MOUTHFUL: a conversation with Richard Hassell (WOHA)
MOUTHFUL is a series of in-depth conversations with leading creative practitioners who reflect the values of crossroads thinking.
Over the last twenty-five years, Richard Hassell and Wong Mun Summ, founding directors of Singapore-based architectural practice WOHA, have become godfathers of architecture in Southeast Asia. One cannot contend with built environment in the region without first confronting the enduring legacy of WOHA. Their approach to tropical architecture and urbanism has won them major international prizes including the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2007 and the RIBA Lubetkin Prize in 2011.
We spoke to Hassell over two days. First, on a Thursday, in the WOHA communal kitchen overlooking Hong Kong Street in Singapore. We were interrupted only once, by a stray cat that had found a home in his office. The conversation continued on Saturday morning at a coffeeshop nearby. We ordered the same breakfast.
We realised that the best way to develop crossroads thinking as an approach was to look beyond food. The first disciplines we were drawn to were architecture and fashion, even though we knew very little about them, because the ways in which we saw practitioners in those worlds operate were very similar to ways in which chefs operate in kitchens. Moreover, so much of your work speaks to an interest in interconnectedness and with being culturally responsible, which are at the heart of our work at Nouri. I’m hoping this conversation will help us better develop our own work and learn from each other, too.
Great. It’s true that interconnectedness is something we think about. Otherwise we’re justbuilding stuff with materials. If materials are not imbued with meaning then there doesn’t seem to be much point to it all. We can’t judge whether one thing is better than another without that meaning. The questions, ‘is it worthwhile?’ and ‘is it good’ always have something to do with meaning and culture.
Our first ever conversation over WhatsApp was about creativity. I think you said creativity is something that is elusive the more you pursue it. It’s a very delicate, tenuous thing. If you’re busy chasing it, it’s never there.
I always tell my team it’s the unbearable lightness of decision making. We live in a world where everything is available. We don’t have restricted choices anymore. I guess it’s the same for food in that seasons don’t mean much anymore for ingredients, do they? We can get marble from anywhere around the world. We can get any paint colour mix. There’s this unbearable availability of everything. Then the question is: how do you choose one thing over another? What is your criteria? In the end we come down to: is it meaningful on as many levels as possible? Does it resonate as much as it can? Because then it seems to make sense out of the craziness that is our world. If it becomes overt, though, it goes astray.
I think architecture is a bit different from many cultural activities in that its purpose is to construct a backdrop. It’s hardly ever the focus. Architecture that wants to be the focus ends up no use for anything else. It’s interesting because you have to play a game where you’re teasing out— out of the corner of your eye— the memories and resonances, but you never want it to be shouting a message at you. Maybe it’s a little different from food or music or art, which may be best when they fill your attention. Architecture, if it’s too attention grabbing, can be too distracting. You can’t get anything done in it. Churches, for instance, will try and create a really powerful environment, but it’s still focused on an activity within the architecture, not the architecture itself.
A certain level of abstraction is good. It’s a constant game of alluding to or hinting at things. The work has to be encoded and subtle. It’s there if you want to focus on it but vanishes the minute you want to do something else.
There’s an interesting parallel we talk about in our restaurant. We want our food to operate on multiple levels at the same time. If you’re looking for a delicious meal, we hope our experience satisfies that. But if you’re searching for something cerebral, we’re also ready to provide that. Encoded is a great word.
Yes, that is very similar.
Beneath the first layer, there’s a lot to see there. But it’s got to be translucent and not transparent.
I think the more ambiguous or more elusive it is, the richer it gets. This is where some conceptual art doesn’t work for me. The explanation of the art is really the art. The thing itself is a placeholder for cleverness somewhere else. There’s this interesting gallery in Berlin that’s filled with conceptual art. As an experience it’s fantastic because you have incredible guides bringing you around to tell you the story around the art, but it’s the sort of museum that if you went on your own you wouldn’t enjoy it at all, other than being in the bunker which was powerful for its own story. It’s having this really engaged, young, passionate person telling you all about the theory behind the work… it’s almost like a performance piece.
You’ve hit on a point about the importance of human connection in aesthetic experiences. Established chefs would talk about how there was no use in your ability to transcribe a personal experience onto a dish if nobody shares the experience that you had. To try to talk about a food memory that you had when you were three years old, eating oysters with your family by the river, has absolutely no link with a diner who has never had a similar experience. These dishes might be tasty physiologically, physically, but they never hit as deep as a dish that you share meaning with other people.
