Twenty years have passed since I last saw Ling Hao, the award-winning architect of the eponymous Linghao Architects, a Singapore-based practice established in 2000 that he currently runs as a one-man show. Going down memory lane, I became acquainted with Ling in the late 1980s through mutual friends as tertiary students in Australia. Half a decade later, our paths crossed again when Ling relocated to Singapore post-graduation to work for maverick architect Tang Guan Bee.
I then lost touch with him but in recent years, I have been reading and hearing from friends about him winning awards and that he travelled to Japan in 2015 to speak on architecture as the Singapore representative in conjunction with the Toto Gallery Ma 30th Anniversary Exhibition.
My curiosity was piqued as to how his style of design had evolved and what defined his philosophy of architecture. This was a guy who was quite the rule-breaker in his younger days, veering towards grunge and grit rather than gloss and glamour. Style-savvy and gifted with an eye for a highly evolved form of aesthetic, Ling was always resolute and confident in marching to the beat of his own drum.
I arrange to interview him in Singapore where he resides and practices, and when we meet, I notice vestiges of his appearance and mannerisms from his youth — slender, soft-spoken with that air of a creative in the artfully dishevelled way he is dressed and groomed, just a bit more weathered by age now. Ling had always been somewhat of an intellectual with a ferocious reading habit, traversing a multitude of topics from architecture (naturally) and philosophy to the arts and general fiction.
Natural intervention — Satay By The Bay
He suggests meeting at Satay by the Bay, a project he co-designed with KUU — a Shanghai-based architecture firm helmed by Satoko Seiki — and Tan Kok Meng (with whom Ling had set up Ham Architects in 1998 and which they ran for three years). The project went on to win Singapore’s President’s Design Award in 2013, the judging panel of which boasted Japanese starchitect Ryue Nishizawa (of SANAA), the youngest winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize.
Satay by the Bay — a pavilion-style open-air hawker centre on the grounds around Gardens by the Bay in Singapore’s Marina Bay — is almost shrouded by the greenery that surrounds it and cascades from its concrete roof shelter.
“The plan is a curving shape with the idea that the garden comes in through the pavilion. Inside, the food stalls are arranged in clusters and surrounded by eating areas that are always next to plants or water. As you walk around, it feels natural and flowing, as if the building is curving away. Many paths lead into and through the hawker centre to intimately link the gardens with the eating experience,” Ling tells me. “The building doesn’t have a façade and the downward-sloping roof is entirely planted. Rainwater is collected and pumped into a nearby irrigation pond and recycled for watering the plants. We chose outdoorsy finishes instead of tiles to minimise the maintenance. The plants, garden and angsana trees help a lot in making a comfortable atmosphere and to create a natural kind of environment.”
For an award-winning piece of work, Satay by the Bay to the untrained eye may appear understated, experimental and super casual. I soon discover that Ling’s design philosophy comes carefully considered and is derived from admirable purist ideals and points of view. The vocabulary he uses constantly during our conversation — scale, feeling, intimate, natural, casual, comfort, (the) everyday — provides an insight into his train of thought.
How it started — Compound House
Ling shows me some photographs of a compound house, and tells me that the word “compound” comes from the word “kampung”. “This is like the house I grew up in Kuching (his hometown). Originally, the house had concrete stilts which got covered up in the 1980s. I learnt all about ventilation from this kind of house and because I grew up in one. Also, the idea of living in a house means that the outdoors is really a part of your everyday, unlike living in a flat where your idea of living or your world is your interior, the views and so on. It’s something I’m really interested in — in the everyday. That kind of casualness is also something I’m very comfortable with. It’s one way to live within conditions that are not super controlled.”
He then tells me that Singapore’s Tiong Bharu was designed by the same architect — Singapore Improvement Trust — as an old area of flats in his hometown. “It’s the scale and everything that’s comfortable and well lived in. The scale of four-storey blocks of flats with space between the buildings gives a very nice feeling when you walk around.”
