“Socially conscious design” has been the buzz phrase in the design world over the last few years, and this big idea has never been more pertinent than in this present age of rapid urbanisation and digitisation.
“As people become more educated and rights-conscious, there is an increasing need for architecture to address social issues. The Government is also building more of such projects and buildings,” says architect Lawrence Ler. “But first, people need to understand that socially conscious design means being more inclusive by design, thus creating spaces to celebrate diversity. That makes architecture and design more humane. People can relate to and interact with it, which makes it more meaningful.”
Take Henderson Waves bridge in Singapore, with its dramatic undulations, which Ler – a graduate of the prestigious Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA) in London – co-designed in 2004 with his ex-tutor, George Liaropoulos-Legendre. Their design was selected for implementation following an international bridge design competition, where participants competed to get their work realised. The bridge was completed in 2008. The following year, the project clinched the prestigious President’s Design Award.
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Ler, an associate director at RSP Architects Planners & Engineers, says: “We didn’t want just an infrastructure connecting two points. It’s a space for everyone. A chair on the bridge is designed in such a way that anyone from one to 50 can sit on it. When I was on the bridge the day it was opened to public, I overheard people saying how much they enjoyed their walk. Children were running up and down. I thought to myself, I could actually make a difference. You can only create a platform and hope people can find joy in it. This is what’s beautiful about architecture.”
“I REALISED THAT ARCHITECTURE WAS NOT JUST ABOUT AESTHETICS. WHAT’S THE PURPOSE OF ARCHITECTURE? HOW CAN IT CONTRIBUTE TO SOCIETY?”
The 39-year-old’s portfolio, which includes ITE Headquarters and ITE College Central in Ang Mo Kio, nursing home Lions Home for the Elders, and the Church of the Transfiguration, is testament to his belief in building community-centric spaces. His current project, the upcoming Catholic Archdiocese Centre in Upper Thomson, will help to bring the church’s various archdiocese commissions and social organisations, including the Catholic Spirituality Centre as well as a home for retired priests, under one roof. It is slated to be completed in a few years’ time. Last December, the father of two was recognised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s “20 Under 45” initiative for having contributed towards “shaping a distinctive and highly liveable city”.
It was an internship with Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Richard Rogers that opened Ler’s mind to the possibility of sustainable architecture. “I realised that architecture was not just about aesthetics. What’s the purpose of architecture? How can it contribute to society? Going to London showed me the reality of architecture and what could be done. It’s about the design and thought process. It’s about how the user will use and enjoy the building. When you put the user first, the project will be less stylistic. Form follows function.”
If there’s one bugbear he has about the industry, it is time constraint. And especially in the realm of socially conscious architecture, time is a scarcity. “Good design takes time to be inspired. But, sometimes, the time frame is not realistic, especially for public sector projects. People need to realise that time must be invested into talking and interacting with end users. How else will we be able to build something that will be useful or meaningful for them? That’s the only way to do inclusive design.”
HIS DREAM PROJECT
“Building a house for myself, although I’m not sure if it would ever be completed because I’m such a perfectionist!”
“One thing I still practise is drawing [buildings] by hand. Unlike working on a computer, you can’t undo a line easily, so every line means something.”
“Resting and coffee. Kopi C siew dai is my fix. Even the smell can help me to relax. I like the flavour and strong aroma. Just like architecture, my coffee has to have a strong statement.”