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Architect Lim Koon Park wins acclaim by building on history

Standing out from a riot of colourful condominiums along the leafy, quiet Mount Sophia residential district is a low-rise development that is unapologetically black and white.

Traditional white colonnades and sculptured balustrades stand guard on the facade of the five-storey 1919: The Black & White Residences condominium at 108 Sophia Road. Black and white striped blinds, and white shutters, are reminiscent of bamboo chick blinds found in colonial black & white bungalows. The interior, which is designed around a central courtyard – another characteristic of pre-war shophouses which were once adjacent to this plot of land – features a poolside dining pavilion framed by intricate latticed screens.

Its nostalgic aesthetic has, no doubt, a part to play in the appeal of the 75-unit freehold development which has sold out. Its architect, Lim Koon Park, prefers to refer to the design as “a response to the environment”.

The 49-year-old Penang-born founder and principal architect of Park + Associates, which was set up in 1999, says: “We didn’t intentionally draw direct references to any old building. We looked around the site and responded to what was around it. Contextually, the development belonged to a certain period.

“A building should have a relationship with the past. It should be designed with a lot of consideration as to how the people will use the space and how it is defined – even if these sites are little pockets in suburban neighbourhoods.”

Embracing the Past – Dirt And All
One needs only to look at Lim’s barrel-vaulted office in Kim Yam Road, where we meet, to notice his appreciation for conservation. The site was where the historic Nan Chiau High School used to be.

Even the decades-old thick film of dirt on the original louvred windows was left untouched on purpose.

“The developer wanted to change all the glass panels to clean slates, but we told them no, keep them as they are,” Lim, who’s now Singaporean, says with a chuckle. “The glass has been dusted but not cleaned.”

Dusty or not, Park + Associates has grabbed attention on the international design scene when it snagged top honours at two prestigious awards organised by leading US trade magazines. Interior Design magazine named it the winner in the Designer’s Own Office category at last year’s Best of Year Awards. In January, it won in the Small Office category at the 36th Annual Interiors Awards by Contract magazine.

Lim has gone one step ahead by transplanting a classical Chinese watercolour landscape painting onto his proposed design for the upcoming Hwa Chong International School and alumni building which is due to open in about two months.

Instead of distant mountains in the background, there are the existing hill and old Chinese High School clock tower. Instead of hills in the middle, there are the two main blocks. And, instead of streams and rocks in the foreground, there is a garden with a glass structure surrounded by rock and water features.

Lim is working on the upcoming Hwa Chong International school and alumni building, whose design is inspired by a classical Chinese landscape painting.
Lim is working on the upcoming Hwa Chong International school and alumni building, whose design is inspired by a classical Chinese landscape painting.

Hwa Chong, which has its roots in providing higher education to early Chinese settlers, was obviously pleased with the design’s cultural link and awarded the job to Park + Associates.

Lim – who grinds his own coffee beans, collects fountain pens and even shaves with a straight razor – says: “I find that people have a certain romantic affinity for old stuff. Some people are more explicit about it. We like things that remind us of the past. Architecture that has that (nostalgic) sense and feel seems to appeal to people.

“Some new buildings don’t help to enrich the architectural memory of the place, and that’s sad. It seems to be where the architectural scene is going. It is commercially driven.”

Lim’s “affinity for old stuff” can be traced back to the 1990s, when he worked with Penang architect Laurence Loh on the Zhuhai International Circuit and Zhuhai Lakewood Golf Club in China. Loh is well known for his stance on conservation and heritage, and whom many credit for Georgetown’s reception as a Unesco World Cultural Heritage Site.

Says the 65-year-old, whom Lim counts as a friend and mentor: “Park was very conscientious and focused, always working to solve problems and offer solutions. We shared the same interest in architecture – contemporary design which respects the context, construction, climate and culture of a place; (and feel the same way about) the importance of conserving our heritage and designing with a conscience.”

Lim, who pulls 13-hour days, now has the freedom to express his design philosophy in his projects. But this liberty was hard-won – and the architect has his name to thank.

You Name It
During the 2008 financial crisis, someone had cold-called the firm asking if it did theme parks, since it was in its name. It was an opportunity that could not be passed up. Then, jobs had dried up and he had exhausted his savings. The firm had been working on smaller-scale residential projects which barely covered costs.

Park + Associates was then roped in to do the coordinating and technical support for 18 of the 19 rides at Universal Studios Singapore (USS) in Sentosa. In two weeks, the firm doubled its staff strength to 50.

The job paved the way for more theme-park work, and the firm is now involved in projects in Shanghai Disneyland, 20th Century Fox World in Genting Highlands, and a yet unnamed theme park in Abu Dhabi.

The Puss In Boots attraction at USS, which opened in April this year, is the firm’s first as a ride’s architect, lead consultant and facility manager. It has a separate team working on theme parks, and Lim makes clear that the firm does not design theme parks; it helps theme-park artists and builders build rides.

Park + Associates now counts about 70 staff in its team, about 70 per cent of whom has been with the firm since 2009. From a $50,000 annual revenue in 1999, it now pulls in about $6 million.

The open-plan office is flooded with natural light, a stark contrast to the dark pantry. “The sense of space and airiness are what you don’t get in most offices,” says Lim.
The open-plan office is flooded with natural light, a stark contrast to the dark pantry. “The sense of space and airiness are what you don’t get in most offices,” says Lim.

In the last eight years, it has won numerous awards for designs, such as that of Al-Mawaddah Mosque in Sengkang, its previous office in Cecil Street, and the Alnwick Road House, which was also featured in the Phaidon Atlas of architecture.

Now, with more high-profile projects in the bag, it may be tempting for some architects to turn up their noses at theme parks’ faux castles, forests and pyramids.

Not Lim. He says: “I never quite followed (the perception) that theme parks are sacrilegious to architecture. But yes, theme parks can be quite tacky. There are a lot of light shows, a lot of fantasy. It’s not ‘high architecture’.

“We’re quite separate in how we approach theme park projects and architectural work. I’m still very sensitive to the quality of space and light. Working on USS had a positive influence. It’s a lens that focuses on the experience in a space, the drama of the space itself.”

Lim’s temerity probably stems from how, as a 13-year-old, he was packed off by his parents to Singapore from their hometown of Penang. The youngest of five children, he had to learn to fend for himself at a young age and lived on his own. Maybe his flair for building came early; once, he even built a wardrobe from scratch.

At university, he chose architecture over law, reading his bachelor degree at the National University of Singapore and, later, master’s at the University of Sheffield in the UK.

He then started work as a graduate architect with Architects Group Associates (AGA), but quit after five years to join Loh in China for two years. He went back to AGA thereafter, then left in 1999 to set up his own practice.

Even with the increasing attention Park + Associates – and, indeed, Lim himself – is garnering, the affable Lim is adamant about not letting success get to his head.

He does not have a personal assistant, and even changes the light bulbs in his office himself. It likely stems from those harsh lessons he learnt about failure early on, and that “things are seldom what they seem.”

His approach to life is just as philosophical. Lim, who has four children aged between 10 and 20 with his architect-trained wife, whom he met at university, says: “I’ve learnt not to jump for joy and pop the champagne until a job is completed. ”