Next, he shows me photos of the offices of Tangguanbee Architects where he worked for six years. “Every Friday, we would have a barbecue in the courtyard and for me it was like the idea of being in an outdoor condition. It’s quite convivial to evoke certain kinds of feelings and a different kind of atmosphere. The original condition of the office was in a state of ruins — and the paint on the walls was peeling and plants were growing on the walls; later it was renovated. There were no lights in the space because the power had tripped, so we only had worklights but I loved it.”
Garden life — T House
After his first President’s Design Award, Ling won again in the subsequent year, in a solo effort this time, for the T house (also known as the Garden House). It was a 6m by 22m terraced house in Singapore’s Upper Thomson area, where the everyday activities of the family revolved around its proliferating garden areas located both outside and within in the interior court, the roof and assorted corners.
When I mention that the house is not a common configuration, Ling agrees. “It is really unusual in this part of the world. The client — a doctor in his thirties — was the most radical client and unlike most people, wanted a small house. The T house was only 1,200 sq ft with two levels but the whole experience feels much bigger. One of the things he wanted to do was gardening, and the minute we finished, he planted the whole house with more than 100 species. All the plants in the house were his ambition all along. The minute you go in, instead of a car porch, there’s a small roof and it’s a garden, and as you come down, it’s another garden Every time you are moving within the house, you are always next to a garden and next to the outside. You can hear cars going past outside and the birds, and later even monkeys from the nature reserve next to the house started coming in.”
All about vision
Ling admits that the opportunity to design a house like the T house made for a life-altering experience; it changed him. Even though the environment and nature’s elements preside over the T house’s bare and simple structure, it is symbolic of Ling’s ability to design transcendental spaces. His stark and monastic-like sensibility infused with an experimental approach culminates in a result that is deeply evocative and akin to watching Japanese arthouse cinema — incidentally, a film genre that resonates with Ling — with a quiet, meditative quality and subliminal effects.
At one point in the interview, Ling pays homage to the late Lee Kuan Yew for his extreme ambition with respect to the environment, of wanting plants to be a part of Singapore’s landscape right from the outset after he became prime minister — from the raintrees that are found at every 3m to 10m at old HDB estates to the tree-lined boulevards of the East Coast when one drives down from the airport to the city and the conception of Gardens by the Bay 50 years ago.
Ling says, “To be a visionary, you have to be a bit crazy, and that means you are going to upset everybody and change everybody’s lives. That’s his legacy that I’m most interested in.”
Ling’s own poetic integration of space between the built or constructed environment and the natural world makes him something of a modern visionary himself. “I think there were various interests that became clearer over time as I did more work,” he says.
Reimagination of a godown
An upcoming redevelopment of an old godown in KL reinforces Ling’s ongoing love affair with designing spaces that invite the outside world to be a part of the everyday. “We want to keep the 1920s godown as quite a pure space because of its unusual dimensions. Then the new wing would be a multi-purpose three-level building that can be used for events, functions, cafés and as workspaces for artists. The workspace area will be housed in a big shed, unenclosed by glass. Some areas are air conditioned while others are not, featuring big metal walls with gaps in between. It’s a lesson from my other projects of making spaces within terraced houses where the gaps within them allow air to move through and it’s a comfortable arrangement,” Ling explains.
“With the godown and its new extension, the external wall acts like a shield for the walls and floors inside with these kinds of similar gaps, which I think make for a different kind of feeling.”
Wonders of gaps — house between a tree and a drain
A good illustration of this element of Ling’s design of allowing gaps in the interior of a house is evident in another one of his terraced house projects. “The ground floor was made very tall and the second level doesn’t touch the wall. The gap allows air to move up and through the house, and the sun to enter the house from the sides so you get natural light that’s shadowy rather than direct. In the House between a Tree and a Drain, the top floor was an attic-like space, so mesh on this floor allows the light to travel down and air can also move up through the mesh. On the upper level, the roof slopes down in a certain way to create all these kinds of gaps and to open up the house even though it comprises three levels,” Ling explains.
“The open concept allows people living there to have a sense of togetherness and to create memories of being together as a family, especially with the trend of building bigger houses.”
One thing about Ling is his dedication to making spaces with an experiential aspect. While the focus in design at times tends to be more on how a place looks, Ling is more concerned about how a place makes one feel. It is this that fuels his interest in the everyday and creating spaces of an emotional kind is one of his ultimate goals.