I guess if they are too— what’s the word— solipsistic, too individual, then they are maybe not much use. But I actually think it’s not that easy to have a particularly unique experience. I remember an Aesop fragrance with geranium leaf. When I smelt it I had an instant hit of playing hide and seek in my parents’ house and hiding in the geraniums.
But I’m sure lots of people have scent memories from geraniums that are different. But the fact that you have a powerful memory associated with a particular smell is very common. The memories might be different. Some might be unpleasant. Maybe you got beat up in geranium bushes, you know?
While you were speaking, I had a thought. If you were explaining to someone this really powerful memory, maybe something from your childhood that food triggered, I could even imagine that someone with kids might think to themselves, “ah, I’d like for my kids to have that kind of memory,” and actually creating that situation to form such a powerful experience. In a sense, the food could become the vector for translating the experience from one to another.
I always say it’s about telling stories. Our own narratives are the stories we tell to ourselves, and sharing them can make other people take on that narrative themselves, or add to it. It’s okay even if it’s really individual, if you communicate it and help someone live through it. Many movies are stories you have never lived yourself, but they can actually affect your own sense of where you belong in the world.
How do you feel about the specificity of a memory being less important than an abstract collective, shared comprehension of a particular experience? When you were describing being hidden in a geranium bush… I never got to experience geraniums till I was thirty years old, but it triggered a memory of me playing hide and seek in a bush with different flower scents, hiding from my family trying to find me. There’s something, perhaps, about the lack of specificity. Everybody has singular experiences in some ways, right? We’re talking about a framework that’s quite universal. Does that work as an architect? Can you aim to make a building that serves a function for people irrespective of their background?
I think you can’t be totally universal. Certain things change generationally in materials, for instance. Mosaic tiles were really cool in the 1940s and 50s. Then there was a generation of people who had to clean them when the tiles had gotten old and started dropping off the wall. This generation, twenty years after tiles were cool, hated mosaic tiles because they were associated with dirt and missing tiles and old, out-of-date bathrooms. And after that, they got cool again! So the same material will trigger different responses from different generations. None of them were wrong, really. It is a beautiful material and it does have certain restrictions. You can never assume someone’s association is the same as the one you may have, but you can generally ask around and find out. If there’s enough of a consensus among the people that you want to please, then you’re probably in good shape.
You have a long relationship with MC Escher’s work. Can you tell us about how you first encountered it?
My brother was a math nerd, a real math genius. It used to frustrate me. He’d read books that weren’t accessible to me. But one of them, the Escher book, I found really enjoyable to look at. They were eye puzzles. Maybe eye candy, even. It fed a certain part of the brain which was similar to the architectural part. It’s logical. It’s about construction. Not so emotional or gestural, but something that was intricate and constructed. I remember just looking at it over and over again. I must have been six or eight.
When did that interest become your own attempts to create Escher-style illustrations?
I found in my parents’ house a math project from year 10 in high school. It must have been 1981. I remember it was a boring assignment that I was able to reframe so that I could do a lot of drawings. I was better at art than maths. In doing my own version, I realised Escher was so thorough and systematic in what he did that he had done it all. He had completed the artistic direction as a one person art movement. After that exercise, I didn’t do anymore. He left nothing else for anyone to do!
I didn’t come back to tessellations till 2004. I had been doing a lot of painting. I had a studio and then I lost it because the owner wanted to redevelop the building. I had to start working out of my home, but it was so neat and clean, and I didn’t want to mess up my nice interior with filthy paint. I thought I would explore something digital because I was interested in aperiodic tiling, and I realised that these geometries were discovered after Escher died. That’s when I thought there was an unfinished project there.
We read about you corresponding with Roger Penrose.
Yes, I sent him one of my drawings and he really liked it. And then coincidentally an Escher art dealer, who is now dealing with my work, he knew Penrose and organised a lunch with him in Oxford.
We’ve spoken in the past about creativity as an act of creation versus an act of discovery. I think the difference between the two is the ego. Do you think you create better when you’re in a kind of vacant body, without the overwhelming presence of the ego?
Definitely. If you’re thinking about what people are going to think about what you are doing, you are performing for an audience. It’s quite tricky. When you’re just following an idea down the rabbit hole for the sheer joy of finding out, that’s where you make real discoveries. Maybe it’s the difference between… analogies are so terrible, aren’t they?
