Issue DA84 Feb/March 2015
The steely white box that encases HYLA Architects’ Courtyard House belies the tropical respite within.
Located along a row of semi-detached houses in the West of Singapore, the Courtyard House stands as an anomaly against its more decorated neighbours. Its façade is a straight-laced, blank white wall with only a sliver of openings on the side giving clue to the occupants’ happenings within.
Designed by HYLA Architects, the Courtyard House contains three stories with an attic above and a semi-sunken basement containing the car park and storage spaces. The basement, while termed as such, is almost level with the road, thus rendering the first storey as a raised level high above the entrance. One can either choose to enter the house via an internal staircase through the car park or an open-air staircase.
Upon entering the living room on the first storey, it is apparent why HYLA Architects’ founder and the house’s architect Han Loke Kwang has christened this project the Courtyard House. In the middle of the rectilinear space, he has carved out a prominent courtyard. Lining it with a thick band of timber not only emphasises its importance within the home, but has the effect of framing an artwork, which in this case is a solitary frangipani tree floating above a pond of azure mosaic – a poetic mise-en-scene of nature.
Courtyards are a common feature in many Singaporean homes for the simple and effective way in which they inject natural light and ventilation indoors but they are usually applied in a straightforward manner, as a double- or triple-storey volume of space bounded by four vertical surfaces. Han’s courtyard here is different, but in a good way. First of all, with the pond raised to seating height on the first storey, it is part-feature, part-furniture. Secondly, Han has extended the courtyard diagonally to the second storey such that one entire face of the house is open, in effect doubling not only the porosity of the house but also the lushness of green for the occupants to enjoy.
That Han is able to allocate a generous floor area to the courtyard helps in this feeling of openness. “In Singapore, a lot of people have courtyards in their homes but they’re very small and so feel compromised, especially in semi-detached houses. But this particular semi-detached house has a generous size, though it is also necessary to [act as a green relief] to the expressway nearby,” he explains.
The expressway in question is in the direction of the house’s front façade. This, together with a substation across the road, led to Han’s decision to position the courtyard in the middle of the house. The more private spaces – the master bedroom, child’s bedroom and husband’s study retreat – are positioned behind while the more common spaces such as the living room, wife’s open study, family room, guestroom and open roof terrace sit in front as a buffer of sorts.
The largely blank white wall on the front façade also echoes the defensive nature of the front of the house. “Although it’s a large building, the [faceless] façade also enables it to have a respectful scale,” Han lets on.
With the main staircase aligned alongside the courtyard and the façade of the rooms around given ample glazing, ambling about the house has the joyful effect of being in a tree house, albeit a more sophisticated version. The lattice of dark-stained Chengai screens lacing the internal courtyard adds to this effect, while the access to nature is delightfully palpable from almost every aspect of the interior.
Aside from framing the internal garden, the aforementioned screens also act as a sun-shading device. Along the periphery of the living room, they feature a more intricate notching pattern as they become horizontal sunscreens. These dark brown screens, together with the dark grey floor tiles and aluminium door and window frames, provide the house with a contemplative mood. The client, Han shares, requested for this dark-toned palette. It effectively acts as a backdrop, which helps to put focus on the spatial qualities of the house.
The Courtyard House is one of the many delicately designed houses in HYLA Architects’ portfolio. Unlike some architects who resort to a standard, recognisable formula, each of Han’s houses are unique in aesthetic; each is an opportunity for a different architectural exploration.
“We don’t have a single style, so the houses are quite different,” says Han. “But we have a standard approach: to apply the values I believe in – that architecture should be very honest, simple, direct, unpretentious and focus on the creation of space. I keep the forms very simple; I don’t try to make them fancy. It is what it is; the design is the result of the space planning so the house has integrity. By doing that the design won’t go out of fashion,” he adds.
While the spatial design of Han’s houses is kept simple, it is another story when it comes to exploring details. An example is in the way his bathrooms are designed – no two are the same. “We enjoy designing bathrooms, actually, we enjoy designing all kinds of details,” says Han. And so in the Courtyard House, the powder room has an interlocking screen-counter that echoes the motif of timber screens throughout the house, while the child’s bathroom is treated with a playful splash of aqua mosaic tiles; the guest bathroom experiments with hardy solid surface on the walls; and the master bathroom has been given a tropical touch with a planter lit from above with a skylight.
The staircase is another architectural element that Han clearly enjoys detailing. Here, the threads of the main staircase that cantilevers from the wall continues the language of the timber screens, while a curving wall cocoons a discreet spiral staircase leading form the third storey to the husband’s study on the attic, lit from above by a circular skylight.
“Good ideas beget great designs. But design is nothing without detail and finesse. It’s the little things that matter,” reads the manifesto on HYLA Architects’ website. Indeed, as the Courtyard House shows, this has led to a home that is equally genuine in spirit as it is refined in quality and delightful with surprising encounters that enliven the daily lives of its users.