for a citizen design, we can see a lot of that happening already and some of the results might be interesting. It might not be exactly something what the Town Council or any developer in Singapore may be happy about. And yet we can learn from these projects and try to find the line between them. I think for us to push the boundary over the edge is not one of the criteria we set out to do. We have tried to walk the fine line and hopefully one day we can get customisable buildings available.

Question: Hi, I’m from HDB. But I’m not talking about HDB here because I happen to be from Tanjong Pagar CCC as well, so I’m quite familiar with the site. Because being in Chinatown is a very active place. And I noticed your theme is a very inward-looking in the sense that you decide everything for the development. What about the surrounding development? Would you allow entrances from the very nice pedestrian walkway into your complex and use the space as well? If so, I’d like to criticise it. There’s an architect holding the point of view that the block design is quite worrying especially at the corridor where the two flats peek into each other and there is a big watch [clock?] looking down on this store, you know… quite scary. But perhaps, talking about the environment around it, how do you relate the surroundings and the design?

Khoo Peng Beng: Our reaction to the urban context was not on the purely physical level. As you can see from my attempt to explain the approach that we took. We had tried to connect back to the city. We were thinking that it is a completely private surface, meaning that you can just walk straight on. There is also a compromise regarding the privacy of the residents, so we actually tried to create a new ground defined by a slope, so it’s still open and you can still walk out if you want to. But people will know when you’ve arrived at the central court of Duxton Plain housing and when they have left the city. Although the boundary is not fixed, we don’t need a sign that says you cross this line of this fence you’re into the development. So we’ve made a little hill to connect back to the city and that’s on a physical level. I think as to the accessibility... I think if you’re working in Tanjong Pagar and you feel like surfing the net, going for a cup of coffee at the café, I think you’re okay, you can do that. But I think the Town Council is thinking very hard about whether you can go on 26th and the roof. Because they think that if a lot of Singaporean are allowed to go on to the roof you’ll have a problem. So that we’ll have to discuss further. So maybe we’ll open it up some time.

Question: I’d like to say that I’m very encouraged by how you’ve transformed a functional science into a kind of personal aesthetic science. But as you have highlighted earlier, with the views of your “flying green”, these spaces of potential could become a privatised space although it is a public housing project. So perhaps it is time actively to look for a new solution to the use of those public spaces – meaning that that they are open to every Singaporean until the novelty wears out. This has to be a new solution.

Goh Hup Chor: I think that basically the main point is that we must not forget they’re HDB houses. The HDB is the landowner and they decide how they want to market the two types of units. They’ve specifically asked for two types. There are two types of apartment blocks. How they want to market it out… If they, as you say, if they talk about these balconies and if they market off early and everybody can choose whether they want a balcony or not. So that is one thing to think about, for the HDB owners to think about. The second thing about using the space is where the Town Council comes into play. The Town Council manages these and some of these programmes on how to sustain it, how you are going to use it as it has to be given by the community there – whether they want to have private and public domain names or they want really purely private domain at certain areas, semi-public domains and so forth. These are issues where the Town Council must come into play.

Khoo Peng Beng: I think you can go up to the Merlion or the Empire State Building the same way you can go up to Duxton Plain and maybe pay $5.00 or $25.00. Certainly, there are a lot of possibilities here, and being a new kind of real estate, a lot of thought would be put into the implementation of these ideas.

Question: I’m quite happy with the process you have come up with, the circuit board, both vertically and horizontally. And the way you brought in The Matrix into the design. Now I’ll like to know what you think will be the makeup of the people who will stay there. And when the project is completed in years to come, what do you think will be the factor that will make people choose this apartment over another apartment, whether public or private. What is your intention?

Khoo Peng Beng: Interestingly enough, the photographer from Lianhe Zaobao, who took our photograph during the award ceremony, is living there now. And he said that he is going to wait for the new flats to come up so that he can book a new unit. Because I think they are given priority booking. Also, I think I’ve seen a lot of relatives coming and having a look at the flat and I think they feel happy enough to want to live there. I think, also this site has a lot going for it. Near Tanjong Pagar, it’s near Outram and a stone’s throw away from Chinatown. So I think that’s going to be a big draw, plus the fact that it’s going to have a lot of nice view sand facilities here so that’s what will prompt me to buy a unit here.

Belinda Huang: Extendable units. You can actually grow your house.

Question: When I first saw the model from afar, I thought the judges really made a mistake. But I think after looking at the scheme, the models and the drawings, and especially after listening to your presentation, I’m convinced that you deserve to win. But after having said that, nothing is perfect in the world and I don’t think this scheme is perfect but what struck me is that you have made a very interesting proposal of this communal living and I think that’s what public housing is all about. You have succeeded in coming up with this interesting layering, different levels of communal space, and from one end you run to the other end. And of course, before I listened to you, I hadn’t realised that you can even jog from the lift up to a different floor. I feel what you fail to explore is really this kind of space. But I must say that, I must also say that the individual blocks are pretty standard and of course those negative comments are quite valid. There are basically a series of blocks put together in a snake or an S-shape linked together. And from a certain angle, you see nothing but buildings. […] But I think the other side of the coin is the sky dish and the big atrium space: I think it has become some kind of a mega structure. Whether you accept mega structure for public housing or not, it is up to the individual to judge, you see. But I think the positive end is that it has scored some merit there. I think it has raised multi-levels of community space. I think it has raised the public housing standard to a higher level.

Khoo Peng Beng: I think from what we gather, the judges’ reaction to the Great Wall of China, was the Great Screen of China because of the urban windows created. They also mentioned that if we didn’t put the sky bridges or the sky green on, then we wouldn’t have got the prize. So I guess I’m really happy we put the green in, and also created these urban windows. We had actually debated quite strongly about this. It is a very bold thing to have a big wall and a lot of energy was put in making the urban windows as big as possible. So we have reached a stage now where we are at this stage. But certainly we will not stop our development here. We will try to push it and address again the aired out issues… the central units… and continue to develop new solutions. Thank you very much for all your comments.

Question: I just want to have the last question. You have talked about the programme, the layering, the matrix… What were your influences on this sort of thinking or lines of theory that you were following in your analysis and your design as well?

Khoo Peng Beng: I think we like to think mathematically. In JC, Belinda did further maths. I was doing Pure Science. And basically, we came from a very scientifically oriented background. I think all that bears a great influence on our thinking. Our office plays a lot of network games. So again, I think that has an impact on the way we perceive the programme. I think all young, fledgling architecture firms cannot afford not look into FOAs. We looked at Professor [name unclear]’s works to see what he likes. So I think these are some of the heavily-referenced journals in our office.

Question: I may be wrong, but I think a flat skyline is quite fantastic for jogging, but wouldn’t it be monotonous…? Would it be more interesting if some were high and some low?

Belinda Huang: Actually, we cannot really quite explain it, but there are level changes on all levels.

Khoo Peng Beng: I think we will try to see how we can look into that. I guess to make a difference, what good would it do if you only moved up two metres? To make a difference, you must move up quite a lot. And given that space, it will not be achievable.

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Last modified: 31 October 2002