With sound as an example, music is a cultural and artistic system extracted from sound energy, based on resonances. Then you have composers who do things with that system to create mood and emotion and narrative. And you have performers who perform beautifully for the audience. There are lots of creative discoveries that are possible within the system— discoveries to codify the system, discoveries to create emotion, discoveries of interpretation as the piece is performed.
For me, I like discovery combined with creativity. The exciting part is where you’ve sensed a structure and a system that has a relationship to something in the world, and then you try and work out what those rules are and what you can do within those rules. It’s raw data transformed into culture. That’s when something interesting happens.
I wanted to bring up two books that we’re reading right now, one of which you actually introduced to us. Patterns that Connect by Carl Schuster. The other is Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building.
In both books, one senses a mystical and mythological recognition of patterns that exist between cultures. In your practice as an architect, at what point during your creative or research process are you thinking about patterns? How are you thinking about them?
We think about them a lot. Our most recent book, Garden City Mega City, was an attempt to extract patterns out of our own work over the last twenty years. In architecture, at the design level, there are strategic ways of organising space and elements that solve a lot of problems at once. We have a pattern in our office, which is one room thick. For tropical architecture, we want the breeze to go through things. You can only achieve that when your building is one room thick with windows on each side. How do you create a situation in which a building is only one room thick, especially when they start getting bigger?
School of the Arts is a good example. We have a lot of classroom blocks side by side with gaps in between. Actually, it’s the same pattern as our building in Bangkok, The Met, but rotated from a tower form to a horizontal form. Which is to say you can manipulate the design in three dimensions to get air and light on all sides.
For your references in tropical architecture, are you looking at indigenous ways of building in Southeast Asia, where over hundreds of thousands of years people have adapted to build things that are relevant to their immediate environment? One room buildings, then, must naturally exist in the evolution of buildings in this region. Do you look at such examples as sources of inspiration for your projects?
There’s a very clear one with our first high rise. At that time, every developer wanted to cover buildings with bay windows because they would make more money. Due to an unforeseen consequence of regulation, they were bonus areas which could be sold. We thought they were so horrible and un-tropical. They stuck out from the building so you couldn’t shade them. You basically got sun coming in all day from three sides. We asked ourselves: how can we transform this into something that’s actually good for the people buying?
Both Wong Mun Summ [Hassell’s co-founder at WOHA] and I remembered from our university days a monsoon window from longhouses in Sarawak Malaysia. Because of the heavy monsoon and yearlong humidity, they needed very good airflow. They use openings in the floor where the wind can come through but the rain is kept out. We turned the ledge of the bay window into a sliding panel so that the wind could come in from below the ledge, and even in a windy storm in Singapore you could leave your windows open and have the air coming through. That was a very direct example of what you’re describing, borrowing from and inspired by indigenous solutions, but in a different application, using different materials and a different expression. It’s twenty-four storeys high in our building instead of one storey high in a longhouse.
We begin our crossroads methodology with pattern recognition. It’s a pattern recognition of flavour or technique across different cultures. For us to do that, we go and eat. We taste. What does an architect do to recognise these patterns in his/her own practice?
It’s a combination of seeing, reading, and other things. It is important to be alert as you physically experience places. The minute you’re sitting somewhere, you think about how comfortable it is. Then you start looking around to figure out exactly why it’s like that. You can begin to deconstruct how the effect is achieved and make a mental note.
As a field, architectural research has long had an interest in the vernacular. There’s plenty of books on traditional architecture, usually though more from the form or visual appearance than from the ways in which buildings perform environmentally. We think there’s a lot of interesting potential in studying the environmental strategies of vernacular buildings.
There’s a fantastic building I haven’t visited yet in Semarang in Java, which is called Lawant Sewu (The Thousand Doors). It was built by the Dutch East Indian Railway Company to be their Indonesian headquarters, but just before electricity became a source of cheap energy in 1904. It is this huge administrative building designed to be comfortable in the tropics. They could flood the whole basement with water to cool air which would be drawn up through air shafts around the building. I haven’t seen a technical, measured drawing of how it works but it’s really interesting to think about a period in the early 20th century where we had urban and industrial needs and yet didn’t have cheap power to solve them with mechanical means. Instead, they started to develop really innovative, sustainable, and passive solutions. Twenty years later, everything was wired up to machines and fans and you no longer had to do it, but we have an opportunity to continue their research and development.
