Q&A with Ong Ker Shing & Joshua Comaroff, Lekker Architects: Design is a means to an end

Q&A with Ong Ker Shing & Joshua Comaroff, Lekker Architects: Design is a means to an end

Q&A with Ong Ker Shing & Joshua Comaroff, Lekker Architects: Design is a means to an end

Lekker Architects was specially commissioned to do an installation for Singapore Design Week 2023 and you came up with FI&LD. Please give a short summary of what it is about and what you would like visitors to take away after experiencing it.

FI&LD is an interactive exhibition exploring the state of practice in inclusive design, celebrating creativity for a diversity of human bodies and minds. It includes interactive experiences, a showcase of amazing projects and curated events (as well as some introductory orientation to this area of creative practice).

Why the concept of “FI&LD”? We are using the language of sports because FI&LD explores inclusive play as a way for designers and the public to think about inclusivity more generally. The sports field is a metaphor for the design field: if we can find an enabling and flexible set of rules, we can better play together because of our differences. FI&LD reimagines the sports field — a familiar space for fun, games and interactions — as a model for inclusion.

We think of this inclusive space as an area of creative inter-action, where all contents, people and ideas are welcome. The FI&LD becomes limitless by embracing the endless potentials of human diversity. It is a space of play, learning and engagement.

We want FI&LD to do something very simple: to show, undeniably, that there are many cases in which the world was made better by design. And specifically, it was made better by thinking much more carefully about who the user is — her or his peculiarities, differences, hopes, comforts, dislikes, struggles. These are cases where the “one size fits all” notion of the end user has been thrown away. Our slogan is “militant empathy”; it means that our weapon is being willing to learn about and empathise with others. We hope that our visitors will come away with an understanding of the power and value of this concept to transform design.

Graphic of FI&LD installation by Ong Ker Shing & Joshua Comaroff, Lekker Architects
The five areas of inclusivity that FI&LD will cover.

Designers are incorrigible optimists. If you choose to spend your life trying to breathe new life into something as ancient as houses (for example), you simply have to believe that they can be better or different — and this is true for everything in the world that we can design. It takes a lot of courage to be “progressive”; that is, to believe that the world will be a better place because humans make it so.

The DesignSingapore Council turns 20 this year and Lekker Architects has been spotlighted as one of 20 names that have contributed significantly to the country’s design scene. How do you think your work has helped define the Singapore design brand?

We are an office that leans heavily into “social design”. This means that we do not see a building or space as the final product of our work; we see the final product as a social outcome enabled by that building or space. Because of our unique backgrounds — in design and social science — we are guided by social questions throughout. So, how can we create a hotel where the guests will feel that everyday reality has been suspended? How can we create an inclusive school that typically-developing kids and those with special needs would want to go to? How do we make a home that is a shelter from the stresses of the world? How can we change the way people care for those with dementia?

Design is a powerful tool but for us, it is a means to an end. We try and bring this kind of focus to Singapore design — creating things that arise out of an intense attention to the aspirations and emotions of our users.

Which three designers, from the past or present, do you most admire? Why?

  1. Dom Hans van der Laan was a monk and architect who knew how to make spaces “transformative”; you don’t come out of his buildings the same as you went in. 
  2. Manuel Herz designs very humanely and with extraordinary emotion. 
  3. Victor Papanek had a wonderful philosophy about how design could make everyday life better and more delightful. His books are old, but we think everyone should read them.

What are your three favourite buildings in SE Asia?

  1. We are big fans of Golden Mile Tower. It is a little collection of pocket-sized worlds; each space has such a clear identity, and you can get lost wandering around like Alice. It is very exciting to be in a building that surprises you — so much contemporary architecture is predictable. 
  2. The Arcadia offers a lovely, genteel and generous idea of tropical living. It still feels relevant in the current climate of “green” design. 
  3. Though it might be predicable, we are always happy in People’s Park Complex. It feels like the blueprint for all of urban Asia today…it is old and new at the same time.

You are constantly fascinated by how architecture can influence social outcomes. How can architects do this in residential design?  

Houses are interesting social spaces. Of course, most of the social life of the house happens within the frame of the family — but many factors for good collective spaces are relevant to the home also.

We are in favour of spaces that are complex and varied — not just one big volume (in the modernist style) but with lots of corners, alcoves and islands of different scales. The edges of a room can be like the edges of a forest…full of nooks and small enclosures to feel sheltered and to look out from. We discovered this trick designing schools for diverse student groups. It allows all of us, with our various moods, comforts and activities, to occupy the same space — together, differently.

We also like spaces that are porous. Most of our residential projects are very open around the edges, to allow one to kind of drift in and out effortlessly. This works beautifully for our local climate, but also creates the sense of a welcoming space (where engaging with each other is casual and low-stakes).

Lastly, we like spaces that can change. Families are organisms. We have three kids and each year, everyone’s interests and activities and moods evolve. Our own home is a bit of a mess, but everything in it is made to enable whatever we are all interested in at the moment. A real house — one that is not a built manifesto — cannot be finalised, because we humans are never “finished”.

Ong Ker Shing and Joshua Comaroff are the Co-Founders of Lekker Architects.