Suen Wee Kwok on innovation & institutional building design

Suen Wee Kwok is the lead design architect of RSP and has 20 years of experience with an impressive portfolio of award-winning projects, specifically in the education, mixed use and civic sectors. He believes that architecture should lift the human spirit, connect emotionally with people when they use these spaces and they are reflected throughout his works. He was the key designer of the LASALLE College of the Arts and with a vision to create a learning environment without any boundaries, it became the winning design of an international design competition. The project went on to win the prestigious President’s Design Award among many other accolades.

East Coast Park; image courtesy of RSP

How do you define innovative design?

Innovation must be defined on the basis on whether the use of the space allows the occupants to achieve a higher order purpose of a more uplifting and fulfilling life. It must lead to the betterment of our lives, be it physical or spiritual.

What drives innovations in design and architecture?

A designer’s need to overcome deficiencies or inefficiencies and to improve the status quo drives new ideas and methods in design. Only when one is unsatisfied with the status quo and is thirsty for a solution, will innovative thoughts come about.

What innovations most recently and fundamentally changed building architecture?

The ideas of sustainability and integrated hubs are recent developments in Singapore that have taken centre stage. Previously, Green buildings solutions targeted the mechanics behind the building (e.g., lower energy consumption, negating heat load, etc). Today, sustainability has taken on a broader spectrum to include biophilic design, human comfort and well-being (COVID-19) as well as adaptive re-use of old buildings. It has also been more focused on the entire life cycle of the building, from the choice of materials, M&E equipment used, to the next renovation and even its demolition.

Read: Jewel Changi Airport

Another emerging trend is that of integrated hubs where functions of different typologies are designed as a combined entity. For example, in Jewel Changi Airport, we have placed accommodation, leisure and recreation together with the traditional retail mall. It allows for a fuller and encompassing experience for the visitors all within close proximity. This is similar to the approach we adopted for FUNAN.

Read: Redeveloped Funan opens doors to public

What key factors impact a final design output?

Time. To adequately address all aspects of a design solution, one has to navigate many sets of information. After that, we need to reflect, think and trial the different option as every design and context is unique. However, time is often what we do not have.  Given the length of a project and how it is meant to last for generations of people, more time need to be allocated for this process when building owners are planning the project.

Street view of Lasalle College of the Arts in Singapore; image by by Kartinkin77/Shutterstock

What’s unique about designing institutional buildings, such as the award-winning LASALLE College of the Arts?

Institutional buildings, especially education institutions, play an important role in our lives as it impacts our next generation at possibly their most impressionable age. There may be a tendency to focus on the traditional learning spaces such as classroom and lecture halls. But there are two other important spaces that form up student’s memory of the campus life. First is the space for congregation such as the assembly and activities area where the circulation must be adequately thought through to accommodate the users and activities.

The second type of space is on the other end of the spectrum, where it is designed for smaller human-scaled interaction, and the key purpose is for students to mingle, dwell and forge friendships. For spaces like these to be successful, it is important to focus on the comfort level of the space. From a spatial design point of view, it should be well-ventilated and sheltered from harsh weather elements. To liven up the space and provide a conducive environment, greenery can be incorporated. Finally, amenities such as water coolers, vending machines, benches and in this digital age, power points, are also critical as students are expected to spend an extended period of time there.

Also read: Rail Corridor (Central) reopens to bring nature, heritage and recreation closer to Singaporeans

What project you’ve recently completed and what’s special about it?

East Coast Park Rejuvenation. As a beloved park that almost every Singaporean old and young has some memory of, it is very meaningful to be able to rejuvenate this place while maintaining a sense of familiarity by preserving the community’s memories of the place.

Nature-centred solutions have become a buzz phrase these days—what’s your take on this?

As seen in the recent COVID-19 lockdown, it is important to realise that we need to have a variety of different environments other than shopping malls for leisure and recalibration.  Working and studying from home have almost made us ‘prisoners’ in our own homes, and our desire for the outdoors and nature have become stronger than before. I think it is wonderful that more and more people realised the need to have a connection with nature or the outdoors in our lives. Nature’s power of rebalancing our being and uplifting.

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