From about 1970 to right about now, architecture as a problem-solving body of knowledge has diminished. Architects became stylists of fairly standard developers’ products. Now that we can have air conditioning, we just decided to seal up buildings. We solved everything with energy. The architect’s problem was to make everything look cool and fashionable so that it looks good in a brochure or magazine. Most of those Instagram, fantasy architecture sites show glassy, air conditioned house on the edge of some dramatic scenery. And you see in the comments, there’s never anyone saying that it’s an inappropriate way to build. There’s just a universal architecture porn for the James Bond villain’s lair perched on the edge of the cliff anywhere around the world.
In the last fifty years, we have seen a massive leap in the quality of visual representation of food production. Food has never looked sharper. Most of the creativity is approached from the perspective of visual representation and perception to the detriment of other things. You can scroll through Instagram and see food from a hundred restaurants around the world and sometimes they look too similar. The weight of those products disappear. Do you feel a similar concern with architecture? Do you feel the effect of image porn addiction?
I think there’s a lot of work to be done to counteract the trend. It’s the saddest of all for architecture because our projects take so long to complete. Compared to food, we work for seven or eight years on one project. Images are consumed so quickly. In a few days, the photos of a project are up there and then they are forgotten about. But the imagery of architecture is now instantaneous because it’s mostly created digitally. The reality is eight years behind, and so everything looks out of date when it’s built. People are not even interested anymore in the built architecture. In a way, the image has become the architecture culture. Actual architecture is sadly almost irrelevant to the discussion.
We do feel our projects have a certain resistance to this trend because the final product as experienced is quite different from the images. Our architecture really cannot be communicated in images. The idea of it is not the image. It’s something more. If it’s about wind or temperature or shade or changing seasons, these are all at the core of architecture. The activities that take place within a building. It is life. We like our architecture being a little bit un-photogenic. At least, some are very photogenic and others are not. I think that’s really good because it means people actually have to come and experience them.
We had some American academics, when we gave a talk in California, who didn’t see what was so special about our work. “If this is what you’re trying to do, there are other people doing it better.” So rude! And wrong, too, because they were evaluating our work on completely different criteria from what had generated it, and from what our criteria for success was. They were only judging based on the formal and aesthetic parts of the picture. They barely listened to our explanation of the building.
Architecture can be resistant in that way, by being impossible to photograph and difficult to communicate through images. I guess food, too, right?
How do you explain this preoccupation with images?
I guess it’s the ease of communication of visual materials, particularly now, which has created this dominance. It has also been monetised. The triumph of the image is inevitable now, in every field. Even in music, I suspect it’s the good looking musicians who reach the highest success because they are very image-able. It’s a combination of our technology and humans being super visual.
It’s why we were so surprised that our Kampung Admiralty received Building of the Year award. It was intentionally un-photogenic because it was a public housing project. Built on public funds, it couldn’t look too exquisite because if it did, people would say it must have been expensive and a waste of public funds. It may have also come at a time when people were oversaturated with images. People wanted to know what was real and what was important. We have collected really good stories about the experience of the users of the elderly housing and community gardens and what a difference it’s made to the neighbourhood. You have to fight back against the tyranny of images, and the only way to do that is to fight back with really strong narratives.
How do you share your narratives publicly?
It’s built in from the beginning, actually. We’ve realised more and more how important the narrative is. It’s what everybody has to communicate and understand and buy into to start the project in the first place. You can’t get to the cross-ventilation and the cooled surfaces without a narrative for why they exist. And I think every human enterprise is like this. Within Nouri, you’ve got to have a narrative about what Nouri is all about and why one should join your enterprise and do great stuff. We’re just storytellers from the get-go, we human beings.
Do you think there is a degree of aesthetic appreciation that happens when form and function are comprehended on a day-to-day use?
Oh definitely, yes. There’s a sort of elegance to something being sweetly resolved. It’s not like you need design training to feel it. Anyone can feel it.
It is comparable to the felt sensation of watching or listening to something you deem beautiful. A building or a space that works beautifully can elicit the same feeling. When you’re in that interaction, things make sense. There’s a moment there of mindfulness.
