Jason Pomeroy sketches frenetically. With self-assured, rigorous strokes of the pen, he gives shape to futuristic buildings, cities and concepts. Like the signature of a master, these drawings are telling.
“I’ve always enjoyed every single line I put down,” says Pomeroy. “That first line may be right or wrong, but it’s still deliberate.” He links his drawing style to his approach to life. “I’ve never had a nervous sketching hand,” he reveals. “I launch myself at everything I do. That passion shows through in my work.”
At 43, Pomeroy is the principal architect and founder of Pomeroy Studios, and a leader in sustainable architecture. Working across the world, he has devised projects that are ahead of their time, from a technological hub in Jakarta dubbed the “Silicon Valley of Indonesia”, to applying research in zero-carbon houses to create affordable housing in the Philippines. He’s also an academic, author, TV host, collector of objet d’art, and, as we discover, a bona fide fashionista, and a one-time purveyor of antique samurai swords.
His multifaceted interests span travel, culture, history, fashion and art, and his singular ability to traverse and connect worlds sets him apart from more single-minded entrepreneurs. You may recognise him as the host of television documentary City Time Traveller, which showcases architectural marvels in Asia.
In person, Pomeroy combines self-deprecatory charm with a bookish Encyclopaedia Brown air, equally eloquent discussing carbon-negative homes, as he is philosophising about getting lost in Venice. “Very few cities have that sense of mysticism and delight of one being able to find the way back,” he says. Venetian roads tend to lead back to the centre of Piazza San Marco.
Watch Pomeroy explain why he will never hire yes-men, or what keeps him up at night.
A ROAMING SPIRIT
Pomeroy has just flown in from Helsinki when I catch up with him in his office at Clarke Quay, and he’s effusive about his latest experience. “The Finns are probably the most reserved culturally, when it comes to the Scandinavian countries,” he remarks. “But they think nothing of stripping naked and jumping into a steaming hot sauna cabin on a ferris wheel in the middle of the city. I find that dichotomy really quite remarkable.”
Such insights come naturally to this keen observer of cultures. Born in London to a British father and Malaysian mother, he was schooled in the traditions of an English gentleman, which views travel, or “The Grand Tour”, as a vital part of one’s education. “My father instilled in me a free-spirited attitude. I learnt to explore different cultures, without necessarily trying to emulate or impose myself on that culture,” he says.
“If you alienate society with an overcomplicated system, it’s only going to be upsetting.”
– Jason Pomeroy, on the importance of sustainable technology in design
His youth was a crucible of diverse influences. His father encouraged him to take up martial arts, and he became a black belt holder in aikido and jodo at the age of 16. His mother took him to art galleries and museums, and hoped the young Pomeroy would one day become a cellist. “There was a wonderful balance between the physical aspects and the more pensive aspects of art, culture and music,” he says.
Travelling across Europe, he indulged equally in active and passive distractions, spending months sketching the villas of Vicenza, Italy, and patronising rough-and-tumble bars in Latvia just as it was joining the European Union. The world was infinitely intriguing – so much so that it almost derailed his architecture career.
Pomeroy calls himself a “rubbish architecture graduate” who simply enjoyed his other university classes – photography, sculpture, illustration – too much to focus.
It was only while pursuing his master’s at Cambridge that he found a way to make things stick. Determined to survive a school project, he decided to work with the concepts of natural light and ventilation, using materials in a way that could be adaptable to future needs. When the results were released, he thought he had failed, but ended up getting top marks. It was then that he realised he was on to an idea, one that would lead him to be a major force in sustainable architecture. More of that later.
OFF THE CUFF
Today, his roaming spirit has come full circle. Armed with a vast knowledge of culture, cities and architecture, Pomeroy plays guide to a much-larger audience, as a television host.
