Singapore-based architecture practice Formwerkz is ever-evolving
From a gang of four to a collective of over a hundred professionals, Formwerkz is evolving, not just in reaction to the world but to change it
September 24, 2019
Written by Judith Torres
Photographs courtesy of Formwerkz
They were classmates at NUS, the National University of Singapore, taking their Masters of Architecture at the School of Design and Environment. Berlin Lee: hyper, constantly dreaming up stuff, a natural networker. Alan Tay: intense, idealistic, soft—but very fast—spoken. Seetoh Kum Loon: gentle and laser-focused, numbers and efficiency whiz. Gwen Tan: expressive, creative but no-nonsense, with a keen eye for detail.
Conversations about their dreams and how they wanted to practice led the three young men—Lee, Tay, and Loon—to set up Formwerkz in 1998, while they were still in university. Gwen Tan, who later married Lee, joined them in 2001.
For the first seven years, the group’s projects consisted primarily of interior works. A name change to Formwerkz Architects in 2005 signaled the firm’s shift to architectural works, which steadily grew into a practice of about 80 professionals in architecture, interior, and landscape design. The practice, says their website, is shaped by the four partners’ shared interest in “the recovery of mutual human relationships and the restoration of primordial relationships between man and nature.”
In 2016, at Lee’s instigation, the firm began inviting like-minded professionals and design studios to found Formwerkz Design Collective. Part of the collective is Studio IF, an interior design office. Under Studio IF is a group that specializes in hospitality projects. Then there’s Bravo, a branding and graphic design firm, which just opened an office in New York City. Lee also founded a think tank, which everyone calls The Think Tank, to research into specific social issues and how these may be solved by architecture and design.
Formwerkz Architects is housed in a repurposed horse racetrack grandstand built in the 1970s. The firm was hired to design the grandstand’s adaptive reuse into a family destination and strip mall. The partners liked the place and leased a 600-square meter space on the top floor, which enjoys a 14-by4-meter outdoor wooden deck.
On BluPrint’s visit in 2017, Studio IF, Bravo, and the others had just moved into their respective spaces in adjacent units, taking on the same open white space of Formwerkz Architects. Large glass windows overlook a wide-open clearing ringed by the edge of Bukit Timah‘s lush forest. When I arrived, the architecture office was almost empty—many of the employees were having lunch out on the deck. They looked up from their lunch boxes, some nodding, others smiling. “Join us!” someone called out. How just like the “Kain po tayo” of the Pinoy.
I am taken around the office and see the four principals’ glass rooms. I get a fleeting glimpse of Lee zipping from meeting to meeting. Tay, Loon, and Tan are nowhere in sight. Tay is teaching a class at NUS. He will arrive soon for the interview, I am told. Loon is buried in work at an undisclosed place. Tan is at a client meeting. Later in the afternoon, I will get to visit her and Lee’s home, the Open House, which won the Singapore Institue of Architects’ Building of the Year 2017. Lee pops into the reception area. “Are you okay? Can I get you anything?” he asks. You know he’s in a hurry, but you also know he’ll get you a bottle of water if you ask. I don’t because he looks positively springy, ready to rocket out of the office to his next appointment.
Tay is running late. After some more minutes and with profuse apologies, I am informed he cannot make it. Georgina Foo, the architectural assistant tasked to show me around, offers to take me toa Formwerkz retail project to fill the time before we visit Open House. A showroom of wood veneers and laminates? I am skeptical. But it does not disappoint; it is delightfully creative. Later, Gwen Tan and her adorable mother-in-law ply us with cookies and tea after showing us around the Open House. It is practical, ingenious, and inspiring, and made the cover of BluPrint’s issue in 2017.
My flight back to Manila is the next day. I get a call from Tay in the morning, saying he can come to the hotel if I still want the interview. He comes, after dropping off his wife and children at a nearby mall. It is supposed to be a family morning, but he is embarrassed by his no-show the day before and must make up for it.
He more than makes up for it! I am now a fan and determined to interview all four partners. We would like to see more of their stuff. If Formwerkz keeps evolving to address what people and communities need, then we can expect great things from them and their collective.
BluPrint: You say you want to restore the primordial relationship between man and nature. Why primordial?
Tay: Primordial in the sense of the instinctive and intimate connection we had with nature when we were still an agricultural economy. That relationship has been lost, particularly in Singapore where 90% of the population stays in high-rises. Ironically, we are the Garden City, right? But if you look even at landed properties whose houses have the opportunity to enjoy a garden, a lot of these estates are made up of more hard surfaces, more rooms, more interiors versus outdoors and nature. Nature doesn’t just mean gardens per se but outdoor spaces—the sun, the elements, and in our particular context, the tropics. Most of the time we are insulated, just as we are in this hotel, for obvious reasons—for thermal comfort. But in the old days, when the British built their colonial houses, they adjusted the architecture from their place of origin to ours but really celebrating what the tropics are.
