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Raymond Woo

Principal Architect, Raymond Woo & Associates Architects
Dec 10, 2016 5:50 AM

AT the age of 77, Raymond Woo has just been named Designer of the Year - Singapore's highest honour for designers and designs. But throughout his long career, he has always preferred his buildings to speak for themselves - Singapore Science Centre, Loyang Valley condominium and the world's largest single-span aircraft hangar at Changi Airport which can service three jumbo jets at once, just to name a few.

Indeed, the grandfather of four, whose office is in Ngee Ann City - which he designed - says he is more comfortable working quietly in his room than being in the public eye. So successfully low-profile is he that people may well wonder, "Who is Raymond Woo?"

When he was young, Mr Woo wanted to be an artist but his draftsman father was against it. So he gravitated to architecture since it allowed him to do what he loved - drawing - which he still does today by hand, not on a computer.

Upon graduating from the University of New South Wales, Mr Woo joined the now defunct Malayan Architects Co-Partnership and later Architects Team 3, before starting his own firm, Raymond Woo & Associates, in 1971. He got his big break when he won a competition to design the Singapore Science Centre. Apart from his more notable projects, he has most recently been involved in the eye-catching, 'see-through' glass and steel retail mall at 268 Orchard Road.

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In space-tight Singapore where buildings - iconic or not - are torn down to make way for new ones, your buildings have been spared. Why is that? People like them. Be it the Science Centre, Ngee Ann City or Loyang Valley, people enjoy using the spaces. I believe this is because I design buildings not for myself, but for them. The Science Centre was meant for students with an interest in science. Back in the 1970s, there was much interest in flying saucers and little green men. So the design of the building is like a flying saucer, but in concrete.

Ngee Ann City has an open plaza, which is an important place for people to gather on Orchard Road, even today. The building was also designed in ways so that shoppers - regardless of whether they were coming to the shopping mall from Orchard Road or from the back - would not get wet.

Loyang Valley is made of bricks, which had never been done before. Bricks give warmth especially for a domestic building. Thirty years on, I'm still getting compliments for it.

It is not only the design. I put a lot of effort into the choice of materials for my buildings, such as the polished liver red granite tiles for Ngee Ann City, which are self-cleaning, and do not make the already large building look bigger than it is.

Even today, most of my buildings still look as good as new. You have seen Singapore change over the years. What are your thoughts on the local architecture scene? For a small country, we have an enormous number of condominiums, and our architects are very good at designing those. I think they have opened the eyes of other designers overseas as well, so I am very proud of them. There are also many young firms that are coming of age, and competition is very keen.

Singapore is small, and there is only so much you can build. So it is good that our architects get to do work overseas. You've been practising for 47 years. Is it easier or more difficult now to deal with clients and the authorities? Clients definitely know more now. I have been lucky to get clients who come to me because they know I do a good job.

The authorities these days are now very thorough, and their demands are more stringent. It may mean more work for us, but this also results in rising standards.

With every project, I learn something new, such as how planes are serviced, when I was designing the hangar. But the biggest lesson I've learnt is how to deal with people. Since buildings have no feelings, you need to learn how to get your message across to clients, especially when they have their own ideas. Architects have to learn to take a lot, including the negativity. What kind of architect would you like to be remembered as? One that is daring and brave. Brave in my expression for buildings and choice of materials, but the designs still make sense. I'm not going to design a crazy building for the sake of it. My buildings make my heart feel good. I think of my grandchildren, and want them to feel proud of their grandfather when they show these buildings to their friends. What are your dream projects? I still hope one day to build a chapel that I drew during my university years. I designed it to be built in the forest, from materials found on site such as stones, tree trunks and branches. It would be nice to turn that into a reality.

I would also like to build another Singapore on top of what we have now. I imagine the second Singapore to have a hole where the top of Bukit Timah Hill would peep through. The two islands would be connected by towers and people would be able to move up and down between them. It sounds like science fiction, doesn't it? I'm into art, but I like science very much too. Any plans on retiring? I will take a three week break soon, heading to Bath to see my grandchildren. After that, it is time to turn the engine back on. An architect gets better with age.