D+A / Making Connections

Architecture, Print Articles
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DAIssue 85 April/May 2015

Making Connections

The House of Memories by A D Lab embodies both history and the present in a poetic construct.

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Established by husband-and-wife team Warren Liu and Darlene Smyth, A D Lab is an architectural firm that has designed mainly single-family dwellings. An observation of their portfolio reveals a penchant for dynamic formal experimentation where interesting spatial experiences are carved out or the conventional domestic typology is given unexpected twists: the Moonbeam View House, for instance, has a frontal segment wrapped in mesh and a steel-cladded back portion to represent the husband and wife’s different personalities and lifestyles; in the Jalan Binchang House, the idea of openness is taken to the extreme with a large part of façade sliced away for the occupants to be at one with the elements.

And so it is with curiosity that I approach the House of Memories, a recent project in Holland Grove Terrace that garnered a honourable mention at the 2014 Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA) Architectural Design Award. Unlike the aforementioned projects, it features a more traditional form – that of a traditional pitched roof – as its key datum and together with a subdued material palette, presents a picture of genteel calm.

The pitched roof shape is popular with architects worldwide in recent years, perhaps due to the desire for a simpler architectural language in contrast to the wild architectonic gymnastics feathered by the possibilities of parametric computerisation. In some instances, it has almost become a trend. But here at the House of Memories, the reason for using this primordial form goes deeper, shares the project’s architect CJ Foo.

“The parents had built a house [on this same plot] in the 1980s and didn’t really want to tear it down,” he explains. The need to cater to the elder son’s family of three young children and give the younger son a private zone to call his own left him with the decision to demolish the old family home and replace it with two semi-detached houses so that the former could live separately but still close by. “We felt it was quite important to keep some things they are familiar with [in the previous abode], to help them transit from the old to the new home,” Foo adds.

Discussions with the family revealed sentiment about the original pitched-roof form, as well as bright, open spaces surrounded by nature. And so, these were elements that the architect decided to reinstate in the new houses but in new ways.

The original house had two stories but the two new houses included a basement and attic each. The first storeys of each were thus raised, which allowed for lush garden alcoves that the common areas looked into. This would not have otherwise been possible had not the car porch been tucked into the basement.

“The original house also had a similar pitched roof at that position, but of course it was lower,” says Foo, pointing out the location of the pitched form over the parent’s home. Another pitched roof was added at the side elevation of the elder son’s house – a move that not only expresses the latter’s portion of the development, but also the concept of “duality” the architects accorded throughout the two houses, where common or shared elements tie the house together visually and reflects the inevitable ties between the two families.

For instance, a pronounced expression of the line of the pitch and roof eave in a dark tone is stretched across the frontage of the two houses that has them read as related volumes. A distinct screen element that traces the roof pitches is also consistent on the elevation of both houses. The pattern on the screen – in stark white, and denser at the bottom to indicate the original house’s pitch roof height as well as to act as a privacy and climate filter at the lower levels where the rooms are – gives the house a ecclesiastical semblance

Continuing the concept of duality, a water feature is inserted in between the two houses on the first storey, “but at different spaces for two different, specific experiences,” Foo highlights, adding, “At the son’s house, it serves as an entrance element; in the parents’ house, they experience the water feature at the dining room during meal times.” Openings on the walls of both houses that open up to the water feature allow occupants in each house glimpses of happenings in the other house throughout the day, fostering communication. Not least, they also aid in bringing light and natural ventilation into the houses, fulfilling the occupants’ request for airy, open spaces. Throughout the houses, other apertures are carefully positioned to further porosity and connectivity both to nature and among family members. The basement car porch as also been left as one large open space, though Foo adds that should either houses be sold, the authorities require for a wall to be built between the two houses.

Despite common features in both houses, each has been given a unique identity to suit the respective occupants’ needs and lifestyles. An example is in the way the entry for each house has been designed. A double-storey glass block signals the entrance of the elder son’s house (above which is positioned a study toward a good view) and also helps to visually detach it from the parent’s house. “The elder son’s family has a bigger entrance that is more welcoming because they constantly have friends visiting,” Foo explains. “The parents’ house has a more discreet entrance that is more set back and enclosed, because they are [more private people].”

A black-stoned foyer greets one upon entry of the latter, before opening up in a grand manner to a two-and-a-half storey living room. This is the raison d’art of the home, where the screens as well as the luxuriant foliage outside are appreciated from indoors in their full glory. Meanwhile, the younger son’s bedroom is designed as a mini-apartment, perched at the attic level of the parent’s house. While private, a connecting balcony overlooking the living area ensures it is connected with the rest of the family.

Materials are applied strategically to set a different mood in each house – a more matured aesthetic for the parents’ home; a palette that exude a more contemporary, light-hearted vibe in the elder son’s home – as well as to create points of interest. For instance, the walls at the courtyard where the water feature is has been given a loosely checkered pattern using different textures of a sand-coloured stone, enlivening what would have been a large, dull surface. “Because we knew there were certain parts of the house where windows would be facing the walls, we decided to do this interesting pattern,” says Foo.

While nothing extraordinary, the House of Memories is poetic in both form and meaning. For sure, it is an elegant addition to A D Lab’s oeuvre.