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Building on the past
IT was the simplest of briefs. When Lim Ka Liang decided to do a comprehensive rebuild of the family home - a house he has known since birth - he wanted it to suit his specific requirements while retaining a strong sense of continuity. And so he asked his architects - the husband-wife team of Diego Molina and Maria Arango from Ong & Ong - to take a cue from the original building plans.
The result is a house that fits in the footprint of the original 1950s house, designed in a variation of a modernist style by Dr Lim's architect-uncle and the source of many happy childhood memories. The reincarnation bears some resemblance to the old house - there are distinct similarities as well as obvious differences - but for Dr Lim and his family, it's simply a case of home, sweet home.
One major consideration was to create "a house for my old age", says Dr Lim, 56, meaning as few levels as possible - unlike the original multi-level house, which stood on gently sloping land and had a large sunken living room.
The new design features four bedrooms on the second floor for Dr Lim, his wife Helen and their three children - plus a sizeable guestroom on the ground level, leading off from the living area.
The house, in a quiet residential neighbourhood off Holland Road, evokes a sense of functional calm and casual comfort, in keeping with the family's preferred easy-going lifestyle.
Just off the main entryway, the airy living and dining area is bathed in natural light, courtesy of a wall of sliding glass doors along the entire length of the room, with a veranda, lap pool and back garden (virtually unchanged from the original) in view just beyond. On the opposite side, the emphasis on bringing the outdoors in continues with a wood-screened green wall and koi pond.
"I wanted to preserve it as much as possible," says Dr Lim. "The old house was closed and not so practical as it could get quite hot. Now, the nature of the design lends itself to outdoor living - you sit outside and you don't feel like you're in Singapore."
Adds Mrs Lim: "We can close the glass doors and still feel a part of the outdoors - we couldn't do that with the old house."
The original house featured a butterfly roof and - along with a later guest room extension - was perfectly well-ventilated, but could still be a little warm as the living area was not air-conditioned. Now, with the annual haze and climate change issues to consider, it seemed prudent to enclose the downstairs section, with the option of being able to open the room up. Travertine floors and walls, along with simple concrete columns, have a cooling effect on the space.
Within the living area, simple flower arrangements and discreet Christmas-themed decorations give some indication of this festive season but with the children fully grown and either living or studying abroad - and the couple's penchant for travelling to cold-climate countries during this time of year - full-on celebrations and opening gifts beside the tree on Christmas morning are generally a thing of the past.
Still, Dr Lim has fond memories of family gatherings at the house when he was growing up. "The parties we had during Christmas and Chinese New Year - there were sleepovers with my cousins and lots of pets in the home," he says.
He remembers a time when the family pets included a full complement of rabbits, chickens and tortoises but nowadays, he says, a rogue band of chickens rule the neighbourhood roost, running wild and crowing at all hours of the day and night.
The home's minimalist interiors also gave the family the chance to reduce clutter although now, some 18 months after moving in, they haven't yet mastered the art of total simplicity. Nostalgia and a desire to maintain some link to the past got in the way. "We gave away a lot of furniture from the old house but kept some antique Chinese furniture," says Dr Lim.
The living area is dominated by a large dining table at one end (the base was salvaged from the original home while the top has been changed) while an abstract hanging fish sculpture - fashioned out of recycled material and motorcycle parts and acquired during a ski trip to Colorado - occupies the centre portion of the room, sharing focus with a grand piano nearby.
Informal meals take place in the kitchen, where the dry cooking area extends into a wet kitchen.
Upstairs are four bedrooms and a family area connected by a veranda that runs the length of the building. The veranda is protected from the elements by a series of sliding wooden screens that mirror the glass sliding doors directly below.
Similarly, the layout of the master bedroom suite is replicated in the guest room below it on the ground floor. Provision has been made to install an elevator in the future but the idea is that years from now, if necessary, Dr Lim could move into the downstairs room without having to negotiate the staircase or change a thing.
"He wanted to keep the spirit of the space," says Ms Arango of Ong & Ong. "The orientation of the house remains east-west, even though north-south is most ideal to avoid direct sunlight. That's why we played with concepts of contemporary tropical architecture, using screens to address the issue. There is a movable trellis, electronically-controlled top windows - the different skins allow for flexibility, depending on whether you have hazy conditions or a nice fresh breeze."
By keeping to the original footprint, including some walls and columns from the old house, the sameness is such that looking into the garden from any of the upstairs bedrooms will elicit a sense of deju vu - exactly as the owners intended. Says Dr Lim: "There are constant reminders of the past, except the house is much more comfortable now."