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Paul Tange, president of Tange Associates: “I share a fascination for technical beauty and I hang around with watchmakers like Franck Muller and Richard Mille, exchange ideas with them.”

The renowned architect and son of Kenzo Tange on lessons from his father, design philosophy, and upcoming projects in Singapore.

When your father is a world-famous architect, revered and recognised as a modernist master, living up to his name is an impossible task – especially when you’re an architect yourself. Yet Paul Noritaka Tange chose to follow in Kenzo Tange’s footsteps, working in tandem and developing a unique father-son, teacher-student relationship. The Harvard-trained Paul, 60, joined his father’s eponymous firm in 1985 and took over in 1997 when Kenzo retired. He later started his own firm Tange Associates and the two practices merged after Kenzo passed away in 2005. The first project Paul took on after his father’s death was the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, a distinctive 50-storey skyscraper in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, finished in 2008. It signalled a passing of the torch and helped to cement the younger Tange’s reputation as a world-class architect in his own right: the son also rises, as it were.

Urban architecture is the Tange forte and Singapore has long been a major beneficiary. Since the early 1980s, father and son have helped to shape modern Singapore’s skyline with buildings like UOB Plaza, One Raffles Place and the Singapore Indoor Stadium. Tange Associates employs about 80 people in offices around Asia and is headquartered in Tokyo, but there has been a Singapore office for years – Paul is both a permanent resident and a registered architect here.

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The firm’s latest Singapore project is the concept design for JadeScape, a seven-tower residential development in Bishan that is slated for completion in 2023. Paul – who has homes in Tokyo and California – travels for more than half the year, overseeing up to 40 projects at any one time. He describes his firm as a design provider and it’s fair to say that his father’s design principles – merging the modern with the traditional, to breath-taking effect – are never far from the table.

Kenzo Tange knew that in a professional sense, his name would be a burden for you. You had the benefit of learning from a master but also faced the challenge of forging your own identity.

I think that my father was a genius. He was my mentor but I did not go that same route – the difference between his time and mine is that with him, everything went out as ‘Kenzo Tange’s work’. Now, I want our architects to feel as if they are the stars, as well as me – I try to promote the team. Our working methodology has not changed but even though this system was similar in the past, it was always ‘Kenzo Tange’. He was never ‘Mr Tange’, he was always ‘Professor Tange’, a teacher running the company as a school – we, as students, needed to graduate. Like an artist, the professor always had the last ‘stroke’. I am not like that, I am my company people’s friend. I don’t know whether I’m a good architect or not, but we try to provide clients with what we think is good design.

What valuable lessons did he teach you?

He always told me: ‘Architecture cannot be created by one person; everybody’s opinion is important. He was my mentor but he was also a very good listener – he could catch one person’s idea and then expand it into something completely different. I really treasure this kind of teamwork, with freedom of discussion and finding the best solution through that. When I was young and a building was completed, we would walk around inspecting everything. He would complain, or be upset over details that he felt were not quite right. Now, I do the same. He knew something was impossible but he wanted to push the limits and he always said that we’re responsible for everything we do. My father was the one who was suffering, not the one who made us suffer – until you get there, you don’t know.

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How is architecture different now from your father’s time? Do clients expect a specific ‘Tange Style’?

Our architectural philosophy is the same. A lot of it was taught by my father, but times have changed. I learnt from my father and now where I am, I’m learning from the younger generation as well. We’re not standing still. I don’t impose certain architectural ideas, we just try to work with the younger group, understand what society is about. I know how to implement ideas because I have more experience, but I enjoy listening to the younger way of thinking. What we think is right may no longer be right. For example, what we know as a mixed-use development (office, hotel, residential) hasn’t changed but the podium (shopping) block is quite different. Our children’s generation doesn’t shop anymore, they just push buttons, so the shopping experience is different. Sometimes we struggle because certain architects have a strong style and clients expect that style, but we do not have design in our pockets – we start from scratch. We work in 10 different countries and we try to understand what is appropriate for each site.

How did your latest Singapore project come about?

We’re strictly a design architecture firm and everywhere we go we collaborate with a local firm. In Singapore we work closely with Ong & Ong – it was an easy collaboration. We’ve done a few residential projects here. JadeScape is not a small project – seven towers – but the client requirement was different from a typical residential development. There’s MacRitchie Reservoir on one side and Bishan Park on the other, and I had this nature-oriented image of an Asian landscape painting composed of seven overlapping towers with a layering element. Architecture cannot stand alone so it’s the coming together of the client’s requirements, the environment and our architectural philosophy. In this case, nature has influenced us very much, and a landscape painting came to mind.

You’re a fan of good design, but you have a special admiration for cars and watches. You attended the recent Formula One race in Singapore, for example.

(Former F1 driver) Felipe Massa is a good friend and through him I also got to know (current F1 driver) Daniel Ricciardo. I always enjoy talking to achievers – I love to be with somebody who has made it to the top, because you learn so much from them. I like beautiful things. I respect the creativity of car designers because unlike buildings, you don’t change the shape of the car depending on the city. I share a fascination for technical beauty and I hang around with watchmakers like Franck Muller and Richard Mille, exchange ideas with them. We share the same passion and the thinking process is so similar, that’s the reason we get along. But our design philosophy comes from a different direction: if a designer thinks something is a good design he fails – but when people think something he designed is good, that’s the only time it’s successful.

Your father was an inspiration to many people, including you. What inspires you nowadays? Is there a project you’d like to build?

Many things catch my eye – my phone is full of photos. It could be just one detail. I tell my architects: experience, travel, look, because sometimes my clients are much more well-travelled than I am. To fulfil the needs of these global citizens is very difficult – my lifestyle is not their lifestyle. It’s important that you’re proud of your design, but at the same time if it’s not accepted you must be humble enough to say “okay” and move on. People always ask me: “What kind of building do you want to design?” I just don’t know: making the impossible possible, overcoming challenges, that’s the passion.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photo: BT/SPH