WONG MUN SUMM & RICHARD HASSELL
Partners, WoHa Design, Singapore
As two of the best-known architects of a generation to emerge from Singapore, Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell—collectively known as WoHa—are arguably as influential as policy-makers in describing what makes for a well tempered environment. Beneath the glossy stylishness of their oeuvre, there is a quest for calm; a search for cohesion and order. FuturArc Chief Editor, Dr Nirmal Kishnani, discovers that their definition of well-being goes beyond air-conditioning and is often the starting point of conversations at their drawing board.
The following are excerpts from the interview.
NK: Let's jump right in on the subject of well-being. How do you rationalise what the occupant desires from your building? With multiple users—or in speculative developments, where you cannot know the user—is it even possible to answer that question?
RH: We start from the fact that people can't be that different from each other, and what we like—if we take off the architect hat—will be what most people want. But there are definitely cultural differences, and happiness, in the end, has a lot to do with having choice. If you have the window you don't like, you can choose to paper it up. But if you must face a concrete wall all day, you've been forced into a situation.
NK: Papering up a window is not really a choice though; it's an act of defiance.
RH: Or maybe it's just a way of customising the environment to what you like! [laughs] The next person coming along can always rip down the paper and still enjoy the view.
NK: So it's about extrapolating what you know and expect. But that 'architect's hat' continues to give us environments that are oddly uncomfortable, for instance full height glass façades in apartment buildings in which occupants, without fail, keep blinds closed. There is often a gap between what the architect thinks is comfortable, and what people actually want.
RH: Moulmein Rise has full height clear glass but we also have day blinds and blackout blinds. During the day, I can pull down the day blinds to control the glare—they allow a filtered view. And then at night, when you got all those spectacular city lights, you pull all the blinds up.
WMS: Most people use the shades and blinds in the way we intended. But there is always one black sheep who literally pastes dark film onto the windows. But that's a personal choice; maybe he likes a really dark apartment. At the end of the day we have to generalise, to narrow it down a bit.
NK: It comes down to degrees of freedom, creating layers of interface as opposed to seeking a definition of an universal occupant; air-conditioning need not be the default option.
WMS: In Singapore you've got to accept air-conditioning. But you have to give users the option of turning off the air-conditioning and having it naturally ventilated. I must admit that I don't use the monsoon window (in my apartment in Moulmein Rise) unless it's the end of the year when it's cool and breezy, and rains quite often. Then the air-conditioning switches off.
RH: When we design bungalows for instance, we are aware that many families want to open up the house during the day. But they then want to be able to fully air-condition it at night. Our very first challenge as a team was solving these problems: how do you make a tropical house that can be fully opened up, but still have this option of closing.