Cubes / An Architecture from Within

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Issue C74 June/July 2015

An Architecture from Within

The duality of quiet elegance and boldness in Chang Yong Ter’s architecture reflects a contemplative and original mind.


The adage ‘actions speak louder than words’ comes to mind when one encounters Chang Yong Ter – a man of genteel demeanour and few words unlike his more verbose colleagues. In this case, it is his architecture that stands confidently on its own without the need of lengthy or flowery descriptions.

Founder and principal of Chang Architects, his oeuvre is rich in ideas and bold in execution. There is a consistency in the themes he explores, a key obsession being the incorporation of nature into his spaces: in the 19 Jalan Elok house, for instance, trees cutting through the core and interior green walls – now a ubiquitous element in many projects but then, considered an anomaly – create a backdrop for the daily rhythm of family life; in a more recent project, the Lucky Shophouse has an extension that sits in a garden, detached from the main house to provide the occupants a thorough experience with the elements.

Chang is also not known for following conventions. His 137 Joo Chiat Place project is a widely publicised project, designed in collaboration with architects Leong Teng Wui and Andrew Lee featuring a heritage façade that belies a bold, completely modern and open interior that provides its occupants with an unblocked picture-frame view of the azure sky.

While daring, these buildings also exhibit soulfulness in spirit, as well as delight in experience. The originality in Chang’s architecture has garnered the firm many accolades, including for the abovementioned projects, several President’s Design Award ‘Design of the Year’ laurels and Singapore Institute of Architect Architectural Design Awards.

To Chang, these awards are important for the fact that they add weight to his words. “[With the awards], I can ask for higher fees, and there is more command in what I say. To be convincing I need track records, because I’m not a good speaker,” he says matter-of-factly. While he shares that the validation from peers is not vital, it is indeed encouraging. “As an architect or artist, you don’t need approval from others as long as you do what is right. But at the end of the day, it’s nice to be accepted,” he adds, chuckling,” life is much easier that way.”

For someone who came into the profession by chance, Chang has done very well. It was a classmate who suggested he apply for the architecture course at the National University of Singapore. “Architecture wasn’t on our minds at that period of time; in Singapore’s [pragmatic] education system, for guys, it was always engineering or combined sciences as choices [when applying to university]. But I thought architecture could be more interesting,” Chang shares.

Even when he applied for the course, he wasn’t quite sure what he was getting into. “Back then, even the arts weren’t thriving. I went for orientation talks and the questions people asked were: ‘is architecture part of engineering?’ or ‘what kind of engineering is architecture?’” says Chang, amused at the recollection.

But after getting into the course, he realised it was just the right fit for him. “I found out how important the role of an architect is. Also, it’s a very interesting course to go through because it really opens up your world view; it’s about many aspects of life – not just about human beings, but also about materials, about context, etc…about almost everything in this world,” says Chang.

An insatiable curiosity and sensitivity to the world at large and its workings are important traits in creating truly inspiring architecture, and they are definitely inherent in Cheng. Additionally, he lets on that he has gained an understanding of the “spirit of practice” from local architecture stalwart Tang Guan Bee while doing his internship.

“Before I joined Mr Tang, I was at ADDP. They have a very wide portfolio; it’s exciting in that sense but it can be quite demoralising as it’s very commercially driven. I was in quite low morale so halfway through my internship I went to join Mr Tang. He should have been the one I went to in the first place but [on hindsight] it was a blessing in disguise as I got to [experience] both types of practices,” says Chang.

At Tang’s it wasn’t so much about the specific projects than it was “how to approach design, how to approach clients, how Mr Tang pushed his ideas through in a very persistent, very street-smart way,” describes Chang of this “spirit of practice”. It was also here that Tang’s defiant nature rubbed onto him. “There has to be some sense of rebelliousness in us, I believe. Otherwise we will just be followers [rather than creators],” says Chang of the approach to architecture.

Five years into working for Tang, he had a chance to strike out on his own. It wasn’t altogether by choice, he shares. The recession came and so did friends with opportunities. That was the year 2000. It proved to be a good decision. Just four years later, the design of his Cambridge House landed him a place in the notable URA exhibition and book ‘20 under 45: A Selection of Works by Under-45, Singapore-registered architects.’