That’s the effect we’re always trying to achieve and aim for. There’s a German word for it: gesamtkunstwerk. The total artwork, where every element is contributing to the whole. There’s a sense of completeness. Not a single element could be added or removed without destroying the perfection of the whole. In this complex natural environment, you get this amazing sense of beauty out of the way that everything is interacting in so many ways with each other and yet it seems to be this dynamic balance.
Is this why you started a furniture company? To not just build buildings but also the stuff that went within it?
Yes. It always amazed us that we would need a chair for a room, and then look at 50,000 existing chair designs, and somehow none of them were quite correct for what we needed. We were doing the furniture in our hotel projects for precisely that reason.
The Alila Villas Uluwatu project in Bali is a good example. We regularly get letters from guests saying, “I don’t know why but when I get to this place I just feel amazing and I feel the beauty of the world.” We designed every object in your visual field except for the nature. It’s just nature and WOHA.
Can you talk about the considerations you have to contend with when designing buildings or products for a tropical environment?
I think the tropical condition is interesting because the weather is always present. It’s only when I go back to Perth, where I’m from, or Bhutan, which I just visited, where the climate is just so beautiful, that I don’t have to think about the weather all the time.In Singapore the minute you go outside, having to deal with the weather is a big issue. It is a challenge to be comfortable.
It’s where foreign architects, when they do work in Singapore from London or Berlin, often don’t quite get it right. It may look beautiful in pictures but as an experience it is not comfortable. Even the Interlace, which I think is fantastic in many ways— many of the apartments are placed back to back so you actually can’t use those apartments cross-ventilated. It has to be air-conditioned all the time. Though it looks one room thick, it’s unfortunately two rooms thick and therefore has no cross air flow.
If you live here and experience the climate, you naturally shy away from strategies which you know will create dead air and stifling conditions.
We recently spoke to the director of 6a architects, Owen Watson. One of their projects in Cambridge was designed based on cloisters. When they described how cloisters have evolved, we witnessed this incredible historical deconstruction of cloisters drawing from Medieval architecture drawing from Roman peristyles drawing from Egyptian structures. For an architect to be able to do that so clearly was special. It’s kind of what we’re always trying to do with our food at Nouri. If you’re eating something that you think is Italian, we want to question whether that is actually the case and verifiably show how it isn’t. Do you have a similar cultural deconstruction in your practice?
It depends on the project and the story we are building. It’s a bit like tribal designs in the book Patterns that Connect, a book which started this conversation with you; some patterns are archetypal and universal across human cultures but they have over time evolved to mean different things in different cultures. If it’s useful for us to show really long heritage and talk about universality, then we trace it all the way back. But it can often be more important to show what is unique and specific and local.
The courtyard arrangement of a house, all the way from Egyptian to Roman, is quite a well known story of evolution of an architectural pattern. I think there are a lot more interesting stories to discover in other cultures. For instance, there are some African villages which are totally different in organisational form from Western models; some even have a fractal structure.
Is this historical and research-oriented approach common to architects?
It used to be. Architectural education used to be similar to an art major where we would be taught about the history of architecture and it would follow Western history from Neolithic to the early civilisations. Maybe a little bit about Byzantine, Chinese, Persian architecture. Nothing much about African architecture which has been excluded from the story until the last couple of years. David Adjaye has recently published a really good survey of African architecture and African modernism. That was a whole thread of history that was ignored until recently. Similarly, we did not learn much about traditional South American architecture.
Over the last few decades, universities have cut a lot of this cultural knowledge from architecture courses. Subjects such as computing and parametrics take a certain chunk of time, so they have cut other parts of the curriculum. But I think this is a mistake. Certain technologies may go out of date in a few years, but historical knowledge lasts a lifetime.
There seems to be a kind of homogeneity in Instagram photos of architecture porn. Buildings all look like they belong in Scandinavia, but it’s all over the world now. That’s certainly the case with food, too.
When we were starting in the 90s, there was an expectation that the resorts we build would be in some sort of conversation with the culture in which it was situated. That has totally disappeared. Now people just want a cool Instagram backdrop, Nordic cool and clean, with a beach in the background or a coconut palm dangling over the shot. It’s basically the same group of multi-racial, tattooed, hipsters partying and having a great time, anywhere in the world. There’s a general lack of curiosity or interest in cultures or places or the past, which I think makes people feel unmoored.
There’s an emptiness to the homogeneity. Why show up to another part of the world if your entire experience is agnostic to that place?
