Q&A with Arthur Aw, Kimen Group: I am passionate about creating exceptional real estate through critical design thinking and processes
Why is design such a central pillar to the boutique-scale projects the Kimen Group develops?
At the Kimen Group, we believe that design is paramount in inspiring how we live, work, play and learn. I was motivated by a famous quote by Sir Winston Churchill to take up architecture as my formal training. He once said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” If a space is well-designed, it can inspire new living experiences. At Kimen, we employ critical design thinking and processes that enable us to detect gaps in the market and uncover their hidden desires, so as to develop projects of exceptional value.
Our approach embraces all kinds of lifestyles – residential, working, playing and learning, with design being the foundation of value creation in our unique brand of real estate. As such, we do not confine ourselves only to residential projects, but to all types. Additionally, we want to offer our investors or buyers of our projects a new form of luxury. This is about the personal attention of the developer and design team, through critical design thinking and processes, to create unique spaces that subsequently inspire lifestyles filled with wholesome values and social connectedness.
I believe this kind of luxury can only be achieved through a boutique developer like Kimen, which is very nimble and not encumbered by bureaucratic red tape or corporate rules and regulations. We have a start-up mindset, which can provide refreshing transparency and authenticity to how we do things. For example, when we did our rendered visuals for our latest project in Singapore, Jervois Mansion, we were not afraid to include the surrounding areas – something most developers avoid doing to make the area seem less congested than it is.
We believe in the adage that “if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well”. When we embark on a project, we do not consider just its short-term potential returns, but also its long-term value. We want the final product to be something that we ourselves want to hold on for the long-term. This drives us to be highly selective about the sites we acquire and deliver a product that will withstand the test of time. This thinking is central to all projects we undertake.
Your career has spanned a fascinating trajectory from architect to urban planner and later, chief development officer of Asia’s largest business park developer. How has it enabled you to helm the Kimen Group?
Looking back, I am so grateful for a very blessed career journey. It allowed me to develop a strong belief that a culture of collaboration is fundamental to critical design thinking and developing innovative products of great and lasting value. I divide it into four phases.
- The construction and interior design phase, where I gained the sensibility of constructability and micro-details.
Before I did National Service, I joined the construction of the former Jervois Mansions to build up my physical fitness. Little did I know that it would have a big impact on my approach to architecture. Back then, more than 40 years ago, site management and construction technology were still nascent. I recall carrying 25kg of cement to the mixing silos in the morning, and walking on the roof to tie the rebars before concrete was poured. I even had a rusty nail puncture my left foot as I was trying to maneuver through a pile of dismantled timber formwork. The short six-month construction stint was highly valuable and introduced to me the concept of buildability. Good design needs to be “constructable”, and constructability needs to be formulated early in the design process.
Upon graduation from architecture school, I spent the first two years as an interior architecture designer for the world’s second-largest hospitality design firm, Wilson and Associates. There, I learnt how micro-considerations – relating to the sensitivity of texture, colour and the spatial relationship of furniture and accessories to the room – are not merely functional, but could evoke intangible experiences and ascribe sentimental values that appeal to the senses.
- The private sector architecture phase, where I confronted and acknowledged the often ruthless reality of commercial values.
Following my stint at Wilson, I worked at a few local architecture firms, designing buildings of various scales and types for 10 years in the private sector. It was an environment where budget and tested commercial solutions were often prioritised over design exploration. I had to constantly confront the conflict between the clients’ perceived commercial value and my constant questioning of “why not” with respect to departing from cookie-cutter designs in the marketplace.
This led me to develop a deeper understanding of values, especially the perceived commercial value that either drives or inhibits design. Good design and sound commercial considerations are not enemies, but more like friends who sharpen each other, akin to iron sharpening iron. In this phase, I learnt that value can be destroyed by not just bad design, but also a cookie-cutter mindset that inhibits its creativity. It is also my strong belief that truly good design must pass the litmus test of the marketplace. I would not be surprised that some designs may win awards, yet reduce the commercial value of the real estate.
- The public sector policy-making and masterplan phase, where I developed a deeper insight of the various forces that impact the potential value of real estate.
After working for 10 years in the private sector, I joined the statutory board JTC, first as its chief architect in designing and developing industrial and business park products. Later, I became its deputy director for the One-North development and subsequently, its director of land planning. I oversaw the various policy formulations and long-term planning of Singapore’s industrial land, and represented JTC on the Singapore National Planning Committee, looking at the macro planning strategy of its more than 720sqkm of land.
