It’s challenging enough to balance a client’s needs and expectations of a dream house with one’s own creative vision – all while ensuring construction goes smoothly and the final structure looks as it should. To do that 116 times and counting is incredible, and it’s one of the reasons about 80 per cent of RT+Q’s business comes from building houses.
The local architectural firm’s abundance of accolades should be enough to impress, collected from the Singapore Institute of Architecture and Urban Redevelopment Authority, and spanning wins such as at Malaysia’s PAM Awards and the Chicago Athenaeum International Architecture Awards. Co-founder Rene Tan himself was named “Designer of the Year” at the 2016 President’s Design Awards.
But the proof is in the buildings, from the lalang grass-inspired zig-zagging The Capers residential development in Kuala Lumpur to the more recently completed Elliptical House near Botanic Gardens. It has never turned down a client, believing every project can be an exercise in structural beauty. This democratic view explains more offbeat jobs like the “smart bus stop” in front of Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station and even a tombstone, which Tan says is “just a house for the deceased”. RT+Q’s works are met with the same care and reverence to proportion and scale, priorities that Tan says are central to the firm’s philosophy. In order to stay fresh after so many buildings, though, Tan says he relies on three things: a great team, tough clients and teaching.
Opportunity in challenges
“Our best works have come from the most ‘difficult’ clients,” he admits. He doesn’t necessarily mean nasty customers, but those with ambitious briefs. The Elliptical House is one such example, where the rounded spaceship-like exterior required many of the fixtures to be specially ordered, as the standard products weren’t made for curved walls.
Tan and co-founding partner TK Quek also teach at local universities, and have taught at UC Berkeley, Syracuse University and the University of Hong Kong. Earlier this year, Tan and his team took a class from the Singapore University of Technology and Design to Florence to study Filippo Brunelleschi’s Renaissance architecture, followed by Paris to familiarise them with the works of Le Corbusier. “We re-educate ourselves through teaching,” he explains.
Of equal importance to RT+Q’s success is its emphasis on counter-intuition. “Don’t think like an architect” – that is Tan’s mantra. “If you do, a door will look like a thousand other doors. If your first instinct is to place a painting on a white wall, chances are every other architect would have thought of the same thing. Never be afraid of putting the wrong thing in the right place. Challenge the norms,” he says.
This is how RT+Q manoeuvres effortlessly through materials, unafraid to leave behind the usual steel, glass and wood blueprints to generously clad a house in warm red bricks. It defied conventional forms by using narrow cantilevered platforms to connect the rooms to the outdoors in House With Bridges in Bukit Timah. Tuned into how “the use of colour has gone out of style”, the award-winning House at Watten uses sleek shapes to keep the primarily white and grey terrace house captivating.
If there’s one thing Tan has learnt since starting the firm in 2003, it’s to not overthink a design.“Design is an intuitive thing and construction is a circumstantial experience, not a prescriptive one free from the unexpected,” he says. Ultimately, what homeowners ask for is that their house be practical and economically built. “Rarely do they tell us they want a work of art; I guess that’s left to us to produce.”