Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell, WOHA: (Re)Defining beauty

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Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell, WOHA: (Re)Defining beauty
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Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell, WOHA: (Re)Defining beauty

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Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell, WOHA: (Re)Defining beauty
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Can sustainable buildings be both high-performing and beautiful? In the age of social media, image is king. Is our appetite for novel forms at odds with our goals for better performance?

Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell, co-founding directors of WOHA, return to Ecogradia for the final episode of season 2. This Singapore-based practice is known for unique solutions to big problems, such as the climate crisis and urban density.

WOHA’s work aspires to create symbiotic relationships between nature, people, and architecture. The firm has changed the narrative on high-rise living in dense cities in Asia where, often, denizens are disconnected from nature and community.

Episode outline

00:02:59 Defining beauty
00:05:19 “I think we are hardwired […] to recognise that kind of deep underlying pattern in nature: that things are connected, that they’re sort of built fractally one thing above another, on scale upon scale.”
00:07:56 “We are not so worried about what people think about it, whether it’s beautiful or not. In fact, to a certain extent, we think that it’s necessary for us to do something that maybe is not defined as what is beautiful by most others.”
00:10:34 “Our buildings were composed of so many novel things in a way that people didn’t know what they were looking at. But if you call something ‘It’s a vertical breezeway’, people then start understanding its function and its form and the way they relate and then can recognise it or use it in subsequent projects.”
00:10:53 A new pattern language
00:11:58 “Critical regionalism was the kind of consensus in the late eighties, I think, between many universities — so this was something with a lot of potential. It seemed to be an escape hatch out of the international style and the sort of homogeneity of international Modernism.”
00:13:50 “This idea of sort of smaller pavilions that inhabit larger environments was, in some ways, an extension of critical regionalism and, in another way, something quite different, I think.”
00:22:22 “I think, given the choice, people would rather prefer nice fresh air than to be sealed up in a box […] It’s something, in all our projects, we try and give people the choice. I think we can never force someone to do without air conditioning in the modern city.”
00:22:56 Vertical greening
00:30:09 “We’ve always had to smuggle out innovations in a way that they become a bonus to the client.”
00:33:16 “Everyone may agree it’s a fantastic idea, but the question is: who’s going to take ownership of that?”
00:35:54 “If you look at a big smoked-glass reflective tower, even if it’s very highly performing from an environmental point of view, it has an air of foreboding that this is a product of past thinking. It causes a lot of anxiety.”
00:38:45 “We were engineering more horizontal movement within buildings rather than everyone going into lifts and then disappearing into the apartments — which condominiums mostly are. We were trying to engineer horizontal movement within buildings that encourage social interaction and a community, a spirit.”

Summary

In this episode, Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell talk of new ideas on beauty, contesting prevailing isms and styles in the process. They argue that architecture attains beauty when it fosters human-to-nature and human-to-human relationships.

WOHA’s early works were notable for unconventional forms. The ground level opened up to the outdoors whilst the upper floors were sheltered and private. These spatial patterns, appreciated in sectional drawings of the building, were described by one commentator as the ‘upside-down house’.

In subsequent bigger and taller buildings, Mun Summ and Richard continued to explore the vertical axis. There were also experiments with facade design wherein the simplest elements (e.g., sunshade, window) were repeated many times, creating a textured quality and rhythmic pattern.

WOHA’s 1 Moulmein Rise in Singapore exemplifies the firm’s early thinking on high-rise tower facades.
© Patrick Bingham-Hall

The ‘monsoon window’ of 1 Moulmein Rise in Singapore was inspired by traditional Borneo longhouses in which windows let breezes through while keeping the rain out. The project received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for its climatic innovation.

The vertical face of a ‘monsoon window’ can be sealed while the horizontal one is kept open to let the wind in, but not rain.
© Tim Griffith

The 1 Moulmein Rise tower is one apartment deep. However, The Met in Bangkok has two rows of units, staggered in plan view and separated by a void that runs the height of the building. This arrangement permits multidirectional movement of light and air. The building also has community sky gardens that are distributed vertically.

The Met in Bangkok, Thailand, is punctuated by voids and community decks.
© Patrick Bingham-Hall

Large-scale building-integrated greenery was first introduced by WOHA in Newton Suites. A full-height green wall, punctuated by cantilevered balconies, frames this residential tower in Singapore. The combination of social space and vegetation has started off a conversation on socio-ecological systems that benefits both humans and other life forms.

