Wabi-sabi guided the transformation of this HDB flat by Kaizen Architecture
“I was honestly surprised,” says Melvin Keng, Principal of Kaizen Architecture, referring to the accolades heaped on his Terrace Flat project, featuring the transformation of a 1980s public housing apartment (HDB) in eastern Singapore. He shouldn’t have been. The project may be relatively modest in scale – a floor area of 100sqm renovated with a budget of $150,000 – but the design ambitions that find material realisation are anything but.
Terrace Flat is a child of lockdown; its leitmotif is multi-functionality. The project began with the tearing down of its internal walls, turning a warren of bed and living rooms into a single space with abundant natural light front and back. In their place, Keng erected a three-sided plywood screen-like structure, providing a seamless demarcation between the different areas.
The circulation route, guided visually by the gentle curves of the structure, takes one around the flat from the living and working areas, to the sleeping area, bathroom, kitchen and back to the living area. The structure additionally houses a storage and logistical hub servicing each of these functions, including a bar, which opens up on to the living and dining area, and a retractable working surface in the kitchen area.
The other manifestation of multi-functionality is the 12-seater table in the centre of the flat. It, rather than the ubiquitous giant television screen, is the hub, serving as an everyday working and dining surface as well as the focus for hospitality. The importance of its role is celebrated in its richly veined green marble surface; a distinct contrast to the much simpler materials used elsewhere in the flat.
Such materials reflect Keng’s enthusiasm for the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi: an acceptance of transience and imperfection and its manifestation in simplicity and honesty in design*. The most evident sign of this is in the surfaces of the flat, which are primarily in fair-faced concrete. Where paint has been used – on the front door and to demarcate the kitchen area – it is in terracotta to complement the earthiness of the rest of the flat.
The effect, somewhat paradoxically, is quite cave-like in its sense of warmth and intimacy, but a cave that is bathed in natural light. As for other forms of light, the most obvious is the spiral LED tube, jointly designed by the architect and a friend, hanging over the dining table.
Another manifestation of wabi-sabi honesty is the exposed pipework and electrical conduits. Aesthetics apart, this ethic – what might be regarded as “industrial” – was “interestingly enough”, says Keng, encouraged in original HDB building preferences as something that was conducive to easier maintenance, but has been too often more honoured in the breach than the observance.
Other interesting and unusual design touches are to be found throughout the flat, from the front door with a bar in place of a knob and porthole, and an oval ship doorway-like entrance to the bathroom. “It’s a small homage to Le Corbusier,” says Keng, echoing a similar doorway in his architect hero’s Immeuble Molitor home in Paris.
The bathroom itself makes clever use of borrowed light filtered through glass bricks from the main area of the flat and contains that sensible Japanese touch; a tiled seat so that, as the architect puts it, one doesn’t have to stand like a clumsy bird on one leg to wash the soles of your feet.
Perhaps the single most ingenious design touch of all is the angled indoor glassed veranda Keng has created at the front of the flat. In its previous incarnation, the front door gave way immediately into the living room. The veranda provides a delightful vestibule full of greenery as an entrance, its glass screen separating it from the living room angled away from the point of entry, ensuring the visitor’s line of sight is into the flat.
From the interior, the impact of the veranda is transformative. The bare, basic rectangle becomes a room with a view on to the outside world; a plant-covered transitional space between interior and exterior. It is an excellent example of how the best strokes of design are so often the most simple which, in itself, is a fine instance of wabi-sabi.
*Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay, In Praise of Shadows, expounding the principles of wabi-sabi, can be downloaded here.