They appreciated the change from foggy London. Yes, and were much more aware of it. I believe there is a need to recover that appreciation. What are we doing is exploring ways of continuing the language that has been established in Southeast Asia and tropical architecture. There’s a legacy of tropical houses in the region—Malay houses, Thai houses, Singapore houses, that kind of language—but how do we apply it in a contemporary way? In the past, tropical houses were not so built up, not so huge. So with landed housing today, we are concerned with how we organize spaces so that we still enjoy and interact with the tropics in the way we used to. Hence the Open House, Eaves House, and Verandah House, for example. We were inspired by the colonial houses where rooms and living spaces are all organized around these huge verandahs, in a contemporary Western kind of arrangement.
How about “the recovery of mutual human relationships”? Do you refer to the homeowner and his neighbors, even? Yes, and for landed homes, more within the family unit. In today’s context, the iPhone and iPad have replaced the TV. At least in my time, the family would watch TV together. These days, you see kids having dinner in their own rooms. Not spending time together. The parents are too busy and too tired.
Is that the case in your family? Oh, yes! We have had to make a conscious effort to interact. And I have spoken with numerous homeowners, and through our projects, we realize the importance of orchestrating spaces that force interaction.
Force? For instance, bedrooms should be the only place where you can be alone—we still need that, right? But they should take less priority and be as small as they can be. Maybe they are merely a place to sleep. And then, be as generous as possible with the living spaces, corridor spaces, and the halls, so they aren’t just spaces you cross from the front door to your room. They should be places that are attractive to use, with good lighting, good views, a nice garden.
Give them the motivation to linger. Yes, to enjoy it. It is a way of orchestrating, especially in big houses, for people to cross paths. Because in some good class bungalows (properties in designated areas in Singapore of 1,400 square meters or larger), it is possible to be utterly unaware of each other’s presence. They are so huge, rooms have their own block entirely. Family members can live independent lives. That is a problem we try to solve. But even in small projects these days, you have not just two floors, but three floors, four floors, and the floors segregate people. So we stagger the floor plates and create interconnected spaces, so everyone is a shout away. You know you are connected. We feel that’s important. I love the projects where there are opportunities for us to extend that also to the community—in malls, the different types of arrangements in commercial buildings, and the interactions among fellow users.
When you and your classmates decided to form Formwerkz, did you know you all felt the same way? That’s what’s interesting. Our practice is evolutionary. The philosophy took us a while to define because we started straight off from school—even before we completed school. We each had our own ideas. Even now, my ideas change over time. We grew through our projects and our encounters with people; we formed this direction. It took us five or six years to arrive at some consensus that that’s our common interest. Although we have our differences and individual opinions, the philosophy is something that is important to us and unites us.
Georgina says you focus on architecture and Gwen, interior design. Berlin is the business development director, and Seetoh is the efficiency expert. Is that right? Each of us takes care of what we are good at. Seetoh and I are both architecture principals, but he is really good at working the plan. Efficiency is related to high-density housing where that aspect is especially important when you want to create interesting work—sky terraces, lobbies, carving out spaces that would otherwise impinge on the efficiency of your building. That skill is vital to realize an aspiration. He’s really good at that. Gwen is a principal architect as well, but she also has a natural inclination to interior detailing, interior spaces, and decorations more than we do.
Georgina said it was Berlin who pushed for the Think Tank. That doesn’t sound like something a business guy would do because the Think Tank seems so altruistic. Oh, but from his perspective, it is a pragmatic need. According to his concept of business, it makes sense. And we agree. The traditional business will see a think tank only as a cost center.
Paying people to think? Noble, but where’s the money? But it’s not just thinking—it’s also coming out with an action plan. It’s designing in advance. Our Think Tank focuses on three themes, so it’s not arbitrary, it’s not whimsical. One teme we all agreed on, something we realize research can give direction to our work, is aging and community. That’s very relevant, right? It’s happening to our parents! For goodness’ sake, a couple of days ago, my dad was driving in this area, and he got lost. He drove and forgot where he parked the car. So, it’s very real to us. Another aspect close to us is early childhood intervention and education because our kids are all in the lower primary level at school. Then the third theme is technology and how our lives are increasingly dependent on it.
