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LUNAR NEW YEAR: The Orientalists

A study of East & West

Published Fri, Jan 29, 2021 · 05:50 AM
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Woon Chung Yen, architect

IF HE WASN'T AN ARCHITECT, Woon Chung Yen might have been a musician, playing the pipa and guqin (stringed instruments) in a Chinese orchestra. Or a calligrapher skilled in the art of shu, beautiful writing. Or even a painter of Chinese landscapes. He learned them all in his youth, becoming proficient enough at guqin to perform in public.

Possessing the artistic and academic skills required of the scholar class (or literati) in traditional Chinese society – he lacks only mastery in the game of Go – also comes in handy in his chosen profession, where he consciously incorporates Chinese aesthetics and principles into his designs.

His background in these arts – he grew up in a Mandarin-speaking household and also studied Chinese as a first language at school, where he excelled – gives Mr Woon, 42, a different perspective from which to run Metre, his three-year-old architecture practice. Even the company name comes across as, well, measured, evoking a sense of detail and meticulousness while referencing the basic rhythmic structure in verse and music. Notwithstanding the degree to which Chin ese values are deeply ingrained in his upbringing and way of thinking, there's little to indicate their influence in his contemporary designs – at first glance, anyway. On closer inspection however, and with some enlightenment from the architect, the connections become more obvious.

For example, a renovation project in a Sengkang apartment features a long, curved bench-and-storage unit that arcs its way around the periphery of a large open room before ending in an upward sweep towards the ceiling. Mr Woon likens this to a typical work of Chinese calligraphy, starting with a heavy brushstroke and then tailing off lightly at the end. "The start of the curve is shaped like the head of a silkworm, while the upward part is shaped like the tail of a sparrow," he says. "We extracted and then abstracted from a calligraphy context." The poetics of space, as it were.

"There was one time when a potential Chinese client asked to read my CV in Mandarin, so instead of translating directly from English, I started to think in Mandarin and completed it in a few hours," says Mr Woon. "It was the same – but different. If you use Mandarin to describe your design, it's the same design but it appears to be different somehow. The Emperor Charlemagne said that if you have a second language, you have a second soul."

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Mr Woon is also proficient in the language of architecture, and the perennial search for answers. As in: how do we find purposeful geometry in a void? "I am very intrigued by geometry – it's a reflection of culture," he says. "When different people search for their own roots, it's like digging a well. If you dig to a certain depth, you'll find that the source is the same. In my approach, I search not for how different we are, but for commonality – that to me is geometry. We look for certain common denominators, then enrich the ideas."

Fresh from NUS architecture school, he joined W Architects, the firm led by Mok Wei Wei, an accomplished member of the local literati. In 2007, when he felt the need to work overseas, Mr Woon lugged three months of project work to New York, knocked on doors and found a job with Rafael Vinoly, the noted Uruguayan architect whose works include civic and cultural projects and residential towers around the world.

Mr Woon worked on Vinoly's master plan for the expansive New York University campus in Abu Dhabi. "When you're detached from home, you get nourished by new influences, but you also think about your own identity as a Chinese in Singapore," he says. "It's a setting for continued reflection – in hindsight, you realise those were the formative years."

On his return, Mr Woon joined DP Architects' design team working on the Singapore University of Technology and Design. "Singapore is a confluence of East and West, he says. "We have to learn how to use this heightened awareness. Design is a way to take these cultural distillations and churn out a design that is not conventional. In the end, it's to see how high we have scaled."

Design is a synthesis from the mundane to the intellectual, and great architecture transcends the culture of a place, says Mr Woon, citing Louis Kahn's monumental National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Carlo Scarpa's Brion private cemetery outside Treviso in northern Italy as two of his favourite examples. "Incorporating culture in a context that doesn't ask you to – yet enhances the project – that is the challenge."

The current global pandemic, and the travel restrictions that hinder projects overseas, presents another challenge, he says. "Singapore firms need to have a balance of local and overseas jobs. In terms of Chinese culture, you have to take the slowdown and find the positives, hone your skills, because opportunity comes to those who are prepared."

He adds, "When you design, your whole life lines up behind you. You can't design something which you haven't experienced before – the alignment is in your subconscious. When you suddenly realise that you've transcended something – see something in a new light, something with new potential – that's when you've gone up to the next level. There's always a higher level in whatever endeavour you do."

Like music, architecture is its own special language, says Mr Woon. He relates a story about the composer Beethoven. "After he played a piece and someone asked what it was about, he replied, ‘I just told you.' Certain things exist only in that medium, and it's similar with spaces and geometry."

He adds, "We can be moved by spaces and be very mindful of certain interesting specific experiences, specific emotions. Never imitate nor appropriate the perceived form – see the underlying possibilities, then walk your own path."

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