On that note, how do you think about sustainability?
The nice thing about sustainability from a design point of view is that we are imposing restraints again. Maybe we shouldn’t call them restraints. Sustainable objectives give us a reduced palate of things we should work with, as they are measurably more appropriate than other things. Rather than being so confused about which marble to choose according to the fashionable zeitgeist, you understand the value of local marble with its specific characteristics. Maybe it’s a bit brittle so you have to use it in small pieces. Then you develop an aesthetic out of small pieces rather than big slabs. Whatever constraints you have will still become sites of creative explosion. Sustainability is a good kind of creative restriction. Every city will start to look unique and different because you are designing for a different climate, with different people, and different materials.
We often think about culture as a human interaction with constraints in the environment. If you replicate that time and time again, you have a system that is relevant, sustainable and dynamic. It has to evolve because the environment is always changing. With globalisation and technological advancement, do you think we’re coming to a very different conceptualisation of culture and cultural evolution?
We may be shifting from a place-based diversity to a tribe-based diversity. I don’t know if it will be good for architecture, as architecture cannot be detached from place. Architecture has natural resistance to the ephemeral digital environment. It is slow and heavy and it sticks around for far too long.
If the world is becoming more energy poor, it might result in us becoming more culture rich. We would have to come up with specific, localised solutions. I think this shift has started. Maybe not so fast, but it’s been happening.
I think you’re right. Globalisation isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s just that the rate at which it is happening today is greater than at any time in the past. This is an important point for us because our identities today remain bound to a nationality or ethnicity, when in our daily lives, these features are more and more irrelevant. I spoke to a food researcher in Copenhagen recently and he said “you and I have more in common than I do with the Dane across from the street right and yet more people will be loyal to their fellow Dane than they would to you.” There’s a disjunct there. The way we want to work with that issue is to cook food that encourages people to think beyond their immediate identities.
I like this “food for world peace” movement!
The frustration is that our food today doesn’t reflect this globalised world. I don’t know if our architecture does, either. Do you think our architecture should reflect this culturally porous world that we live in?
I think that it inevitably does because everybody in the decision making process is of different cultures. One of our current projects in Thailand — a resort — is interesting because we started off saying that it had to have the Instagrammable backdrop, but we could still do this without giving up our deeper, additional layers. It’s going to look cool and appeal to many people but scrape one surface down and there’s something about Thai visual culture behind every element in the resort. Go another level down and there will be other aspects to it as well where all the elements have a shared aesthetic. It can be satisfying to both mass culture and high culture. We were trying to address that situation in the same way that food needs to be tasty but it can have meaning, too.
It seems we just haven’t been made aware of our interlinked existence in the world, culturally or ecologically. I wonder if the responsibility we all share now is one of awareness building. That isn’t to say that cultures will end when we challenge that interaction but that an underlying culture will emerge without compromising their diverse iterations. When globalisation was used as a term to describe changes in the world about two decades ago, people were frightened of homogenisation. We know that homogeneity is not the state of the world.
I’m reminded of the Jesuit saying, “give me a child till they are seven years old, and I’ll make them a Catholic for life.” I do think deep cultural factors are forged by the age of seven. Everything else after that, cultural or ritualistic, you can intellectually study, acquire and understand, but it doesn’t seem to be embedded into the deep core of your being.
This behaviour is interesting to see in the context of food because the response from a diner is immediate. We notice that when someone is offered food from a culture that they already a preconceived opinion of, their relationship with that product is very different. There isn’t a relationship. Their cultural identification prevents them from having an actual experience because they are bringing with it the baggage of prior. If that is true in the eating of food, you can also argue that it is true in how you interact with that culture on a day to day basis.
How do you think your Australian upbringing has contributed to your voice as an architect?
When I was growing up, there was an enjoyable acceptance of other cultures but you still saw instances of casual racism. There was also this sense that Australia was an outpost of Great Britain. You know, this colonial sense that you were receiving everything second hand. All the children’s books were set back in England. You didn’t know any of these places that were described, you just had to imagine them. There was this insecurity that you were only simulating your master culture, that you weren’t actually ever sure you were doing it correctly. They call it the ‘cultural cringe’ in Australia. You’re always worried that you’re not doing it correctly even though it’s the only culture you’ve got. I think this makes Australians open to travel and to find out how other people do things. We’re fascinated by other cultures that feel authentic because we don’t!
