Business Times - 18 Apr 2009
This luxed up courtyard house pays homage to halcyon kampong days with a clever interplay of space. By Arthur Sim
ON a subconscious level, Larry Ho must have always known he would return to the halcyon kampong days of Katong, even if it meant building a version of it himself, albeit a luxed up one. Growing up, Mr Ho lived in a rented bungalow his family shared with two other families in what was then a kampong at Kembangan and remembers those as some of the best days of his life. 'There was so much open space to run around and catch spiders,' he reminisces fondly, even though indoors, each family had to share a room.
Not far from the house was the beach, the real beach, before it was reclaimed, another favourite playground.
Most Singaporeans would be familiar with what happened next. Urbanisation meant that the kampongs were cleared and the beach was reclaimed to accommodate the long stretch of public housing flats and condominiums that line the new expressway to Changi Airport.
As a child, Mr Ho, like many others, moved with his family to Marine Parade, one of the new housing estates built on the reclaimed land.
Today, he has reclaimed some of that past.
When he started his own family, he never moved far from Katong. And after several upgrades - he moved from a flat to a condominium to a cluster terraced house - he, together with his wife Delya bought a house off Mountbatten Road. 'Even as a kid, I remember this was always one of the prominent areas of Katong,' Mr Ho recalls.
One of the attractions of the house was the huge land area of almost 13,000 sq ft.
'I like open space,' he reiterates.
'When you spend hours at work in an office, the last thing you want is to come home to small enclosed spaces,' adds the oil trader who is in his early 40s.
The original house that came with the land, although small by today's standards, was actually not so bad either. Built over 80-years ago, it would have been home to the genteel classes of the colonial era.
Indeed the couple had initially hoped to preserve the house and only add on to it to accommodate their growing family. However, after much agonising, and with advice from their architects at Wallflower, they realised it would not be practical.
Robin Tan of Wallflower explains: 'The only way it would have worked was if the owners were prepared to compromise their needs to fit the house. The single-story house, which was one of several similar houses on the same street was not built with the mod-cons we are used to today. For instance, in the original design, the toilets and kitchens are actually outside.'
The architect also found that the land on which the house was built on was slowly sinking and as a result, it and most of the old houses on the street had already sunken below street level.
As a condition for any new construction, new structures also had to be built one metre above the street level. The soil conditions were also unstable so the foundation piles for the new house had to be 40m deep. 'The engineer did not want to take chances,' adds Mr Tan.
With the decision made to build a new house, the Ho's then had to give their architects their design brief.
This was not so difficult because both knew what they wanted.
Having holidayed in many Balinese resort villas, they were already comfortable with the aspect of tropical architecture relating to outdoor living. 'We did not want a segregation of indoor and outdoor space,' adds Mrs Ho.
The Hos also had the foresight to not take the Balinese idyll of decorative carvings and ylang ylang roofs literally. 'The first and second time you see it is fine. By the third time, it gets a bit tired,' adds Mr Ho.
So they were quite prepared to let Wallflower translate this vision to fit the modern context of Singapore.
Starting with the idea of an Asian courtyard house, the architects devised a plan that would accentuate the elements of communal space that most typify this archetype. Traditionally, courtyard houses were built for multi-generational families living in quarters that defined the sides of the central courtyard and enclosed by a high boundary wall.
Wallflower's interpretation of this for the Katong house is more elaborate, establishing not one but several courtyards organised along a central axis. While in Wallflower's plan, the axial organisation is very formal, the spaces are in fact very fluid.
The fluid nature of the spaces is emphasised by making the ground floor spaces as open as possible with full-height sliding glass walls. With these pushed aside, the house almost appears to be raised on stilts.
While this might represent the perfect evolution of a kampong house, the architects steer away from this analogy, if only because their interplay of spaces here are so much more interesting.
For a start, one experiences this home by crossing several thresholds that take you from the public road into increasingly private inner sanctums. It starts at the front gate. This opens into the car porch which is itself a paved courtyard. From, here the site is raised one metre and one has to cross another threshold to enter another courtyard, defined by the lap pool.
To get to the house, you have to walk around the 18m wide lap pool - it's quite a journey, if you count the distance from the gate but it is all part of the process of leaving the city outside.
'One of the things about the traditional courtyard house is that when you enter one, you are in a totally different, private world. That is want we wanted to do here,' explains Mr Tan.
The living room looks out onto the lap pool on one side and another courtyard - a manicured garden - on the other side. Again, one has to circumvent the garden to reach the dining and kitchen areas. This rear block in turn looks down into the final courtyard, a sunken koi pond in the basement right at back. While the pool, the lawn and the pond become micro-environments to live in and around, they also serve a separate function as micro-climates.
The courtyards are each made of different materials and will warm up and cool at different rates, explains Mr Tan. As such, the air pressure around these courtyards are different and will induce cross ventilation, a primary requirement in any tropical home.
The bedrooms are located on the second level, connected by a corridor that looks down into the garden courtyard. The architects maintain a sense of openness upstairs as well by providing full-height sliding glass windows along the corridor that links the front block with the back. To cut the thermal loading on the building, thick full height timber fins in balau wood wrap the house and double as louvres and heat buffers.
The timber louvres are adjustable, partly to follow the path of the sun and partly to be able to frame different views.
And because the adjustable timber louvres are used extensively throughout the house, its form, which changes subtly through the day, somehow appears more organic.
The generous use of timber does again recall the image kampong houses.
It is an association that seems hard to shake. But then, nobody is complaining.