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There’s a partially transparent house in tranquil Bukit Timah with a great view

Transparency was one of the design principles employed in this atypical project.

Perched on elevated ground in a quiet residential neighbourhood off Bukit Timah, with sweeping views of greenery and central Singapore, The See-Through House is a study in simplicity, serenity and – as the name implies – transparency. Getting it built turned out to be a little more complicated.

The residence was the first of six new homes developed on a 120,000-square-foot property by one family whose members decided on commissioning a different architect to design each home. An existing house, built by the owners in the 1950s, occupies a prime position at the rear of the site. Its garden was large enough to split into half a dozen additional GCB (Good Class Bungalows) plots.

Designed by Robin Tan of Wallflower Architecture + Design, The See-Through House was completed in 2016. Since then, three more homes have been built and two others are currently under construction, along with an ongoing renovation of the original house. Meanwhile, as an interesting counterpoint to contemporary architecture, a magnificent 1920s conservation house designed by the British architect Frank W. Brewer sits prominently on an adjacent property.

The See-Through House occupies a front corner of the original plot and comprises a pair of identical two-storey stacked rectangular blocks, one in front of the other and separated by a pool and garden, with a large tembusu tree taking pride of place in the courtyard-like garden (more on the tree later). The upper floor of each block sits atop a smaller base while a timber-floored, glassed-in ‘corridor block’ links the main blocks – the entire structure forms a ‘U’ when viewed from above.

  • See-Through House
    Sleek and contemporary, the front block hovers above the street, with just a glimpse of what lies within.

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The land on which the house sits is flat except for a section at the front which slopes down, creating a natural basement at street level. The development’s first four completed houses line the main street while the original house, which is flanked by two others, is accessed via a side road. All three will be ready by next year.

The firms involved in the project are well versed in residential architecture, chosen for their proven ability in enhancing Singapore’s contemporary landscape. Along with Wallflower they include Aamer Architects, AR43 Architects, Chan Sau Yan Associates, Guz Architects, K2LD Architects and ipli Architects.

The brief given to Mr Tan was succinct enough: the new house should not be any taller than the second-floor balcony of the original house, so that the views from the houses in the rear would remain unobstructed. Apart from this proviso, the architects were given a free hand in terms of design direction, and there is no obvious theme connecting the houses.

Unless you consider that tembusu tree – which was planted along with three others when the original house was built many decades ago. They stand in a neat row across what was the lower garden, straddling three sub-divided plots and protected by stringent tree-conservation and non-encroachment guidelines. The two main blocks of the See-Through House stand parallel to the line of trees.

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“The architecture of the house is as quiet and subtle as possible,” says Mr Tan. “The idea was to keep the house to a certain size, keep the sight lines as clear as possible and maintain the tree as a focal point.” He adds: “We couldn’t ignore our neighbours either, so there is no ‘ugly’ back-of-house with aircon condensers showing and so on.” Indeed, the house is neat and tidy from every angle, and there are future plans to plant grass on the flat rooftops to enhance views from the surrounding houses.

To achieve the desired effect – and to improve cross-ventilation – there are large glass panels and sliding glass doors throughout. The result is a transparent, light-filled space. The upper floors where four bedrooms are located (there is also a ground-floor guest room in the rear block, next to the dining and kitchen area) are fitted with wooden privacy screens that pivot to keep out direct sunlight.

The main internal feature is a spiral staircase in the front block that connects the living area with the basement garage and utility room. White walls and teak floors complement the glass surfaces, and the overall effect is one of quiet simplicity. Meanwhile, the towering tembusu tree is visible from any room in the house and with a built-up area of 8,500 square feet, everything is comfortably to scale.

It took several decades and a concerted effort for a large garden to begin a new lease on life. Seven homes now fill the space where a single residence once stood, with a row of mature tembusu trees the only constant. The See-Through House keeps things simple – and that really is the key to its success.

Story first appeared on The Business Times.

PHOTOS Marc Tey