I only want to refer to my notes once today to read out loud a quote from the introduction of one of your monographs. Anna Jonhson says “for WOHA, these [global and local] traditions have provided architectural work of a sublime beauty and a contextual richness: work that goes far beyond physical appearance to resonate at a deeper, atavistic level. Their architecture, often silky and textured with rich internal narratives, speaks of forgotten dreams and archetypal mythologies of inhabitation. Their work is, at one level, a return to very tactile and traditional architectural ideas, yet their ideas and processes go beyond the normative response of Southeast Asian architecture and literally into the genius loci : the spirit of the place.”
I’d forgotten that essay, I am blushing!
Ha! What points of reference do you draw from for your work?
We do quite often use the canonical modernist buildings. And from before that, we look at temples or palaces. Buildings of power, you know? Devices like axes and grand courtyards build anticipation. They are really powerful devices, but they are no longer politically or philosophically appropriate. They imply a singular culture, not diversity. So we’ve been working on drawing on the tools of creating powerful architecture but subverting them so that you don’t get pompous architecture.
Our Bali resort Alila Villas Uluwatu is an example. It uses a very formal colonnade device to create a structured series of outdoor spaces. It’s a kind of choreography, taking ancient architectural techniques of axis, repetition, grand sequences of formal spaces. These are then modified with delicate pavilions that are scattered almost randomly to act as a counterpoint to the formality and make it feel relaxed and democratic. Our image was of the villagers taking over the palace!
One of our other projects, the Stadium Metro Station, is also a useful example. We thought that train stations in a democratic society should be enjoyable but also kind of like cathedrals. Grand Central in New York, for example. There’s an architectural grandeur as one is going about their daily commute. Stadium station has a very grand height and scale and sense of light, but the geometry is off-centre and made looser through the contemporary ornamentation.
How do you feel about change when it radically challenges the things you believe in and the way you’ve worked? Is it something you’ve pursued or tried to avoid, particularly as an established architect who people see in a specific way?
We’ve been conscious from the very beginning that we didn’t want to get typecast doing only certain types of buildings. The first firm we worked in, Kerry Hill Architects, was typecast for many years as solely a resort design firm. We could see that once you’re typecast, you only get more of the same projects. And that’s when it’s really hard to innovate. Instead, we consciously made sure we did really diverse projects— train stations, hospitals, high-rise housings, buildings in the city, buildings outside the city. That’s been quite good for us. We always choose projects to make sure we don’t get bored. We import lessons from one project to another, and we don’t replicate projects one after another.
Are you excited that your best work is still ahead of you?
A little bit, yes. I think in every other profession you cannot be at the top of your game beyond your 40s. Architecture is a marathon race. Most people drop off along the way even if they had a fantastic start. It’s quite a tough career. Not quite as tough as being a chef, I think, because you’re always only one slip away from a bad meal. Our projects go on for years, so we can rescue them from momentary slips!
I want to talk about vocational intelligence for a moment. A lot of the success and reputation of a chef is leveraged on his/her experience which is time-bound. It’s not the kind of experience that you have when you come out of university. I think there are some professions that allow for a meteoric rise if you are very studious at your job, but with being a chef you kind of have to grill a piece of steak 1000 times before you can tell the difference. The technical elements of the job can only be mastered after a lot of repetition. How much emphasis do you still put into the technical element of your work? For you, that would mean drawing, right?
The skill of architectural drawing is in a bit of a sorry state recently because universities have been so focused on computing in the last 20 years. They’re not really teaching design drawing and how to think through drawings. I now have to force people to draw and they don’t get why they have to do it. Computer drawings are dead and lifeless! That’s why! Design solutions are not linear and narrative. They are like simultaneous equations; it’s a process of all the information and criteria being fed into your brain, stirring these things around by drawing, and then the idea comes out when you least expect it. Our young architects don’t understand that your first idea is rarely going to be your best one. You need to sit down and sketch through the issues for hours and see what happens through the process.
It seems that the apprentice model is archaic in today’s world. To be under the tutelage of a master for a decade before you find your own voice… I don’t know if people are still interested in that kind of professional trajectory.
