With a love for history, culture and art, the fusion of Western perspectives with her own Asian origins has fuelled Helen Smith-Yeo’s inspirations for transformative creativity as well as timeless designs.
As principal at STX Landscape Architects—a Singapore-based firm of landscape architects and urban designers—Smith-Yeo is very hands-on in providing direction in the design, management and planning for diverse landscaping
projects throughout the region.
She shares her thoughts with Construction+.
What has inspired or shaped you as a landscape architect?
I’m very interested in cross-culturalism and how ideas, traditions and historical norms get transplanted from the country of origin to a completely different environment and context. I do not believe in being chained to one culture, one country or one belief system or way of thinking.
This is why—after studying architecture at the National University of Singapore, earning my Master’s in Landscape Architecture at Harvard, and working for more than 26 years in Asia—I decided to go back to school in 2017, but this time in Europe (at the École Nationale Supérieure de Paysage at Versailles, France).
I felt the need to be exposed to the European way of thinking to round out the experiences and the inputs I had from Asia and America. For this I studied French from scratch to university level, and through it, I gained indepth knowledge of a new culture and exposure to how Europeans regard the landscape and the practice of landscape architecture. This was a personal quest to enrich my own mind.
How would you describe your design philosophy?
My fundamentals are fairly simple—our landscapes should enhance the quality of life and serve the common good of their users and the earth. I feel strongly about the creation of beautiful environments because I believe we can contribute to human existence when we design landscapes that not only nurture and heal but are also timeless—in the sense that they are designed for functional longevity, rather than following fad or fashion.
You founded STX Landscape Architects (then known as Sitetectonix) back in 1995. What would you say is a major strength of the firm?
Our major strength is our design, the conviction we have in ourselves and the rigour with which we do our work. A good design has no benefit if it remains good only on paper. For that design to be well translated into a built form and space that people inhabit—without it being heavily diluted—takes a lot of hard work, integrity and conviction on our part to fight for the proper technical provisions and necessary execution.
As we are rather ‘old school’, we like to train every landscape architect in our practice to do everything—even things they may not like to do—despite it being time consuming because it creates a more holistic professional. Till now, we have maintained an office of around 30 individuals, which we feel is the optimal size to enable all principals and directors to still be involved in every stage of a project’s design.
The creation and crafting of meaningful, sustainable, enriching and enjoyable places for a holistic environment is best portrayed through our educational work. Throughout the duration of such a project until its completion and handover, our clients also gain a real sense of respect for the landscape with a vision that provides a healthier equilibrium between profitability, sustainability and societal (user) needs.
How does landscape architecture contribute towards creating better cities of the future?
Landscape architecture as a profession is adept, because it is both an art and a science, more so than any other profession. Ultimately, beyond just survival, what matters to people is still their quality of life, and with a future that is fast and intense, landscape architecture’s role is to make everyday life in our urban spaces more than viable—the antithesis of bleak and grey futures like those depicted in movies such as “Blade Runner”.
Mitigating heat islands, reducing glare and reflectance, absorbing pollutants and filtering toxins, slowing down run-off and designing measures to counter flooding, increasing bio-diversity, reinstating beauty all these are the major but non-exhaustive ways that landscape architecture has played out its role as ‘steward of the land’.
What do you think are the major challenges faced by the landscape architecture industry in Singapore in general?
I think the sometimes shallow and indiscriminate cosmetic use of greenery, using the colour ‘green’ to imply the idea of sustainability and what we internally call ‘greenwashing’.
What should be done is to really promote a holistic view and integration of greenery that recognises and gives privilege to the maintenance needs and life cycle changes of planting, because a big part of our profession is dealing with living things and working in a way that is respectful of nature and her own ebb and flow.
There’s always this dichotomy between managing costs and creating the best design possible. Clients need to realise that upfront spending can contribute towards the longevity and easier maintenance of a project. For example, if the green vertical elements are not crazy easy to maintain, they’re only going to look good for the first two to three years.
Sometimes we have contentious relationships with project engineers because we ask for soil and good access. This makes the project more expensive to deliver, but in the long run, it’s better for the project, its users and its carers. For example, if the soil is not deep enough for trees, it will be detrimental to their long-term sustainability and survivability, which will damage the image of the project and the developer. This is definitely something we will not accept as the landscape architect of the project.
The idea of saving trees, for example, is another thing that everybody talks about, but when it comes down to actually doing it, regretfully a lot of people start to squirm and attempt to find ways around it because it is easier, cheaper and faster to flatten the land and build without things literally ‘standing’ in the way. We always push to encourage them to do otherwise because these trees are part of the history of the site, and they bring an important continuum and a sense of timelessness to the project when finished. In addition, they bring immediate benefits, in terms aesthetics and environmental cooling to the development, from day one, which new trees are unable to do.
For example, with our National University of Singapore (NUS) project, we wanted to design an environment that would give users a sense of belonging and well-being, anchored in a timeless landscape. The retention of many existing large trees contributes towards that sense of place and of belonging within a greater construct.
How do you incorporate your interest in cross-culturalism in your designs?
We try to curate the existing elements of a site, drawing from its cultural overtones according to what might be valuable and have meaning. In addition, when we work in foreign countries, we often try to bring in cultural underpinnings or local elements that help identify the project to its time and place.
An example is the project we did for the Unilever headquarters in Mumbai. Unilever is a Dutch-Anglo multinational company implanted into India, so we tried to reinterpret certain aspects of Indian culture, including Diwali, the festival of lights. Based on the concept of the Rangoli—patterns designed by combining grains of sand—we used modern materials to create a series of dots that combine together to form different geometries within the building’s floor. The dots are stainless steel and semi-reflective, and the pattern changes as you move through the space, dramatising the way the light enters through the sky-lit internal street during the day. We wanted to use elements of kinetics, combined with cultural tradition, to create something distinctive that anchors the project in its host country.
How do you want to be remembered for with regards to design?
That we craft beautiful memorable
spaces. We want to create spaces and places that people can fall in love with. We believe that beauty is important and is the one thing that can elevate the spirit and soothe the soul.