Going beyond the challenge of a stringent budget, the Cambridge House is a simple construct with the elegant application of ubiquitous materials: a front façade of glass bries soleil lets in breeze, while running the full height of the side elevation is a wall of solar-insulated glass blocks that stamps the architecture with a crystalline quality at night.

This inventive but honest use of materials is another characteristic of Chang’s architecture. “I prefer very much natural materials in their raw states as much as possible,” he comments. In another project, the Lucky Shophouse, paint is stripped from the walls to reveal aged bricks, which are then exposed, complementing the wide use of timber.

Concrete is a material that Chang has been experimenting with more of late. He admits that he had originally avoided its use for fear that it would trap too much heat in our tropical climate. But his fears would dumbfound when he tested its use on the Namly House, where a careful arrangement of spaces ensured thorough natural ventilation and cool interiors.

Another characteristic that defines Chang’s architecture is the considered composition of spaces to frame vistas and orchestrate movements in space. These manoeuvres create subtle connections between spaces and among occupants. For instance, in the Florence Road House, the plan reads as a linear series of alternating internal spaces and outdoor courtyards and in section, large openings lead the eye through a layered cake of visual depth; in an older project, the Framed House as its name implies, a sectional series of portals stretching from the front to the back of the house introduces indirect light and views into the house the portals differ in height.

Since setting up his office, Chang has worked alone, with ad-hoc staff along the way. It was only recently that he took in a permanent colleague. Assistant architect Goh Chiaw Meng had previously applied for a place in Chang’s office but it wasn’t until two years ago that Chang was able to take him in. A stint at RSP Architects before joining Chang proved to be helpful for Chang’s practice. “It’s great having Chiaw Meng [in the office] as he is equally passionate about architecture and the practice,” says Chang. “He is more like a colleague to me than an assistant. I believe in engaging one who is more capable than me, and he is one such person.”

With the larger commissions he is getting – though the bulk still comprises single-dwelling residences – this help is essential. “My projects are getting bigger in scale, and the requirements are more complex because the later projects deal with multi-generational living so the relationship between spaces have to be more sophisticated,” he explains. The base approach however, such as the inclination towards bringing plants indoor, is still very much the same, he adds.

The GCB House is an amalgamation of all these qualities and their accompanying challenges, allowing Chang to stretch the extent of his exploration: here, the unique application of modest materials takes the form of a unique charcoal cladding that clothes the façade like a floral skin, and recycled railway sleepers for the flooring the art deco-like main door. The extensive incorporation of plants also evokes a bucolic modern-day Eden.

In this project, Chang also reveals his resourcefulness, melding practicality with artistry. For example, the cleansing nature of the charcoal façade purifies rainwater that is stored for usage in the development, while passion fruit plants creeping up a screen is a natural shield against the neighbours and also the harsh western sun. A pond inserted at a retaining wall with a history of leakage is an innovative manner to turn a problematic situation into a pleasant feature.

The humility in creating an architecture that serves its occupants – rather than to create objects of spectacle and self-glory – aligns with Chang’s character. It is all the more obvious when one visits his office, a modest space on the second storey of a nondescript row of shops at the base of Mount Faber. Here, there is no expensive artwork or designer chairs, only the rare sound and smell of nature from a window. Teh Tarik from the coffee shop downstairs is Chang’s common beverage of choice.

It was by serendipity that he discovered this location, having upon it when making a wrong turn one day while jogging. “It is the forest of Mount Faber just right behind and the setting of this place [that attracted me],” he shares. The contemplative atmosphere hers is important for Chang, who is a keen practitioner of meditation methods such as tai chi and yoga, which he picked up as research for his final project in school. Meditation is what puts him in a state of mind for the creative juices to flow.

This image is in keeping with the mellowness of the architect. When asked what is it that keeps his architecture fresh and original, he points to his heart – “it comes from inside,” he quips without pause. And suddenly, it is also clear where the poetry in Chang’s creations stem from.