Inside the Singapore Studio

27 August 2015

With the spotlight on Singapore this year as it celebrates 50 years of independence, Benoy takes a look inside the firm’s Singapore Studio to see what is influencing the team and its projects. Divisional Director Terence Seah who leads the 30-strong studio of designers shares his insight into Asia's ‘City within a Garden’ and designing for the region. 

Terence, you have studied and worked internationally, learning from some of the world’s best planned and designed cities; if you could, what changes would you make to Singapore in terms of its urban design and the types of buildings being developed? 

I think Singapore has now achieved a good balance with high-density living after 15 years of planning and implementation. In many ways, the seeds and strategy were formulated a long time ago with some adjustments made along the way.

If I could change anything, it would be in the area of social infrastructure, urban realm and breeding difference and character in Singapore. This would be the cherry on top in terms of urban design in this city and would bring that elusive richness which we see in first class world cities such as London or New York.

When urban design and building stock are over controlled, it leaves no room for accidents and the unexpected. I guess this has been some of the usual criticism of Singapore and its overly well-planned design. A good mix of old-fashioned top-down planning and bottom-up initiatives would be the perfect mix towards maintaining a balance between an efficient and creative city.

Singapore has a wonderful mix of old and new, with shophouses and Colonial buildings alongside innovative skyscrapers and modern architecture; how difficult is it to balance these two opposing typologies when designing?

I don’t think it’s too hard when you look at design holistically in terms of a shared heritage of the city. Strategic conservation which looks at a precinct rather than singular buildings is the key to preserving certain urban fabrics.

It speaks really of a practical approach to accommodate the new and the old, the foreign and the local. This is broadly reflective of the general culture of Singapore. How we ‘glue’ the gaps of the city together is also really important. Using green belts can help in softening the contrast that results sometimes.

How the urban grain becomes juxtaposed over time is really interesting and exciting. The effects are sometimes unexpected, but they can also be quite poetic.

Singapore’s developers are increasingly looking wider afield for their new projects; which areas do you see as the future hotspots for development in the region, and where would you like to be working?

If you look at the region, transport infrastructure is and will continue to be a major growth sector across the ASEAN countries. Malaysia and Thailand, for example, have been actively developing their airport, rail and transit infrastructure. However, in doing so they have also found there are insufficiencies to cope with the demand and the issues of traffic management in their cities. It’s a similar situation in Indonesia and Vietnam, so there is quite a lot of work to do be done.

As one of the most populous parts of the world, the rise in demand for better aviation facilities is inevitable. With ASEAN’s increase in wealth comes investment, development and higher standards, which is driving the need to increase airport capabilities. This is one of the exciting areas our Singapore Studio is involved in.

We are currently working with one of the world’s most renowned airport developers and operators, Changi Airport Group, and with that, we can see the potential for what can be built and delivered in Southeast Asia.  There are untapped cultural and geographic resources across the region, and they will bring a whole new offer to the world, it’s only a matter of time.

Benoy has a sizeable order book at the moment, how do you inspire your team to continue to push the boundaries? Where do you draw your own inspiration

This may sound strange and perhaps uninspiring, but I always ask my team ‘So what?’ It was a question that I was constantly asked as a young architect and later on asked as a developer.

Basically, it’s asking what is so special, interesting or different about your proposal. It’s a very relevant question, and since my return to consultancy, it has not failed me. You know you hit the nail on the head when your answer is a design proposal or solution which is simple yet rich and complex. In all my projects and working with the teams, this is the attitude I try to impart.

I also can’t pass this up this opportunity to say I am a great Pinterest fan and find this a never ending source of inspiration. Everyone, I hope, in the studio knows of my Pinterest account. For me, social media is a really great way to gather a veritable pool of ideas. I see it as a visual vocabulary and I draw from it constantly to visually communicate with my team.

It is, however, a double-edged sword if you slavishly copy and replicate designs. But again, for me this is always tempered with that 'So what' question in my head.

Finally, what are some of the developments and projects coming up for the Singapore Studio which you are particularly excited about?

Terminal 4 at Changi Airport is really taking shape now and the team and I can’t wait to see the finished product. This will be Benoy’s first Airport Terminal, so it's a big milestone for us all. Our second project with Changi, Jewel Changi Airport has also started construction. Our Singapore Studio is collaborating with Benoy Hong Kong, so it’s been a great experience to learn and share as a team across two studios.

Looking north, 8 Conlay in Kuala Lumpur is another highlight for me. We have designed quite a unique, sculptural podium at the base of two tall residential towers. I believe it really embodies design within Southeast Asia, drawing on the landscape and the indoor-outdoor nature of living. I’m really looking forward to seeing it begin construction.

In Malaysia, we are also working on a major Transit Oriented Development (TOD) in Selangor – Subang Jaya City Centre. This scheme will completely transform its surrounding area and is leading the way in terms of enhanced transport infrastructure, connectivity and services in the country.

 

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