It is here that I developed good insight on how local government policies, regional infrastructure, economic and social directions as well as district master plans could impact the future value of real estate. My deep involvement in One-North’s conceptualisation and its execution from Day 1 till the completion of Phase 1 Biopolis, Fusionopolis and Vista Xchange required me to push the boundaries of existing typologies in Singapore. It gave me the valuable opportunity to examine innovative larger-scale developments in major cities around the world and collaborate with many talents in real estate and the creative and knowledge industries. It was this rare experience in JTC that accorded me the motivation to pursue a PhD in Architecture and Urbanism with the prestigious Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, and subsequently, join Asia’s leading real estate developer Ascendas-Singbridge.
- The stint at one of the top regional companies, where I honed my skills from the previous three phases to create lasting value.
I was very blessed to be a part of Ascendas-Singbridge. I was its senior vice president of design and planning of global operation and concurrently, its chief development officer in charge of the development as well as the operational aspects (including profit and loss) of a 35-hectare business park development in Dalian, China. I subsequently became its group chief development planning officer as well as deputy chief real estate development officer, overseeing both the design and planning strategy and land acquisition and development feasibility strategy.
In my last lap with Ascendas-Singbridge, before joining Kimen, I was its executive vice president of special projects, launching a new business unit, Bridge+, focusing on driving value through flexible workplace and community strategies. My stint of more than 10 years with Ascendas-Singbridge was the most intense phase of my career, playing multiple roles concurrently, and covering a wide geographical spread across different cultures. I constantly toggled between building single-use projects and various mixed-use ones, as well as those of different sizes – from the total renovation of an office tower to the development of a 10sqkm mixed-use district. The role required me to constantly negotiate between real estate operations, commercial returns and design innovation.
Ascendas-Singbridge offered me the most valuable platform to amalgamate all the lessons and experiences I gained from my three earlier career phases and challenged me to balance the different interests of real estate operations, commercial returns and design innovation. I consider it an extended boot camp in preparation for my return to the Kimen Group, my family business.
To be able to bring such diverse and dynamic experiences back to serve Kimen is a blessing. The entire trajectory of my career path has been sprinkled with many mentors and collaborators who sharpened my sense and sensibility for a wide variety of projects of differing scales and types with commercial rigour. Kimen is a new phase of my career, a platform for me to realise my passion towards creating exceptional real estate through critical design thinking and processes.
I personally look forward to expanding the real estate arm of Kimen with a strong collaboration culture, growing with our partners, customers and people. We hope to further this to the next level, that is with landowners who may not have the know-how to unlock the value of their land and, through the process, benefit both parties. My vision is for Kimen to become a quality boutique firm that consistently develops projects that will not only bring exceptional value to our investors and buyers, but also contribute to the local communities that they, and the planning authorities, will be proud of.
Which three designers, from the past or present, do you most admire? Why? What are your three favourite buildings in SE Asia?
I would like to answer these two questions together as they are closely linked. There is much to learn from architects of the past and present. Their design thinking resonates with me to a large extent. In many ways, Kimen’s projects uncover the unique values of real estate by embracing the design philosophies of these architects too. I have also picked designers with buildings beyond SE Asia as I believe good architecture is not confined by geography, but rather, by its design response to the singularities of geographical context.
- Louis Khan | Yale University Art Gallery
To the Estonian-born American, architecture is the thoughtful making of places and spaces, where its design can and should simultaneously reveal the story of their building and unfold the singularity of the inherent quality of space, nature and living. I am attracted to Kahn’s masterful use of light, his clarity of the various functions of space, his attention to construction details and embracing all these to bring about a unique sense of a place that is functional, filled with the awe of nature and material, and most of all, a poetic sense of harmony that forms the spirit of his architecture.
One of my favourite quotes of his is, “I believe that what was has always been, and what is has always been, and what will be has always been.” I interpret it to mean that good building requires the designer and developer to put their egos aside to create spaces that would serve social and commercial aspirations of today, and to inspire the same for tomorrow.
My favourite project by Khan is the Yale University Art Gallery in the US, one of the great buildings in the history of modern architecture that possesses unassumed simplicity and, at first glance, is not iconic at all. I’m moved by the way natural and artificial light is used to bring about a great sense of serenity when one moves around the gallery, and how the light enhances the framed view of the art pieces. The gallery also has a highly flexible inner space that enables the curation of different art exhibitions, made possible through the deep thinking of how the construction system and modules could be simple, yet flexible. Light, materiality and well-thought-out details all come together to create a beautiful and versatile place that embraces not only the primary function of the space, but also brings out its soulful elegance that inspires users even more.
