President's Design Award: Designs of the year

Musical start for architect

RT+Q Architects' Rene Tan (left); and the House With Bridges (above).

While studying music at Yale University in the United States, Mr Rene Tan thought he would be a musician.

But in his second year there, his hands developed tendonitis and he could no longer play the piano as well as before.

Instead of dropping out of the course, he stuck with it and took on architecture as a second major, cramming both disciplines over a four-year period. Later, he would go on to do a master's in architecture at Princeton University, another prestigious Ivy League college.

Today, Mr Tan, 52, is well-known in Singapore as the co-founder of RT+Q Architects, a boutique firm that has made its name with highly conceptual, award-winning residential projects. He received the Designer of the Year award at this year's President's Design Award yesterday.

For example, House With Bridges in Bukit Timah, as its name suggests, features short and narrow cantilevered platforms that lead its occupants outdoors. There, they can get good views of southern Singapore and landscaped greenery on a slope behind the house.

Meanwhile, the House In Three Movements, inspired by a symphony or sonata, is built with three different-sized cubes connected by glass bridges and linked by courtyards.


Then there is The Capers, a mixed residential development in Kuala Lumpur, which has two curvy 36- storey towers that takes its cue from the lallang grass.

On his creative ideas, he says: "I'm not trying to be the bad boy of architecture or do something for the sake of being different. But I believe our work needs to surprise."

Mr Tan, who grew up in Penang and is now a Singapore permanent resident, calls himself the "accidental architect" because he never set out to become one.

"The rigour I got out of music school spilled into my architecture training," says the son of school teachers. "If Beethoven writes 5,000 notes, you play them all. Any self-respecting musician won't drop a single note. Going through music education made me a person who respects detail."

When he completed his studies, he worked for four years for an architecture firm in the US and taught architecture at Syracuse University, where he met Mr Quek Tse Kwang, his co-founder at RT+Q Architects. Mr Quek was visiting the US to find a good architecture school for his son.

Mr Tan moved to Singapore in 1996 and worked for an architecture firm. He later reconnected with Mr Quek, whom he calls TK, in 2003 and they started the firm together.

"TK and I work well together. He does project management support, which liberates me to do the design work and the marketing stuff. It's a balance."

Even though many architects now design using computer programs, Mr Tan still sketches by hand every project at the start. He says: "A great teacher of mine from Princeton said a sketch is incomplete, but it will suggest the next idea to you. The hand will lead you to a new discovery."

To date, the firm has done 88 houses, often with quirky designs.

This makes RT+Q Architects popular with people with unconventional ideas for homes. Once, a client came looking for a London-type house that would remind him of his days in Belgravia, a district in West London. He was turned away by four other firms.

Mr Tan's design was a semi- detached house with a brick facade with a "gash" in it, giving the illusion that the house is separate from the one next door. It won over the client.

Mr Tan, who is married to a director in a bank and has a 12-year-old daughter, is committed to having work-life balance for himself and his 20-person staff.

He encourages his staff to be done by 7pm each day. "I believe you should be passionate about architecture, but not fanatical about it."

He also remains an involved boss. To keep track of his employees' work, he gets them to update him daily via e-mail what they have been working on that day. He says: "I believe principals need to be hands-on. We're a small office, but try to work smart."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2016, with the headline Musical start for architect. Subscribe