Newton Suites’ unique architectural features are its full-height green wall and cantilevered balconies.
© Patrick Bingham-Hall

Residents enjoy the greenery of Newton Suites by accessing sky gardens, located next to the lift lobby. This principle of stacked social spaces would later be fully realised in SkyVille @ Dawson, a public housing development, also in Singapore.

In Skyville @ Dawson, 960 apartments are subdivided vertically into four clusters, named sky villages. Each village has its own sky garden that serves 80 apartments.
© Patrick Bingham-Hall

Explaining SkyVille, Mun Summ recalls growing up in low-rise developments, no more than 10 stories high. To recreate the intimacy of those experiences, where neighbours knew each other, the building was subdivided into clusters, referred to as villages, with easy visual and audio connections from a sky garden and the furthest apartment from it.

The Duxton Plain competition was a pivotal moment for WOHA where many new ideas were test-bedded.
© WOHA

WOHA’s experiments with form began with the Duxton Plain competition for another public housing development in Singapore. Some of their initial ideas would be carried over to subsequent projects: from textured facades that adapt to climate passively to biophilic features such as green walls and unit clusters aligned around large semi-outdoor social spaces.

Socio-ecological engagement is the firm’s primary contribution to the pursuit of sustainable performance: a building performs well if it fosters neighbourly interactions and creates room for life. To deliver these goals, Mun Summ and Richard have reimagined the arrangement of parts, creating a new vocabulary of form patterns that defy old ideas about beauty.

Gallery

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Episode Notes

Keep reading if you want to deep dive into this interview’s content and get more out of it. You can also find out more about this episode’s guest/s and sponsor/s, and the team that put it all together.

This episode is brought to you by:

The Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction

The Holcim Foundation helps drive systemic change towards a more sustainable built environment. It was founded in 2003 to define and promote the key principles of sustainability for the construction sector and is committed to accelerating the sector’s transformation so that people and the planet can thrive.

The Foundation has investigated various aspects of sustainable construction via a series of roundtables and conferences with international experts. It has also recognised excellent contributions to this field with the Holcim Awards which are considered the world’s most significant competition for sustainable design.

Committed to a holistic approach that recognises the equal importance and interdependence of four key goals, the Foundation combines the collective knowledge, ideas, and solutions of our global community of experts with our recognised platform of international competitions to democratise thought leadership for the entire sector.

Today, the Holcim Foundation is proud to accompany Ecogradia’s new podcast and its host, Nirmal Kishnani, with whom we share a common goal: contribute to a just, equitable, and sustainable future via sustainable construction and design.

W  |  holcimfoundation.org

Facebook  |  Twitter  |  LinkedIn  |  YouTube  |  Instagram

This episode is brought to you by:

The Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction

The Holcim Foundation helps drive systemic change towards a more sustainable built environment. It was founded in 2003 to define and promote the key principles of sustainability for the construction sector and is committed to accelerating the sector’s transformation so that people and the planet can thrive.

The Foundation has investigated various aspects of sustainable construction via a series of roundtables and conferences with international experts. It has also recognised excellent contributions to this field with the Holcim Awards which are considered the world’s most significant competition for sustainable design.

Committed to a holistic approach that recognises the equal importance and interdependence of four key goals, the Foundation combines the collective knowledge, ideas, and solutions of our global community of experts with our recognised platform of international competitions to democratise thought leadership for the entire sector.

Today, the Holcim Foundation is proud to accompany Ecogradia’s new podcast and its host, Nirmal Kishnani, with whom we share a common goal: contribute to a just, equitable, and sustainable future via sustainable construction and design.

W  |  holcimfoundation.org

Facebook  |  Twitter  |  LinkedIn  |  YouTube  |  Instagram

As mentioned in this episode

If you heard it in this episode, we likely have a link for it right here. Click on any topics, people, buildings, places, products and/or technologies listed below to learn more about each of them.

