Q&A with Woon Chung Yen, Metre Architects: The success of my designs often depend on how far I can reject tried-and-tested spatial templates

Q&A with Woon Chung Yen, Metre Architects: The success of my designs often depend on how far I can reject tried-and-tested spatial templates

Q&A with Woon Chung Yen, Metre Architects: The success of my designs often depend on how far I can reject tried-and-tested spatial templates

Since you founded Metre Architects, you have been on a constant search for spatial patterns that renew your understanding of function and aesthetics. Can you share some of your findings? 

The act of designing can be defined simply as finding new ways to synthesise function and aesthetics, such as:

  1. Instead of designing one entity each for “live, work, play” in a small condo, I could add just one single slope and let the owner go to the top to be alone, go to the bottom to meet friends, and still fit everything else in between, including her mahjong table.
  2. A continuous row of seating with storage below, that lines the perimeter of the living/dining space in a public housing apartment, is hospitable to gatherings of different natures and group sizes, while embracing the space and evoking a sense of welcome at the same time.
  3. Instead of using a courtyard to bring light and ventilation to a semi-detached house, I could step the form away from the party wall to tap the prevailing winds and light, and create a two-tiered linear terrace that is open to the sky and, yet, shielded from the street, somewhat like a “secret garden”.

I then found that the success of my designs often depended on how far I could reject tried-and-tested spatial templates, where the novelty embodies aesthetics, and yet enhances functionality. We, as designers, contribute to the built world at large, if, and only if, we can come up with something that looks and works better than existing solutions.

You have a good mix of houses, condominium apartments and public housing in your portfolio. What would you say are the key differences between designing for each of these typologies? 

Houses are generally different from condominium and public housing apartments in terms of size and ceiling height. Another difference is that for houses, I often get to design both the architecture and its interiors, while for apartments I focus mainly on the interiors. But that’s about where the differences end. The intrigue comes when I wear an architect’s hat, while working as an interior designer. 

Back in 2018, with 13 years of architectural design background and close to zero hands-on experience in interior design, I practically treated the floor plan of Gradient Space as a landed house plot, and addressed all of the client’s requirements with a singular form, not unlike building a house on an empty plot. The novelty of the resultant design probably stemmed from this apparent “mismatch” of doing architectural design at the interior scale, but hey, don’t new solutions often come from new ways of looking at the problem?    

Your project Gradient Space has been very celebrated in the design media. How do you feel about the reception towards it and what are some key learning points you’ve realised as a result of working on it? 

Whenever I look back on Gradient Space, I am still amazed at how lucky I am to have met an enlightened client with a brand-new apartment and unique requirements as one of my very first projects. I feel encouraged that my design travelled far and wide through celebrated media outlets. At the same time, I remain mindful that spatial design could only be truly experienced in the actual space, and not just through still/moving images and texts. The very means that allow design ideas to be transmitted over great distances are also the ones that tend to make us forget that spatial experience is as visceral as eating: you need to taste the food, not just look at its photographs, videos and descriptions.

I often reflect on the early success of Gradient Space to guide me along my design journey. I realised that form-making is valid, or even necessary, to transcend utility, as long as each sculpting of form can still be grounded in functionality. I also realised that the moment you sit down to design, your entire reading and spatial histories line up behind you: from the first-year architecture’s reading of The Poetics of Space, to crying and laughing on the grand steps of the NUS School of Architecture, and these make your designs unique and relatable at the same time.

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

  1. As a form-maker, I admire sculptors, even though fine arts are arguably different from design, in that while both deal with aesthetics, design involves the fulfilment of utility as well. Hence, Ju Ming, whose success especially in the Western world, with his Taichi Series with distinctively East Asian aesthetics, did not stop him from developing his Living World series, which reflects contemporary life. While cultural distinctiveness may gain you recognition, the ultimate challenge comes in finding that which transcends differences: the similarities that make us human. I see similar trends, though less distinguishable, also in Isamu Noguchi’s works.
  2. Louis Kahn, and IM Pei, for their explorations of light and shadows, axiality and geometry, which transcend cultures.
  3. Naoto Fukasawa, for demonstrating that even for an item as utilitarian and repeatedly-designed as a chair, it is yet possible to re-design it, beautifully.

What are your three favourite buildings in SE Asia? 

  1. Kampung Admiralty, for offering a uniquely-Singaporean attempt in addressing contemporary issues that are common also to many other cities.
  2. The Hive in NTU, for finding room to do form-making and space-sculpting in a city-state known for being pragmatic.
  3. The State Courts, for the seemingly simple spacing of lines that achieves an iconic look in an elegant way.

In Asia, I favour the Thorn Birds Coffee Bookstore in the Matsu Islands in Taiwan, which was an apparent “mismatch” of converting seafront military bunkers into a café bookstore. Its otherworldliness and extremities make one ponder what makes a space desirable (or not).

Woon Chung Yen is the Founding Partner of Metre Architects