How will you apply that knowledge in architecture? That is the question, right? Augmented intelligence, artificial intelligence, they’re not new. Developers in China—we have some projects in China—would offer intelligent systems in their buildings before because it was a banding thing, a good amenity to offer. But now, it is more than a branding amenity. What they are after is data collection. Everything and everyone is connected. Even data about our health, your vitals are scanned. The Think Tank is pragmatic for us because they look at problems and address needs. We are always racing against time. The normal practice of design does not allow you the freedom, the time, to consider these things and do research. It might take you a few projects before you arrive at the insights to develop solutions to address these needs. The Think Tank operates like a parallel studio.
Does the Think Tank have deadlines also? Yes, of course! For instance, we had a master planning project in China, a medical masterplan. It was planned to be, not a retirement home, but rather, a huge estate for seniors, with a hospital, medical research center, and research center. The deadline for that was a month.
What? In a normal practice, you wouldn’t have the time to study and research. You use only the knowledge you already have to start planning that space. But if you had studied it and considered it, and tried to solve it beforehand, you would be readily able to explore how to bring in new programs in, what kind of amenities should come in, and so on. There’s no way you could do that in one month otherwise. After we submitted our plan, the Think Tank continued for about half a year to continue the study. So when a project like that comes along again, we have half a year’s advanced research already.
And the knowledge keeps growing. Yes. The knowledge keeps growing, and the knowledge is archived. In a typical practice, you do one project and move to another and another. You gain all that knowledge, but not everyone else in the firm has access to it. The Think Tank accumulates and organizes the knowledge. It’s a chance also for us to interact with other professions, to have discourse with them. The thing with architects is we hardly talk to other professionals unless forced to by a project. They too are isolated in their own realm of research. So we hope with this project, we will learn from each other, and create progress.
Will you share your knowledge with the university? Yes, of course.
How will you earn back what you spend on the Think Tank if you share your findings? If it is a one-on-one collaboration with another discipline, yes, we will share. But if we acquire the knowledge through one of our projects, that would be proprietary. It’s not so strict, though. We have this platform—it is multi-faceted. The objective is to grow knowledge organically within and in parallel with Formwerkz. Maybe we can help solve problems for others. We take it case-to-case. For example, the Think Tank is running a project we tied up with a charitable organization that is very interested in aging in place and community. The project is called Gym Tonic—a gym for the elderly. Sounds strange, no? When you talk of the elderly, you think tai-chi, yoga, soft, passive exercises. But this foundation had findings that muscle training for the elderly is important to gain muscle strength and muscle strength is the foundation for you to enjoy living. Without strength, you have no stamina, so you can’t walk, you can’t travel. So we researched how to make the gym more enticing, how to make the community want to use it.
By the way, in planning, we believe it is always good to bring the two—the elderly and the kids—together. In communities in China, for example, it is happening. The parents work in the city, and the grandparents and kids are left together. It’s so common. And it is extending beyond the family unit into the community as well. That is a huge potential to tap. They have been teaching this in school since a decade ago, so it is nothing new, but where is the implementation?
Your Urban Redevelopment Authority is planning developments that way. Yes, but not fast enough! Speed is also something we are keen on.
Will you be hiring people from other disciplines? Yes. The Think Tank is still in its infancy, and it will evolve, like our office. It will evolve even more, as we expand our themes of interest.
So. How do you want to change the world? (Laughs) The Think Tank is one thing that helps us know the world is advancing, and how we can advance our ideas. Technology is very important because like it or not it, it’s changing our lives. And we anticipate how architecture is impacted over the years because, like it or not, it’s always disrupted at particular moments in time in civilization. With the invention of concrete, the Renaissance, and so on. A decade ago, with the flourishing of the worldwide web, the Internet, dotcom companies. I didn’t think it would change our world. But there are increasing signs that the virtual world is penetrating, like it or not, into the physical realm. Through scanners, your mobile phone, computers…
Virtual interaction experts say we should start formulating laws against avatar and robot crime. Exactly!
How committed are you to your philosophy? Would you take on projects that deviate from it? It’s not so much that I or we would deviate from our philosophy. It’s more like some projects do not provide the best opportunity for us to push our agenda to the degree that we would like for all projects. I don’t think any project would radically contradict what we espouse, which are basic human needs, whether it is development housing or a small residence. Even though a development may be centered on commercialism and dollars and cents, no way they’ll create a living space that’s undesirable. It doesn’t make sense.