I think it still needs to be done. Like practicing musical scales even as a concert pianist, it’s about going to the basics, examining it again with your domain knowledge, and looking at the problem afresh. There’s this classic architecture textbook called Form, Space, and Order written by a brilliant educator called Frank Ching. He breaks architecture down into elements like repetition, framing, negative space-positive space. It’s a primer in architectural language. Every time I go back to it, I get reminded of some aspect of architecture that may not be one of my go-to strategies but through his beautiful drawings and examples I get inspired to use the device in a new project.
You could say we’re teaching all day long in our office. Mun Summ and I hold design clinics from morning til night. Our teams book times with us. Like a doctor, they turn up with their drawings asking for review and direction.
How is your style different to Mun Summ’s style?
I think in the final expression we are quite similar, but the way we get there is actually quite different. I often feel he is much more creative and talented than I am. He’s a bit like Yoda. He can do most of the work in his head. He inputs all the important information and then just sort of sits there and processes it, then makes a small concept drawing, and it’s perfect. I suffer from wanting to include too many ideas, and spend a lot of time drawing and redrawing as a process of removal. Each time I take something out, I see with more clarity what I want. From 20 ideas, I end up with three. Mun Summ starts and ends with three. His initial drawings are just so beautiful.
How did you meet?
We met at Kerry Hill Architects. It was both of our first jobs out of university. From the very start, we knew we worked well together.
We’re always interested in how legacy plays out. WOHA has been described as a kind of godfather figure. Young architects have started their careers with you before starting their own practices. You are the origin point.
Really?! I still feel like we’re young!
We recently came across the idea of meta-modernism. It’s in the wave of many art historians asking what comes after postmodernism. After deconstruction, can we still hold on to the optimism of modernism? Meta-modernism is the idea that somehow we can retain traditional notions of beauty while at the same time being self-aware of the system’s problematics. One specific architectural practice is cited, Herzog and de Meuron, as an exemplar. Their buildings feel unfinished and yet force us to contend with the fact that they are monumental and permanent. There’s a point here regarding systems thinking, that the world is interconnected in more ways than one. It informs our practice as a restaurant because we’re constantly trying to interact and collaborate with non-chefs. With an architect like you, for instance. Perhaps through these interactions we can create something together that neither architect nor chef could by themselves.
I’m reminded of Steven Jay Gould’s Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle. His books are about evolutionary theory, and this book is about time. Time does have a direction but it is also cyclical. It’s a nice way of looking at the world. Life forms go extinct but another ecological opportunity opens up and new lifeforms emerge to suit the situation— similar to last time, but never the same.
I don’t actually think postmodernism was entirely a gesture of deconstruction. It just forced us to question a lot of our assumptions, which were originally taught as modernist dogma. We (WOHA) are operating in this field of meta-modernism, I think, although I am not so familiar with the term. Herzog and de Meuron are probably the most interesting architects of the last thirty years.
We are interested in systems lately. From systems theory, we get the concept of emergence, that complex systems create results or behaviours that cannot be predicted from its individual parts or components. If there are enough people doing good stuff and trying to shift things, you can get an emergent effect where there is an unpredicted massive effect from small inputs. We can see all see ourselves as small agents bumping around, bumping around in a certain self-motivated direction, and suddenly there are unintentional cascading effects throughout the system.
Explaining this framework has been the hardest and among the most invigorating things for us. Why is it that people with completely different backgrounds understand a problem in very similar fashion and come up with very similar solutions? It’s been at the forefront of our focus to understand this. When we talk about food and crossroads, we encounter more often than not, patterns that connect multiple cultures that may have never interacted directly. People who have never spoken to each other cook and say similar things. It’s amazing!
There’s so much behaviour coded into us by our DNA which we just have to work with. Some of the cultural factors you are noticing are probably just in-built patterns that had evolved for something completely different. Have you read Oliver Sacks’ book Hallucinations? Again, I am probably recalling completely inaccurately, but people see the same patterns in their eyes across cultures during migraines. It is something generated by the technical aspects of our visual processing. Then there are also other neurological conditions where some people see weird characters from their childhood marching across their field of vision. Hopi Indians will see kachina dolls. People brought up in the 50s will see Mickey Mouse.The condition is accessing a memory bank where we stored characters from our culture in childhood. There’s so much weird and wonderful stuff going on in our brains! Which is good as it means the machines are going to have a hard time replacing us. The complex interaction of what we are born with, what gets embedded automatically, what is instilled through education and what we seek through desire are sufficient variables to keep us intrigued forever!