Issue C79 April/May 2016
At the Wall House, Red Bean Architects’ response to the limitations of the terrace house typology is an enigmatic, slanted concrete wall.
Architect Teo Yee Chin of Red Bean Architects is clearly very focused in his architectural experiments. Each of the homes he has designed is defined by a well-expressed, singular datum where function equals form. A recent example is the Wall House for a couple with two young children and frequently visiting parents. The wall in the name is a strongly articulated concrete wall slicing through the length of the house – a gesture Teo employs to explore a new kind of engagement within the terrace house (or row house) typology.
“The row house typology suffocates in its mid-section due to its lack of two long facades,” Teo highlights. With two short elevations at the front and back, this often means a dearth of light and ventilation into the deep [area of the] plan. Teo’s resolution was to combine two typical architectural elements – the air well and staircase – rather than placing them in separate locations “to prevent their disruption to the plan of the dwelling.”
This staircase-airwell combination runs the entire length of the house on one side, separated from the adjacent floor space on the second and third storeys by the internal concrete wall. “The result of this is a continuous plan that enjoys front-to-rear cross-ventilation on the first, second and third storeys,” Teo points out. A skylight running above the whole length of the staircase-airwell also flushes plenty of natural light down the space and into the rooms.
It doesn’t take much to notice that this internal concrete wall Teo has inserted is unique in design and construction. At one end, at the rear facade, it is parallel to the party wall and creates a one-metre wide opening. Gradually it slants and peels open toward the front elevation, cutting through the space of the second and third storeys in a diagonal manner. In this dramatic but also practical gesture, more light is brought into the living room on the first storey near the front of the house. More than simply a wall dividing the vertical access and rooms, it has spatial, tectonic and artistic purposes.
Teo avoided casting this wall as a smooth curved element. Instead, he has designed a distinctive stepped profile that twists subtly to create the aforementioned diagonal line. Its construction is by no means simple, and required the use of customised, two-sided formwork. Describes Teo, on the painstaking process, “An entire side of the formwork (the side nearer the void) was nailed in place first, and then the rebars tied in place. On the other side, carpenters put together the formwork in one-storey, 2.4-metre-wide modules. The difficult part was putting these modules in place, with the grid of the tie-rods needing to be threaded through the stepped formwork. Each [piece of] formwork was like a large cabinet.”
But there was also joy in the challenge. “We had a bit of fun with this; it’s a disciplined kind of play with architecture,” quips Teo. “We were also interested to explore the material – not just for the visual effect, but also to see what else it can do.” So here, the use of raw concrete renders the wall as a sculpture while also camouflaging structural beams.
With regard to the programmatic layout, Teo has created well-sized rooms that flow fluidly into each other. The first storey contains the living room and dry kitchen that continues to the wet kitchen, separated by floor-to-ceiling clear, frameless glass. On the second storey, there is the guestroom (used by the visiting parents) and a study corner. The third storey holds the master and children’s bedrooms, while there is a final bedroom on the attic level that looks out to an open terrace.
Aside from concrete, recycled timber is also used in the wall panelling and staircase threads, which adds a dose of organic warmth to feel of the interior. Horizontal internal windows looking from the rooms into the staircase-airwell allow for further light access, cross-ventilation and visual connectivity. Teo’s embedding of the window frames into the concrete wall for these openings is a subtle but well-thought-out detail that ensures that the purity of the stepped concrete wall is not compromised.
The floating effect of the concrete wall felt keenly from the first storey. Its dusty grey finish, the horizontal lines on its stepped profile, the voluminous three-storey staircase-airwell atrium – these elements come together to suggest a host of delightful allusions, such as being in a cave, or, as the client’s father (who works in the marine industry) proposes, peering up a ship’s hull.
Despite its striking mien, the Wall House is, as Teo highlights, is simply designed where only one key concept dominates. As most architects would attest, this is not an easy thing to do, but Teo has managed to pull through. The wall house incites wonder and pleasure, making it not just a physical shelter, but as all good homes allow for, a space for the creation of dialogue and dreams.