As with Khan, the projects undertaken by Kimen are not just aesthetically pleasing, but attention has also been paid to their constructability, maintenance after completion and how well they can enhance the users’ lifestyles. For example, the House of Mdm SC, designed by JL Architects, LST Architects and Spatial Anatomy, has perforated screens that shield all the private bedrooms and bathrooms, while allowing daylight and natural ventilation to filter through.
A similar concept will be implemented in Jervois Mansion, designed by Serie Architects and Multiply Architects. A well-integrated mosquito net system will encourage residents to open the windows fully, increasing cross-ventilation throughout the units, and ultimately reducing urban heat and the cooling loads required for the households. The black tubular system on the façades doubles up as an aesthetic similar to the black-and-white colonial bungalows and encases the irrigation system for the sky planters, serving as a safety feature for maintaining the extensive landscaping all around the building exterior.
The 2013 Laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize adopts a poetic rendition of nature and architectural tectonics in his projects, achieved through his rigorous discovery of what is unique in each project and site. The fluid spaces he creates allow users to freely develop their own programmes, effortlessly attaining a unique harmony among the complex parts. His exceptional talent in collaborating with the client, users and high-calibre designers allows him to achieve amazing syntheses of structures, mechanical systems, interiors and exteriors, functions and programmes.
In an interview, when he was asked what architecture means to him, Ito replied, “It is important that people come first, the architecture comes subsequently, not the other way around. I believe that architecture should be a place that provides people with comfort and freedom.” He added, “Architecture is created by listening to and having conversations with people, in particular, it is important for our clients and users of the architecture to be involved in the process of creation.”
I am particularly fond of Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque in Japan. Its openness results from its simple structure of flat concrete slabs punctuated by 13 non-uniform tubes that appear to rise fluidly through the building. This allows the various functions to be freely distributed throughout the open areas between the tubes. I’m impressed by Ito’s bold design move in reimagining the typical idea of an art museum or library, to reconstruct a “new idea of architecture” as well as the use of technical innovation to achieve this. Here, Ito’s highly flexible space uses a harmonious mix of natural and artificial lighting, made possible by the innovative central structural systems, which frees the space from the typical grid of column and beams. Sendai Mediatheque combines the best of architecture, interior, structural and mechanical designs, through a very intimate collaborative process among the designers.
Ito’s design philosophy has found its way into Kimen’s projects. For example, in the House of Mdm SC, natural light streams through the stairwell, lift core, strips of glass above the bedroom walls and doors, bounces off the ceiling and diffuses into the deepest corners of the house. The basement is designed to be a flexible space, functioning as a study area, a project workroom, a multi-media centre and a game room, and can easily serve as a start-up office or a very comfortable work-from-home sanctuary during a pandemic.
In Jervois Mansion, the window openings of all rooms in the units let in abundant natural light and magnificent views of the gardens in the development from every level, giving that “bungalow-inspired living” experience.
Ito’s collaborative culture is fundamental to all Kimen’s projects. We work intimately with many design talents from various fields, handpicking collaborators who not only are experts in their own fields, but, most importantly, are passionate and willing to listen – not just to each other’s professional voices, but the voices of the market, users, brief and site. We hope to build on this collaborative culture to create a unique brand of our own – one that is trusted by our investors/buyers, partners and people, and even fellow developers, landowners and industry talent.
The Burkinabé-German architect is recognised for creating innovative works that are often sustainable and collaborative in nature. He won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2022, the first person from Africa and the first Black person to do so. I resonate with Kéré’s philosophy of not imposing on the site but drawing inspiration from it, in adopting local materials with innovative design solutions, and always with a focus on inspiring the community by engaging and enabling it to own and transform the space created.
His Benga Riverside Residential Community in Mozambique is an inspiration for me. There, Kéré pioneered a new method of planning and building for the residential sector in the area. The project celebrates the heritage of the site by preserving the native baobab trees, shrubs and native grasses, which also help to shade and protect the area from dusty winds. The project takes into consideration the long-term maintenance and uses a high-quality, low-maintenance modular system that employs local rock, wood and clay. Private courtyard space, scenic landscape views, passive ventilation and greywater management also contribute to providing the best sustainable, economic and long-term housing solution and inspire and enable the residents to freely adopt the communal spaces.
