Veteran architect forges Singapore storeys in stone in new book

Veteran Singapore architect Mok Wei Wei.

SINGAPORE - A Chinese phrase stands out in describing the varied body of work of veteran Singapore architect Mok Wei Wei.

"Jing sui bu yi", which means "changing scenery follows the footsteps", is one of the many dynamic forces driving Mr Mok's designs.

The pithy saying is taken from one of the elements of classical Chinese gardens, where the visual finale - often a dramatic garden scene - is reached after one navigates bends and curves.

Mr Mok - whose firm W Architects' first monograph detailing 35 years of architectural designs was released earlier this month by London-based publisher Thames & Hudson - was mentored by Singapore's pioneer architect William S.W. Lim. This took place during a formative time in nation-building from the early 1980s till 2003 when Mr Lim retired.

Mr Mok found himself involved in several significant urban projects that have advanced what he terms "Singapore Architecture".

"What fascinates me about a Chinese garden is not the classical form of the architecture and its ornamentations. Neither am I attracted to the refined and poetic landscaping," says the 64-year-old, who hails from a traditional Chinese family.

"It is the spatial composition in a Chinese garden that I find intriguing. This consists of the orderly and sequential layout of its residential quarter, in contrast with the organic, fluid spaces of the garden proper."

The architect is the only son of the late Mok Lee Kwang, former chief editor of Nanyang Siang Pau and Lianhe Zaobao.

Because the China-born newspaper man wanted his children to be artists or musicians, Mr Mok and his three sisters were rigorously schooled in Chinese culture.

He is well-versed in the four Chinese literary classics and also studied painting under Singapore's pioneer artists Chen Wen Hsi, from 1963 to 1970, and Thomas Yeo from 1970 to 1971.

He also obtained a Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music piano performing certificate in 1974.

The former student of Anglican High graduated from the School of Architecture at National University of Singapore in 1982.

"In Chinese garden architecture, the two opposing elements come together to form a harmonious whole, giving it a duality that makes for an absorbing spatial experience," says Mr Mok. "This tension - regular versus irregular, orderliness versus playfulness and the way the richness of a space is designed to be concealed and discovered - fascinates me to this day."

He credits his mentor with firing his imagination through Mr Lim's early Modernist works of the 1960s to 1970s, to the Postmodernism of the 1980s.

W Architects' first monograph detailing 35 years of architectural designs was released earlier this month by London-based publisher Thames & Hudson. PHOTO: THAMES & HUDSON

Mr Mok further expands his repertoire with his own takes on Neo-Modernism in the 352-page tome, Mok Wei Wei: Works By W Architects, preferring to constantly move with the times.

He says his early exposure to Chinese literary and aesthetic values has provided a starting point for continuing explorations. He cited The Story Of The Stone, also known as Dream Of The Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin as a creative resource. The tale chronicles the glory and decline of an illustrious Chinese family.

In 1983 and on a trip with his mentor to the United States and Japan, he met Pritzker Prize- winning architect Frank Gehry, who studied with Mr Lim at Harvard University in 1957.

The American architect influenced some of the works that Mr Lim and Mr Mok worked on in the 1980s.

Mr Lim formed Design Partnership (today's DP Architects) in 1967 with Mr Tay Kheng Soon and Mr Koh Seow Chuan, after Singapore achieved independence in 1965.

In 1972, he headed the team that designed one of the fledgling nation's first Modernist icons, People's Park Complex, the first of its kind in South-east Asia and which became a model for commercial developments.

He then worked on Woh Hup Complex in 1974, which was renamed Golden Mile Towers in the 1980s. In 1981, he formed William Lim Associates (WLA) with Mr Mok, Mr Richard Ho and Mr Carl Larson.

When Mr Lim retired in 2003, Mr Mok took on a new partner, Mr Ng Weng Pan, and renamed the firm W Architects.

In a rare interview with The Straits Times on Wednesday, Mr Lim commented on his protege's designs, from his airy sun-bathed living room condominium in Holland Road.

The cosy apartment is curated with Danish mid-century modern classic furniture and features works by pioneer artists on the walls such as Chen and Cheong Soo Pieng. A portrait of Mr Lim by founder of Lasalle College of the Arts, Brother Joseph McNally, takes pride of place in the centre of the hall.

"The quality of his work is consistently high... especially his approach to conservation, like the Victoria Concert Hall project," says the 88-year-old.

Mr Mok's imbibing of Eastern and Western design philosophies undergirds many of the works showcased in the book by Thames & Hudson, which has in the past mainly published works by European and North American architects. The company has offices in Singapore, Hong Kong and Melbourne.

Mr Lucas Dietrich, international editorial director of the 70-year-old family-owned publishing house, first talked to Mr Mok about working on the firm's monograph in 2017.

"Every single project, large or small, that Wei Wei focuses on is uniquely important," says Mr Dietrich. "But what continually impresses me is the totality of his corpus, the way in which his work has both responded to international developments in architecture over the past four decades yet made it particular to Singapore."

The book documents the firm's journey in three parts: Refract, Respond and Reflect.

The first chapter, Refract, details Mr Mok's search for creative directions from the early 1980s, including several collaborations with his mentor at WLA such as Bu Ye Tian in 1982, a concept proposal for the rejuvenation of the Singapore River; and Tampines North Community Centre.

He also references the works of Singapore's living pioneer architects of the Modernist movement, namely Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat and Mr Alfred Wong, both 90; Mr Tan Cheng Siong, 83; and Mr Tay Kheng Soon, 80.

