Small is beautiful in Yip Yuen Hong’s ideal architectural world – one where a building makes an impression through intimate scale, expert craftsmanship and careful attention to detail rather than grand displays of showy excess. In land-scarce Singapore, the cost of building a dream home has reached the point where owners who can afford to are choosing to go monumental when something more low-key would suffice. That’s where Mr Yip comes in. As principal at ipli Architects, he represents the voice of restraint in residential design: a rebel with a cause, intent on preserving the spirit of homes from an earlier, less indulgent era. It’s a niche he’s occupied with some distinction. Since co-founding his firm in 2001 with wife and fellow architect Lee Ee Lin, Mr Yip and ipli have won multiple accolades – most recently last month for Building of the Year in the residential category at the Singapore Institute of Architects’ annual Architectural Design Awards.
Mr Yip is the eldest of five children who grew up in a shophouse in Chinatown. His father was a skilled shipfitter who taught his kids the art of repairing things. Early on in his career, Mr Yip gained experience in the public sector with the Housing and Development Board (HDB). He also worked in the private sector with well-respected Singapore firms William Lim & Associates and Akitek Tenggara. In the early 1990s he started HYLA Architects with two former colleagues before going independent with ipli – a lowercase (as in small) practice staffed with six other architects. The bookshelves in his comfortably eclectic office overflow with books on design. Jazz plays on the radio while Mr Yip peppers the conversation with musical analogies, lamenting the demise of the kampung house and the lack of traditional craftsmanship in new homes.
Preserving and adapting various aspects of Singapore’s architectural heritage are key to his design philosophy – whether it’s a kampung-style house on stilts, a modern riff on a colonial bungalow or a small scale ode to a bygone era. “I think we build wastefully in the quest for modernisation,” he says. “Architecture is to design what you need – you don’t need to design more than that.”
You turned 60 earlier this year, a milestone age for many but possibly only mid-career in the architecture profession?
I feel as if I’m quite a late starter, that my career only started at 45 or 46 when I won my first SIA Design Award. Unfortunately, in Singapore you have to win awards to get recognition, that’s the sad part of it. By the time I realised it I was already 45. We need to reach maturity as architects, to have certain years of experience before we garner some kind of voice. That first (award-winning) project was a tiny kampung house that encapsulated some of the thoughts I had at that point. That little house was crafted together at a scale we can call somewhat human. I was harking back to history – we don’t have much history and can’t compare to old civilisations with huge histories like China and Japan that provide cultural reference. I was focused on the old houses we had – I still am. Those houses were very crafted, built by two people. This craft is almost gone and now everything is concrete, mechanised and super sleek, not hewn by hand.
Singapore celebrated its birthday last weekend: Has our architecture come of age?
I find our architecture a bit excessive. Good architecture is few and far between. Screaming for attention is not necessarily providing a good backdrop to the city. Some buildings need it to be special but most just need to be well thought out, well designed. It’s the stage set for us to build our lives around, not be the life itself. Architecture in Singapore is so driven by money and profit – I can understand that somewhat, but architecture can be more than just designing beautiful buildings. It should be thought of as a system that allows the whole community to thrive.
At the HDB, you contributed to building that community but at small firms like ipli, there aren’t many opportunities to work on large public projects.
My frustration is that as a small firm we don’t get the opportunity to participate in these kinds of exercises because we don’t meet certain requirements. The majority in Singapore are small firms. I know the mechanics of a large firm – it doesn’t suit me. For me to have a voice, it actually needs to be this size. In a big company, there are just too many concerns, too many people to answer to. From early on, I realised I had to do my own thing – I just wish I could contribute more to society.
What’s the biggest challenge of being an architect in Singapore in 2019?
When I graduated, I worked for the HDB because I wanted to work for the public. It was not exactly a piece of cake and it’s getting more and more difficult. Every few weeks, there are more regulations, new requirements. It’s sad this is the way. Architects in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia are thriving, getting more prolific. They have issues of course, but they are freer to design. In the end our architecture is still part of our heritage. We are missing the ad hoc-ness, the vibrancy, the incidental happenings, the unplanned beauty of life. I think some controls are necessary, you need regulations and safety, but not to the point where it chokes you even without a fire.
You have a reputation for designing homes inspired by the traditional kampung house, adding an innovative twist and combining simple materials like off-form concrete and timber.
The best houses are the small houses. Small footprint houses are more intimate, charming, homely. I know land is expensive in Singapore but to have a small footprint and a big garden, that’s true luxury. To me, a house is a shelter – it doesn’t need to be expensive or excessive as long as it works and keeps you secure. After the shell is done, you can buy an expensive piece of furniture that you can keep and bring with you in future. Architects are trained to understand needs. The true test of good design is that after satisfying the functional, you can inject something that lifts the spirit a little bit. That’s the job of good creative solutions. I still do whatever I feel is correct.
Your favourite musicians include Joni Mitchell and Keith Jarrett, both are known for their ability to improvise and interpret a song in different ways – you can certainly relate to that.
How many ways can you build a house? It’s the same thing, in a slightly different context. The most important consideration is what the aspirations of the client are. That bit of wandering off, then coming back, makes all the difference. Playing a piece a bit imperfectly, that’s fascinating to me. In all art, there’s a little bit of uncertainty and imperfection, just like in our lives – the only hope is that more people see the beauty in that. When we do these creative things, there’s always a certain degree of uncertainty. That uncertainty is not a bad thing, eventually something interesting comes out of it. Our work has been characterised by that anxiety, pushing it to a point where it hopefully still works for everybody – otherwise, we’d be terribly bored.
How would you describe the architect-client relationship?
I’m very conscious of being too self-indulgent and we shouldn’t fall into that trap, to do things that are not really required. It takes two to tango: if you have a great client and a lousy architect or a great architect and a lousy client, it doesn’t work. You need to have a dialogue between the two to explore and communicate, to satisfy everybody. I need that motivation – it takes a lot of talking. That way, every project is a dream project – as long as the client can tango with me.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.
Photo: Jason Quah