We share many of Kéré’s design philosophies, especially those on sustainability. For example, in Jervois Mansion, we want greenery not just for marketing purposes, but rather to become an integral part of the lifestyle of the residents. We engaged landscape architect and horticulturist Mason Tan and Janet Wong of Mace Studio, who are veterans of the landscape industry with more than 30 years of experience and are also passionate practising urban farmers. They are also our sustenance curator, collaborating closely with the architect, interior designers and engineers to create an eco-sustainable habitat that goes beyond normal ornamentals. After the project has been completed, Mason and Janet will stay on to teach residents how to grow edible and medicinal plants, learn basic culinary skills, reintroduce “old” traditional food and consequently, bringing back the “old world charm” of bungalow-inspired living. Together with them, we are exploring means of cultivating healthier plants with organic fertilisers or agents that will enrich the soil of the plants and sustain the self-reproduction of plants at Jervois Mansion for the longer term.
You’re launching a project in London soon, bringing with it a “Singaporean approach to design”. Tell us more about it.
Before talking about our project in London, I need to introduce you to our key collaborator, Christopher Lee of Serie Architects. Chris worked with me on One-North more than 20 years ago, when I was the director of land planning in JTC, exploring various typological questions. Subsequently, we met again in the Architectural Association in London, where I was pursuing my PhD in Architecture and Urbanism, and he was teaching and writing his book with Sam Jacoby on typological formations. We continue to remain passionate about how the study of architectural typology can inform the industry, designers and developers, and inspire spatial innovation.
The residential project in London will see us engage in a dynamic dialogue on critical design thinking, fusing the best from both East (Singapore) and West (London). Both of us have roots and affiliations in the two cities. I grew up in Singapore, remain a Singaporean, and obtained my PhD in London. Chris, on the other hand, has settled in London as a British citizen and practises architecture there, but has won many commissions in Asia, particularly in Singapore.
We both love Singapore and London. Singapore has evolved from a “garden city” to a “city in a garden”, and now a “city in nature”. It would not be an overstatement to say Singapore is the “greenest” city in the world. Similarly, London is increasingly focusing on ecological heritage in its urban areas. I was impressed to see the expansive ecological footprint within the dense urban fabric of London. Combining our experience and expertise, I believe our partnership and personal attention to this project in London will offer the market something unique, and a new form of luxury of exceptional value.
For our first venture in London, we have meticulously selected a choice site in a large regeneration area with heritage buildings. It is well-connected by the London Underground to major stations, near a large wetland, recreational reservoir and park with multiple sport facilities. There, we seek to add the Singapore’s unique “living in nature” concept to the rich culture and heritage of London. We hope to craft a new form of luxury, epitomised by an active lifestyle, a strong sense of community and being enveloped by nature, creating a personal sanctuary and home.
Right from the ground-floor lobby, we will have a small garden decked out with native plants that are low maintenance and suitable for the local climate. Each unit will have planter boxes with built-in irrigation in their huge balconies, so that residents can dabble in gardening. Besides providing privacy, this type of green space – not typically found in London apartments – will bring nature into the unit. In other parts, greenery can be seen in some form or shape, evoking the feeling of living in a garden.
In the communal garden at the back of the low-rise block, children will be able to explore nature within a safe environment. Residents can engage in a more immersive experience of “real” gardening or urban farming while, at the same time, get to know their neighbours and connect socially. Building a sense of community and ownership is something we are passionate about in any project.
Besides providing green spaces, we seek to incorporate the arts and heritage into the project in an extensive and meaningful way. We want residents to feel like they have somehow stumbled upon an art gallery upon entering the space. To this end, we are commissioning award-winning Singaporean photographer Ivan Joshua Loh to create a series of nature-themed photographs that are more than what meets the eye, due to his creative manipulation of the original images. His body of work hopes to provoke thoughts that if we do not live in harmony with nature, beauty that is seen will just be a false reality.
Ivan has described his work as “funky, quirky, stunning” and his favourite is a photograph of a swan, which won him an international award, the Gold Prize at the 2014 PX3 Prix De La Photographie Paris. Through his photographic art, we hope to bring a refreshing breath of the “greenery” of Singapore to London, kindle the interest of nature in the tropics and allow residents to view and contemplate the relationship of humans and nature through a whole new lens (pardon the pun). Both the greenery and the art will extend beyond the ground floor lobby up to all other levels, enabling residents to come home to a welcoming space of a private garden and gallery.
We want this project to become the crown jewel of the neighbourhood, where a high level of attention to detail, thoughtful fusion of nature with smart technology and design that is informed by the arts and heritage, will bring forth a rare gem of real estate through which the residents can experience the art of living.
Arthur Aw is the Executive Director of the Kimen Group.