Safdie Architects: Charu Kokate

In Conversation / 1st Quarter 2022

Safdie Architects: Charu Kokate

by Bhawna Jaimini

March 17, 2022

Charu Kokate is a Partner at Safdie Architects and Director of the Singapore office. She grew up in India before moving to the United States where she finished her Masters in Architecture from Pennsylvania State University. Kokate has led an impressive number of projects across the world, including iconic buildings like Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort and the Jewel Changi Airport in Singapore. She has also led key projects, most recently residential developments inspired by Habitat ’67, Safdie’s iconic building in Montreal, Canada. The recent projects include Altair Residences in Sri Lanka and Sky Habitat in Singapore. We spoke about the relevance of Habitat ’67 today, and challenges of housing issues in Asia, alongside climate change.

BJ: What is it about Habitat ’67 that still makes it relevant, more than 50 years later? You have led several housing projects—from Sky Habitat in Singapore to Altair Residences in Sri Lanka—which are iterations of the original complex.

CK: I would refrain from calling these projects as iterations. These projects have evolved to respond to the culture, context and site of every project while maintaining the core principle of Habitat, which is to create humane, communal living by connecting architecture to nature. In Habitat ’67, Moshe dared to rethink the design of apartment buildings by breaking away from the traditional form of orthogonal high-rise structures, by stacking the prefabricated concrete boxes three dimensionally in different geometrical configurations, which resulted in roof gardens for everyone, with maximised natural light and fresh air, qualities which were unprecedented for a 12-storey apartment complex. This philosophy of treating every apartment like a house has not changed. We all love to have houses with terraces and balconies where we can step out and feel the sun on our skin. This is the core philosophy we have carried over to these projects.

BJ: Habitat ’67 was meant to be public housing, but why were the later versions of the project, including the ones you have worked on, in the category of luxury housing?

CK: As architects, we really can’t control the category of housing we are offered to design. There is such a dearth of well-designed affordable housing because people expect it to be cheap. Good design is not necessarily expensive; it is possible to make well-designed buildings without creating an Altair or a Qorner Tower. In the industry, I often see embedded in the psyche of both designers and developers a tendency to say, “this is low income, don’t bother with it.” I find this depressing because you don’t really save on design.

You can save on finishes, materials etc., but a simple, well-designed residential building with good natural lighting and ventilation should not be expensive. Singapore has great examples of government housing projects that demonstrate this philosophy. I hope this pandemic changes this mentality because it has only strengthened the need for having buildings that work for people—liveable, well ventilated spaces with access to nature for everyone.

BJ: Housing continues to be a challenge for cities of the Global South that are constantly playing catch up to the demands of an increasingly urbanised population. According to you, how can leading architecture firms like yours contribute to solving this issue?

CK: The cities in Asia are getting denser as people migrate from villages to the cities. Urban density is a major issue and has to be resolved with a holistic approach. Apartment buildings cannot be designed like office glass towers where people are unable to open windows for ventilation, and massive amount of the glazed façade adds to the heat inside the apartments. We have always looked at projects from a multidisciplinary point of view. When we design an apartment building, we study its impact on the neighbourhood, analyse traffic and study the surrounding landscape before we arrive at the final solution.

A few years ago, our office decided to re-explore the idea of Habitat ’67 and examine the essential ideas behind it as part of an independent year-long research fellowship called Habitat of the Future. The research examined options in high-density cities and locations where land is scarce and there is increasing pressure for high-density residential and mixed-use projects. The result of the investigation led to different theoretical housing typologies and options with the goal of creating naturally lit, properly ventilated indoor and outdoor spaces. This in turn resulted in new projects of varying scales across the globe, including Sky Habitat, Altair Residences, Qorner Tower and Habitat Qinhuangdao.

There is such a dearth of well-designed affordable housing because
people expect it to be cheap. Good design is not necessarily expensive.

BJ: How will the architecture of housing in Asia be affected by climate change? What changes are already in effect now or will be inevitable in the next five years?

CK: Climate change is a real issue and needs to be addressed in design and construction throughout the world. Whether it is housing or other building types, designs will have to be more flexible to adapt to the temperature changes. The location of a building plays a key role in the design. We cannot mimic designs from the Western world in India where the temperature conditions are very different. Consumption of energy through our buildings is one the most important aspects of architecture. Sustainability and reducing carbon footprint will have to drive key decisions about architecture for all building types. There are two aspects of sustainability. One is the engineering of it where we deploy these complex automated systems and the other aspect is what takes us to the basics of design and architecture. As designers, we need to focus more on the latter part, where most of the needs of a human being are met passively by maximising ventilation and minimising dependence on artificial sources of cooling/heating or lighting.

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RELATED STORY: Showcase | Habitat ’67: Critique on a Classic & Its Modern Interpretations

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