Maybe people don’t know what’s undesirable. For example, since Singapore is so affluent, many can afford air conditioning all the time. And it takes someone to keep telling people what’s undesirable and keep pushing for lower carbon footprint and less waste, even though they can afford it. Or when you talk about relationships between man and fellowman, how about beyond the family unit? There are helpers, there are drivers, there are gardeners, and it takes someone to keep urging people to make their living spaces humane, even pleasant. In offices, bosses have finally realized that the workspace has to be ergonomic, well lit, with views of nature, and so on, for a happy and more productive workforce. But we don’t design for those doing menial and hard labor. That’s true. That’s true. That’s a very good point.
I have to say, though, I liked what I saw at the Verandah House, especially the Open House. Thank you.
I also saw this house where the nanny has been with the family for 17 years. She has a nice room with a big window facing the swimming pool and her own bathroom. We salute this owner. But surely it is also because the architect designed it well. Yes, he made it work.
Because the homeowner didn’t actually tell the architect, “Give my maid a view of the pool.” The architect found a way to give her something special which the owner agreed to because it wasn’t a burden. There are owners who don’t care, and it can get bad, very bad. Fortunately, most of our clients are enlightened.
How about condos? Why can’t the helper’s room be humane? They know people are going to have helpers anyway. Why not design proper rooms for them? Condos are the toughest. Because in the Singapore context, the common rooms today are like the maid’s rooms before. Just a decade ago, a three-bedroom unit was at least 1,500 square feet (around 140 square meters). Okay, lah? Now they are only 800 square feet (74 square meters)—just half the size. So how can we talk about the maid’s room when the owners themselves are so cramped? We are becoming like Hong Kong, where some make the maid sleep on the balcony. Although now in Hong Kong, the maids don’t stay at home, they rent outside because the situation is simply impossible. I think society today is less caring. If you haven’t experienced generosity then it is hard to extend that generosity to others.
How about the practice of architecture. What would you change? That is related to why Formwerkz Design Collective was related. All along we knew that this is the way to go. We can be good at the practice of architecture, but there are so many aspects that go into it we can get people better at those aspects than us. We have limited time, right? And we can’t be everywhere at once, right? So we looked for people who have also invested a lot of time and are great at their craft, with a similar passion. The Collective are friends of friends, many somehow related to Berlin (Lee), from his childhood. We spoke to them obviously, and the spoke to us, and we shared, and we see if there’s some alignment. Most of them couldn’t find satisfaction where they worked, and we talked about the opportunity for us to grow together. And that was the basis for deciding—the near endpoint where everyone is going towards. What is that, you ask? Dealing with the environment, aging in place, child intervention. It’s beyond the academic. It’s about how to package this as a living environment where we can be the kind of community we want to be. And we do that through the package of architecture.
In the old days, architects were the authorities of all these theories. But in Singapore today, we receive a brief we can’t change. With houses, we have been enjoying the freedom to discuss, to negotiate, to co-create the brief together with the client. But with condominium projects, they hand you a brief culled form their internal market survey and people who are not architects thinking of all the amenities they want to sell, and then hand this to the architect, “Just build this.”
How will you change that? That’s why we brought experts in. We have the backing of the Think Tank; we have these studies, we have the data, we are published, come on! Tell me otherwise. We are trying to reverse that trend and the frustrations we have felt over the past decade. As a young firm, we have been doing projects with small, controllable, one-on-one clientele relationship. We have had limited success in that sense. But when it comes to buildings that affect the public, with large-scale residential and commercial buildings, city planning, first of all, we couldn’t get a job. And if we get a job, we can’t survive on the peanuts they pay us. Architects kill each other to win the tender, and then they kill themselves with the low fees. That, unfortunately, is our sickness. I don’t know about Indonesia or in the Philippines.
Same thing. And contractors offer ‘free’ architectural services. Then your practice spirals downward because when you do that, you’re just someone who pens the design. There are invisible forces stopping us. And we have to break it. That is my near aim, to disrupt it. It’s not a nice word to use, but in this case, I am forced to because I feel we are being pushed to the edges, you know. For the longest time, I believed our practice of architecture should be planted in Singapore because that’s where we live. But we look, and the opportunities are limiting. And hence we are going to China. And we realize there is a real need there in terms of the sheer number of problems to be solved.
And they are building like crazy, so it might as well be someone who cares about the environment and his fellow man! So that has become an opportunity for us to extend beyond our shores. The Think Tank was established for that. To solve problems there and simultaneously in Singapore. It may be a different country, but the themes are the same. It’s a very similar context, living in a high-density city. It’s not a European city. Asian cities will never be like European cities, with the kind of low density and nice, quiet streets. We have our own situation. In a sense, Singapore has been where China is now. Maybe that is where we can make a difference, recover human relationships and man’s relationship with nature.
Wow. The ripples of change could very well be a tsunami. I wish you success. Thank you, thank you.