He has several award-winning documentary series under his belt: City Time Traveller (Series 1 & 2), City Redesign, and Smart Cities 2.0. While he admits he takes an ad-lib approach to presentation – “I am rubbish at remembering lines” – he is instrumental in shaping the show’s content. This March, he hit the screens again as the host of Smart Cities 2.0, which investigates smart cities from Shenzhen to Amsterdam. It’s a dense topic to chew over, but Pomeroy has a knack for distilling insights from diverse sources.
“What I found out in my eight episodes is that the meaning of smart cities changes from place to place,” he says. “If you speak to the people of Higashimatsushima, it’s about resilience to climate change; in Bandung, it’s about how social media can provide an insight into where crimes, flood and congestion is taking place.”
The best thing about being a host? Helping everyday folks to better understand the cities they live in. “When I was at a bus stop, an old lady came up to me and said, ‘You’re the guy on TV,’” before proceeding to quote something I’d said. It tells you it’s touched them personally and enriched their understanding of the city.”
Pomeroy has a penchant for following up on subjects he finds fascinating. It was, after all, a trip he took with his father to St Paul’s Cathedral in London at the age of 8, which led him to pursue architecture. He recalls one moment when father and son whispered to each other along the curvature of the dome. “That’s when I found the whole idea of architecture quite mystical. How can you have a conversation with someone so far away and yet still be able to hear him?” he marvels.
That exploratory instinct would eventually lead him to Asia. Though he was off ered a chance to stay in London, he saw the opportunity to better pursue green architecture in Singapore. He says: “South-east Asia is a high-density environment. I took the plunge to come to Singapore because it was more culturally pertinent to my research interests in sky gardens and sky buildings.”
In 2012, he took a leap of faith and set up Pomeroy Studios. He says of his mindset then: “If I fail, I can do something else. At least, get in the game.” Getting in the real game of sustainability, however, means dealing with real-world complexities. I ask him how he feels about having designed Trump Tower Manila two years ago, which aimed to set a new benchmark in green living, after US President Donald Trump recently scaled back on climate change protections. “When you win a project like that, at first you think ‘Yes!’” he trails off. “And then the yes becomes (silent pause).” He adds: “Though, in that project, we reduced energy and water consumption by 30 per cent.”
Today, Pomeroy’s approach to green architecture goes beyond the accepted triple bottom line of environment, society and economy. Instead, he argues for including three more parameters: culture, space and technology.
“Cultural preservation and cultural sustainability are important. What does it mean to live in the wake of globalisation? What happens to spatial sustainability in the wake of urban densifi cation? How can we replace the loss of space? There’s also technological sustainability. Technology is only as smart as the person using it. If you alienate society with an overcomplicated system, it’s only going to be upsetting,” he says.
To find novel solutions for a greener future, Pomeroy turns to research. He’s written three books, including one on sky courts and sky gardens, and another on carbon-zero houses. On the cover of his latest work published in 2016, POG: Pod Off Grid: Explorations in Low Energy Waterborne Communities, futuristic gleaming buildings rise off the coast of Venice. In it, Pomeroy explores the idea of developing housing in the ocean.
From paper to the real world, these ideas are already being realised. Just last year, his firm completed the “world’s largest water home development” in Lexis Hibiscus Port Dickson, Malaysia. He also completed the pioneering design of B House in Singapore as a “carbon- negative house” which generates more energy than it consumes.
As the project costs the same as an “average house” to construct, he’s excited about debunking the idea that sustainability is costly. His studio is now looking to apply insights into carbon-negative homes to affordable housing in the Philippines.
THE BUBBLING BRAIN
To take these imaginative leaps, Pomeroy turns to a vast array of resources. “I read journals outside my industry. It’s those lateral sources of inspiration that allow me to lead the discourse,” he says. “It’s like cancer research at the moment. The breakthroughs are not coming from within the medical profession.”
Since his days at university, he has kept an active reading schedule, reading two to three books at a time. “During my master’s, I read incessantly because I was so terrified of flunking,” he says with a laugh. Today, he still enjoys reading the classics, from Plato, Ovid and Aristotle, to contemporary writers like Jonathan Meades and Richard Sennett.