Masterclass in scale and the everyday — Villa S
It may be easy to create an intimate connection between a smaller home and its environment but for a house the size of Villa S — a whopping 15,000 sq ft — Ling’s game plan took on new dimensions. “This is 10 times the size of the T house. It’s a big house in Sentosa Cove and the discussion was a house for three families to come together during weekends. For such a big house, how do we bring in the environment so wherever you go in the house, you can still feel the environment?”
To meet the tall order, the ground level of Villa S is completely open and the second level has a wraparound veranda to not only bring the exterior into the rooms but also act as a connection to the open pathways linking them. The undulating roof forms an expansive landscape with the sky while the four big courtyards inside the house allow the sun and the rain to come in, so they become part of the everyday of the house. Moving around the house through the undulating floors on each level has the effect of experiencing different sceneries unfold. One of the most recognisable and striking features of Villa S is its organic form. Ling says, “The curves make the building softer even though it is so big.”
He reflects on the many kinds of ideals in cultures with different types of engagement. He cites how a small traditional Malay kampung house of 1,000 sq ft may come with only a veranda, a room and a kitchen. The room was where they did everything — eating, sleeping and so on. It nevertheless makes a complete world, which also includes the whole jungle garden around the house. “That is their everyday. That’s their world.”
He points out how the Japanese traditional house comes with a tatami mat, similar to a Malay house. “Both of these traditional cultures didn’t have much furniture because the floor was their furniture. You sit on the floor, you do your activities on the floor; the Malays are even purer — they use their hands as utensils but that looks more elegant. I’m quite interested in that kind of scale and that kind of feeling. I’ve suddenly realised all those elegant scenes are where there are not so many things.
“Personally, my interest is something that has a close scale. Close scale means something that is meaningful and if you are making houses, it would be something that should be quite intimate. We need to think of big buildings for cities that are intimate, following from the idea that if you use a city over time, you will know all its nooks and crannies, and that’s why you want to live there over time.”
Awards, motivation and inspiration
Ling has won numerous awards: the URA Architectural Heritage Award (2007 and 2013), National Parks Board Skyrise Greenery Excellence Award (2013) and Honourable Mentions for SIA Architectural Design Award (2008 and 2012) in addition to two President’s Design Awards (2013 abd 2014). And yet, he says, he is surprised by the recognition each time.
“I guess it’s nice in that it’s like a peer review. Of course, it’s also good that people are attracted to the work you believe in, on top of international judges for the President’s Design Awards. The T house was judged by American architect and educator Michael Rotondi,” Ling explains.
“I guess both the projects (Satay by the Bay and T house) are about how to relate to the environment and the surroundings, which is something I am interested in. Even though the immediate brief comes from the clients, it’s about making something together that everybody on the team believes in, not just the architect. It’s an ambitious project for everybody. The whole point is to make a life and a world that people are going to use. I think the T house is really special because the owner really made it his world and with Satay by the Bay, the client just leaves it open with no fencing whereas another group may want to control the environment. This kind of casualness is how our lives can be more interesting and we can make something that becomes a part of someone’s life.”
As we wind up the interview, the conversation takes on a philosophical tone as Ling ponders his mission in architecture. I ask him what his definition of architecture is and he replies, “It’s thinking about how people can live and it’s very important to maintain a certain kind of thinking rather than merely fulfilling a programme. Architecture is about making a world, in the same way everyone is making a world in their own way and profession.
“If you can’t test the ideas you are interested in or you don’t believe in as a way of living, and unless it’s something really fresh, then you want to try, but to repeat is not the ambition. From the beginning, I have always tried to make all these kinds of spaces that are open to the outside and so on. More and more now, I’m interested in how to look at the everyday kind of world rather than grand themes. Travelling opens up opportunities for inspiration and I also think we establish ways of relating to the world from quite a young age and things that you hold dear from your childhood can shape you. That’s why your everyday environment is very important as it builds this way of relating.”
This article first appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Haven, which comes complimentary with The Edge Malaysia Weekly.