00:05:21 “…to recognise that kind of deep underlying pattern in nature…”
Patterns in nature” | Wikipedia
00:05:27 “…that they’re sort of built fractally one thing above another…”
Fractal Geometry in Architecture” | Rethinking The Future (RTF)
00:11:58 “…Critical regionalism was the kind of consensus…”
Critical Regionalism for our time” | The Architectural Review
00:28:35 “…But your idea of systems thinking is different…”
systems thinking” | TechTarget
00:34:14 “…when you shifted from biophilic thinking…”
14 PATTERNS OF BIOPHILIC DESIGN” | Terrapin Bright Green
00:35:30 “…how people react to the otters coming back into the city…”
Brief 100-year history of how native S’pore otters vanished, returned & became a national icon” | Mothership
00:36:35 “…So, in a recent study, it was found that a WOHA project…”
The influence of building form on energy use, thermal comfort and social interaction. A post-occupancy comparison of two high-rise residential buildings in Singapore” | ResearchGate
00:49:39 “…like ‘Scale‘ by Geoffrey West or ‘The Good Ancestor’…”
Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies” | Goodreads
00:49:39 “…like ‘Scale’ by Geoffrey West or ‘The Good Ancestor‘…”
The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking” | Goodreads
00:15:04 “…Leon van Schaik was quite critical in describing our works…”
LEON VAN SCHAIK” | The London School of Architecture
00:15:10 “…So I did my masters at RMIT…”
RMIT University
00:19:13 “…and it won the Aga Khan Award for that year…”
AKDN | AGA KHAN AWARD FOR ARCHITECTURE” | Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN)/The Aga Khan Award for Architecture
00:21:09 “…HDB is a public housing in Singapore…”
Housing and Development Board” | National Library Board (NLB)/Singapore Infopedia
00:44:06 “…Was that something that you inherited from your time with Kerry Hill…”
Kerry Hill Architects (KHA)
00:44:32 “…I was really interested in the work of Emilio Ambasz…”
EMILIO AMBASZ & Associates
00:46:45 “…My dad was the lab assistant in Raffles Institution…”
Raffles Institution” | National Library Board (NLB)/Singapore Infopedia
00:49:39 “…like ‘Scale’ by Geoffrey West…”
Geoffrey West” | Santa Fe Institute (SFI)
00:14:40 “…we want to relieve our holiday in The Datai in Singapore…”
THE DATAI LANGKAWI” | The Datai
00:14:40 “…we want to relieve our holiday in The Datai in Singapore…”
Singapore” | Britannica
00:16:42 “…a residential tower in Bangkok…”
Bangkok” (Thailand) | Britannica
00:17:05 “…I think The Met happened after Duxton Plain…”
The Met” (Thailand) | WOHA
00:17:05 “…I think The Met happened after Duxton Plain…”
Duxton Plain Competition” | WOHA
00:19:02 “…which was 1 Moulmein Rise, which was our first high-rise building…”
No.1 Moulmein Rise” | WOHA
00:23:00 “…the thing that stands out about Newton Suites…”
Newton Suites” | WOHA
00:36:35 “…So, in a recent study, it was found that a WOHA project, SkyVille @ Dawson…”
SkyVille @ Dawson” | WOHA
00:37:58 “…when the government wanted to rethink public housing again in Queenstown…”
Queenstown” | National Library Board (NLB)/Singapore Infopedia
00:38:05 “…I grew up in Tanglin Halt…”
Tanglin Halt” | Wikipedia
00:43:58 “…or walking up to the Peak in Hong Kong…”
Victoria Peak” | Wikipedia
00:44:45 “…but did a building in Fukuoka…”
PREFECTURAL INTERNATIONAL HALL” | EMILIO AMBASZ & Associates
00:45:51 “…where Raffles City is at the time…”
Raffles City” | I.M. Pei Foundation
00:10:13 “…things like also the vertical breezeways, horizontal breezeways…”
Evaluation of thermal comfort and building form attributes in different semi-outdoor environments in a high-density tropical setting” | National University of Singapore (NUS)/NUS Libraries
00:20:24 “…That is your ‘monsoon window’…”
Woha Architects: If they could, they’d throw out the air-con” | Proper Foresight
00:38:36 “…where we had streets — sky streets — and sky gardens…”
Sky Gardens” | Environmental Humanities
00:39:17 “…we created these sky villages…”
Sky Ville@Dawson: Gardens in the Sky” | Architectural Record
00:23:14 “…that strikes you, the minute you see it, is this 100-metre high green wall…”
What are Green Walls – the Definition, Benefits, Design, and Greenery” | Naava

Host
Nirmal Kishnani

Producer
Maxime Flores

Managing Editor
Kruti Choksi Kothari

Editorial assistant
Abhishek Srivastava

Sound technician and editor
Kelvin Brown  |  Phlogiston

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