MAKK Architects defines a semi-detached house in Ang Mo Kio with a series of interlocking barrel vaults
A quick glance at MAKK Architects’ latest completed project might yield the impression that the designer recently went on a whirlwind tour of cathedrals across Europe, or that the owners are deeply religious. Its Principal, Lee May Anne, immediately bursts into peals of laughter at the suggestions. “No and no!” she exclaims mirthfully. “But it is the first thing that everyone says when I show them the house.”
The reason for these assumptions is obvious. The massing of the semi-detached house, located in Ang Mo Kio, is defined by a series of interlocking barrel vaults of various heights and widths. To Lee, the explanation boils down to mathematics, “I like complex geometry because it gives you the possibility of creating and crafting a lot of incidental spaces, which I love.”
Complex feels about right. A virtual walk-through of the residence via floorplans, photographs and the to-scale model Lee painstakingly built had this writer all twisted up in knots. Another contributing factor is the life stages of the occupants. The owners are parents to four sons who range in age between young teen and young adult.
This translated into the need to provide lots of room for them to live, play and study. Lee even went so far as to future-proof the three-and-a-half storey house, designing it in a way that some parts can be converted into duplex apartments for when the boys start their own families.
Thinking outside the box
The unique solution that Lee came up with is borne from the need to push boundaries. She confesses that it is a challenge she sets herself, “I’m always trying to change architectural languages and think about how else I can design houses in Singapore that are not the Cartesian block of squares nor glorify the cube.”
For as much as she enjoys experimenting with different geometries, it ultimately has to make sense from a construction and liveability standpoint. Of the lot that she has played around with for this project, the barrel vault seems to tick the most boxes for her.
For instance, it has a single edge, allowing her to control the width. Another is how the idea of allowing the volumes to intersect and sliding them along the X and Y axes of a space results in incidental spaces that interlock with each other. This is something she identified as being unusual, since they are usually designed to be separated and have the full expression of a complete archway.
“This archetype is like the classic cathedral, but then it’s not a cathedral. It’s a different take. I was trying to find something that has a history or that everyone can recognise, investigate a little bit, play with it, and give it a new life,” says Lee.
While it looks challenging to build, the opposite is true. There are only three main materials used. The barrel vaults are formed by bending the rebars and cast in concrete, then finished with Shanghai plaster. There is also black steel to make the balustrades, comprised of very fine latticework that bring to mind wisps of lace amid the bold strokes that make up the curves.
Inserting incidental spaces
The beauty of Lee’s design is that even from inside the semi-detached house, the barrel vaults make their presence felt – for instance through a doorway or window, or even part of a ceiling. She says she was careful to ensure this, “I always like when architecture on the outside comes into the interior, and then becomes part of it. They are delightful even as I’ve been careful to ensure they are fully functional.”
Traverse the different floors and unmistakable are the abundance of not just rooms, but communal areas – from a reading gallery, to a gym, multiple studies and even a viewing deck so tucked away it can easily be a man cave for one of the boys. Of the rooms, two can be converted to include lofts, resulting in them becoming a pair of self-contained apartments.
Inserted among them are double-volume spaces, soaring voids capped with glass skylights, the occasional Juliet balcony and, on the ground floor, a koi pond that flows to the garden. But grand as these are, nothing beats the little nook and crannies Lee tucked into the house – what she calls the “incidental spaces”.
“I was trying to craft this multi-layered experience, so that every one of the family members have their little pockets of space. You can climb into one and sit by yourself to read a book. The light is good and you can be in your own little cocoon,” she points out.
Among her favourites is the corridor leading to the loft of the master suite. She calls it the “part the sea” section, even as she promises the biblical reference was unwitting. This narrow slice divides the barrel vaults that are inside and out, what she labels “the in between”, that she hopes the inhabitants can appreciate. The exterior one frames the view of a lush park that the house stands opposite; the interior lends a peek of the family area on the lower floor.
At the top of the house, a roof terrace is capped with yet another barrel vault, this time with a view of a block of HDB flats in the background. The juxtaposition most assuredly says that this is no European cathedral, even as Lee understands the sense of befuddlement that might ensue.
Yet, she is very matter of fact about it, “I’m going to spend the same amount of time to do a glorified box, why don’t I do something more complex and have a different outcome?”