Like any free spirit, Pomeroy admits to a few odd fascinations. One includes selling antique samurai swords as a teenager to fund his university education. “I was studying iaido, which was the art of drawing the sword. Those swords were objects of beauty so I bought a few historic swords from Japan. I ended up dealing in them, which was great fun.”
Then, there was a period at university when he was so intrigued by the idea of “Victorian restraint” against frivolity, that he wore nothing but black. “I had a shaven head. I had no hair. People would see me in Canterbury Cathedral and think I was a monk,” he reveals. Fortunately, an ex-girlfriend, a fashion designer, saved Pomeroy from fashion obscurity, and he’s not looked back since.
Dressed for this interview in a dapper Ralph Lauren suit, he confesses to a love for Savile Row tailoring, Jeffery West shoes and “a thing for skulls”. “I’ve also always had a love for LV,” says Pomeroy. He carries an LV travel bag that sports his initials. “It’s the spirit of travel that I like. I love old trunks. I can spend hours in an antique shop just opening and closing trunks thinking about what went inside them.” With a twinkle in his eye, he gushes: “Trinket boxes, love them!”
HE’S LIKE A SHARK
Ironically, since the day he cracked the code to his architectural success during his master’s, his life has been like one of a shark that has to keep swimming. He says: “It has filled me with fear ever since, because I push myself to these ridiculous limits to always try and be at the top. Sharks have to keep on swimming, otherwise they sink to the bottom and die. And I fear the day that I stop swimming.”
“Sharks have to keep on swimming, otherwise they sink to the bottom and die. And I fear the day that I stop swimming.”
– Jason Pomeroy
Today, he travels weekly while juggling multiple commitments. “The difficulty is when you’re leading this very fragmented lifestyle between different countries and professions; each one has its goals,” says Pomeroy.
He’s already planning his next book, scheduled for 2018, which will be about “modularity and modularisation”. He describes the idea as exploring how giant structures can be erected quickly like Lego bricks. “I write a book like this every two years. It keeps me sane and the mental juices flowing.”
Travel, naturally, finds its way into his work. “I always found it fascinating how the Mauritanian nomads could erect a tent in 5 minutes and 50 seconds. It’s because they travel 10 miles a day in the desert and they do it regularly,” he says. “With modularity, it’s almost to the point where we are setting the stopwatch as to how fast we can erect and create something.”
I ask what has been the most challenging time in his career so far. “The scariest time is when you decide to go it alone,” he says. “But I knew if I had not done it, I would not have been able to enjoy this new era, post-financial crisis, with its new awakening to the green agenda.”
And much like his approach towards life, Pomeroy is always ready to launch himself to the task. “It’s like the sketches really. When you’re committing pen to paper, you can’t afford to be nervous. You’ve got to attack the paper.”
The ‘city time traveller’ on the cities he would visit for their history and heritage.
THIS AND THAT
We take a sneak peek into the architect’s quirky personal collection.
“It’s the perfect working watch. They’re so robust; there’s nothing gentle about them at all and they just stand the test of time. I have this fascination with the early vintages from the 1930s and 1940s for their waterproof qualities.”
GRAPHIC FINE ARTS
“I collect graphic art from the 1960s to the present day, because it reflects the style of illustration I used to do as a student. My favourites are Patrick Caulfield, Michael Craig-Martin and Julian Opie.”
“I have this thing for skulls. I found Jeffery West and his skull motifs fascinating, way before it became fashionable. I also have an art piece by Damien Hirst which is a skull.”
PHOTOGRAPHY Tan Wei Te
ART DIRECTION Fazlie Hashim
STYLING Dolphin Yeo
GROOMING Keith Bryant Lee, using Mac Cosmetics, & Kevin Murphy
CLOTHES Silk linen jacket and matching pants, and silk cotton shirt, from Salvatore Ferragamo