The next stage, Respond, is about context. He asks existential questions such as, "How do you think big when you are living on a land-scarce island?"

In the final chapter, he contemplates the sense of self that roots an architect to a national identity yet is not constricting.

For a younger generation of architects such as Mr Jonathan Poh, 40, an executive committee member of the Singapore Heritage Society, Mr Mok's book is timely in continuing the conversations that are centred on conserving Modernist landmarks such as Golden Mile Complex, and not losing more icons of early nation-building such as Pearl Bank Apartments.

"We are heartened and glad to have Wei Wei as a strong proponent of conserving our modern built heritage," says Mr Poh, who runs his own architectural practice Provolk Architects.

The heritage society released a position paper in 2018 titled Too Young To Die: Giving New Lease Of Life To Singapore's Modernist Icons, advocating planning incentives for developers and building owners, such as offering more gross floor areas and more flexible re-zoning options, to stop the wrecking ball.

"Young architects like myself have looked up to Mr Mok's generation, who have been mentored personally by post-independence pioneers, and have developed their body of work to be one of excellence and innovation.

"Mr Mok's influence within the built environment community has definitely bolstered support in recent efforts to conserve prominent Modernist landmarks like Golden Mile Complex.

"We definitely hope his new book will spur many to rethink adaptive reuse of existing Modernist buildings as also one way of promoting sustainable development that in the long run is beneficial for the environment."

  • Mok Wei Wei's ground-breaking projects

  • Bu Ye Tian (1982)

    In the early 1980s, a ground-up initiative funded by the late playwright and poet Goh Poh Seng sought to rejuvenate the Singapore River, which had lost much of its vigour.

    Its port activities had been relocated elsewhere and the adjacent financial district was encroaching menacingly towards its British colonial-era shophouses built in the 1920s and 1930s.

    Dr Goh commissioned William Lim Associates to produce an unsolicited adaptive reuse scheme.

    A team with Mr Mok at the helm proposed to retain a length of about 110 shophouses that had previously been used by the shipping industry for trading and storage, titled Bu Ye Tian.

    or a "place of ceaseless activities", which was the traditional name of the nearby Kreta Ayer.

    Although Bu Ye Tian was not officially adopted by the Government, the ground-breaking proposal played a major role in accelerating the conservation movement in Singapore.

    In 1989, the planning authorities announced the conservation of all 110 shophouses.

    Conservation expert Ho Weng Hin, who is a founding partner of architectural conservation specialist consultancy Studio Lapis, first came across the project when he was a student of architecture interning at William Lim Associates in 1998.

    "The evocative traditional Chinese painting on the cover was captivating as it presented a bird's-eye view of historic godowns and shophouses along Boat Quay in a manner never seen before," says Mr Ho, 45, who is a co-author of the 2015 book, Our Modern Past: A Visual Survey Of Singapore Architecture 1920s-1970s.

    "The Bu Ye Tian report came at an important point in Singapore's development history, when urban renewal and demolition of the old city centre was in high gear, in the 1980s.

    It sought to change how the authorities and the public viewed the dilapidated urban fabric, as being ripe for demolition and redevelopment," adds Mr Ho.

    Mr Mok says he personally witnessed the era when his mentor Mr Lim and Mr Tay Kheng Soon advocated for the conservation of historic buildings.

    "This time round, it is their works and others from their generation that we have to fight for," says Mr Mok, a former board member of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and the Preservation of Sites and Monuments.

    He currently sits on the boards of the Singapore Land Authority and JTC Corporation.

    Three Three Robin (2000-2006)

    Mr Mok explored a dual-massing concept with this project at the densely built-up neighbourhood around Robin Road in District 10.

    In architecture, "massing" refers to a three-dimensional perception of a building, not just the outline or shape of the structure, and defines both the inner space and the exterior shape.

    The first three storeys of the development consists of a cluster of "house"-like structures that look inwards to a lush communal space, instead of the neighbouring buildings.

    Rising above that, an open and transparent slab block allows the apartments to take in the views beyond.

    In Singapore, most buildings are aligned along a north-south orientation, but doing so would obstruct views for this development. The apartment block was then placed in an east-west alignment instead, although not desirable for the tropics.

    Timber-louvred sliding panels on the building's western facade were added to mitigate the sun's impact and also impart warmth and textural richness.

    While working with greenery and solar orientations would be called "Tropical Architecture", Mr Mok says that this term is limiting.

    "The term has its lineage in the colonialists' agenda for their tropical and subtropical outposts, which has dominated the architectural discourse of the region," says Mok.

    He believes the term has today morphed into something bigger - the pursuit of green and sustainable architecture. However, unless approached holistically, it can end up as yet another branding exercise.

    Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (2011-2015)

    W Architects won an open competition together with exhibition designer GSM Project and museum consultant Natural History Museum to give Singapore's significant Zoological Reference Collection a proper home. It houses thousands of specimens and fossils native to the region - from microscopic organisms to giant dinosaur skeletons around 150 million years old.

    The design connects the museum to the National University of Singapore, the University Cultural Centre and the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music through a common ground plane to reinforce the area's role as a cultural hub where science, art and music meet.

    "There is an interesting contrast in the concept of this design," says Mr Mok. "While you have thousands of static displays and storage of specimens and fossils, outside, with the moss-covered facade and lush greenery, you also see biodiverse life teeming amid the verdant foliage."

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