President's Design Award: Designs of the year

Man behind Science Centre building

Architect Raymond Woo (above) created a spaceship-like design for the Science Centre Singapore (below) to inspire students and encourage them to explore the building.
Architect Raymond Woo (above) created a spaceship-like design for the Science Centre Singapore to inspire students and encourage them to explore the building.PHOTOS: ARIFFIN JAMAR, RAYMOND WOO & ASSOCIATES ARCHITECTS & MAX OOI
Architect Raymond Woo (above) created a spaceship-like design for the Science Centre Singapore (below) to inspire students and encourage them to explore the building.
Architect Raymond Woo created a spaceship-like design for the Science Centre Singapore to inspire students and encourage them to explore the building.PHOTOS: ARIFFIN JAMAR, RAYMOND WOO & ASSOCIATES ARCHITECTS & MAX OOI

Although most Singaporeans would not know Raymond Woo the architect, many of them have probably been in a Raymond Woo building.

Schoolchildren would be familiar with the Science Centre Singapore in Jurong, while shoppers would know the Ngee Ann City development in Orchard Road and its iconic liver-red granite facade.

Mr Woo, 77, is part of a pioneer generation of Singapore architects who are responsible for several unflashy but dignified buildings that are mainstays in the Singapore skyline. These include Prudential Tower, Equity Plaza and 78 Shenton Way.

For his achievements, he receives the Designer of the Year award at this year's President's Design Award.

The low-key Mr Woo, who is principal architect at Raymond Woo & Associates Architects, was nominated for the award by Professor Wong Yunn Chii, head of the architecture department at National University of Singapore.

 
 
 
 

Prof Wong, 62, says it is "about time" Mr Woo was recognised for his work.

"Raymond has consistently done good work. He has designed buildings that are endearing. He has little tolerance for quirky or edgy styles - his work alludes to something more permanent and serious. He designs with finesse and a mark of confidence."

The son of a draughtsman father and housewife mother, Mr Woo excelled at art in school, but not academically. He had planned to be an artist, but was dissuaded by his practical-minded father. So he decided to pursue what he thought was the next best option, which was architecture.

After completing an architecture degree at the University of New South Wales in Australia, he returned to Singapore in 1965. He had his first job at the now-defunct Public Works Department and later worked for prolific firms such as the Malayan Architects Co-Partnership and Architects Team 3.

In 1970, in response to a call for designs for a new science centre here, Mr Woo decided to have a go at it alone and set up his own firm around the same time.

He spent months holed up in his parents' spare apartment in Oxley Mansion working, with two apprentices helping him.

He recalls: "It was a scary time. I had no money. My parents asked me to withdraw, as I was losing weight and did not have enough sleep. But I couldn't. I just wanted to prove to my parents I could finish it and win this one."

The result was a futuristic spaceship-like building, a design to inspire students and encourage them to explore the building. It won the bid.

Soon after his win, work poured in. Huge projects included the Singapore Airlines hangar, a 43m-tall U-shape block that could house three Boeing 747 airplanes. When it was completed in 1981, it was the largest free-span hangar in the world.

Over the years, the company has built up a diverse portfolio of work. Two years ago, he did conservation work on the Yueh Hai Ching Temple, Singapore's oldest Teochew temple in Phillip Street. It won the firm an Architectural Heritage Award from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and the Unesco Asia-Pacific Cultural Heritage Conservation Award of Merit. He says: "An architect should be able to do all kinds of buildings. It enables you to learn and try new ways of building."

But Mr Woo, who has four grandchildren, is looking for successors to the business. He is married to a housewife. Their son is an artist, while his daughter is a general practitioner based in Britain.

In the meantime, he "keeps on quietly working". In the pipeline is a mixed-used building in Balestier.

He says of his work ethic and low profile: "I'm not going to blow my own trumpet. I'll let others blow it for me."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2016, with the headline 'Man behind Science Centre building'. Print Edition | Subscribe