A career-long quest for substance over style in architecture saw Richard Ho recognised with a ‘Designer of the Year’ accolade at the 2013 President’s Design Award. Narelle Yabuka caught up with this veteran of Singapore architecture to chat about his early years, the honing of his craft, his unique working methods, and three decades of practice.
11 December, 2013
The Redemptorist Monastry – view from courtyard
Since 1991, when you established RichardHO Architects in Singapore, has your approach to practice changed or remained constant?
When I set up my company, I hadn’t yet fully formulated an approach. In the first nine years of my professional life I worked for four different architects – William Lim and Kerry Hill in Singapore, Helmut Schimek in Austria, and Aldo Rossi in Italy. In that period I was very focused on understanding how these excellent architects go about designing architecture.
One of my first projects at RichardHO Architects was Albert Lim’s shophouse, which really gave me an opportunity to explore some of the beliefs I have in architecture – that it has to have meaning; it has to have a connection with the past but also allow the owner to have aspirations for the future. That house won us a Singapore Institute of Architects Design Award and also the ARCASIA Gold Medal for conservation – the first Singapore architect to win the gold medal from ARCASIA.
The Redemptorist Monastry – the columnless chapel
Then slowly as I explored different approaches, doing different kinds of houses and also a monastery building, I began to hone my craft and also my approach to design. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the stylistic approach to architecture. I believe it’s always better to under-design than to over-design. I tend to encourage a light touch in the way we exert our presence in the architecture. It’s not showy at all. We build repositories of memory – we allow the user to come in and personalise it.
Bungalow at 4th Avenue – exterior view
What are some of the insights you gained in those years with Lim, Hill, Schimek, and Rossi that you’ve carried with you throughout your career?
They all treated me very well. They talked to me with professional respect. Therefore I really went out of my way to make sure I did my best for them. One thing I learned from them – besides the architecture part – was how to treat your employees well. I learned to let my employees know I respect them as professionals and care about their wellbeing. I’ve intentionally kept my company small. I have only eight staff. That allows me to have more personalised and direct communication with them.
Bungalow at 4th Avenue – rear garden
I’ve heard you have a four-day work week. Tell me about that. What happens on the fifth day?
Every Monday is off so every week is technically a long weekend! We’ve had this in place since January 2009. I realised that it’s more effective because people put in all their effort from Tuesday to Friday in order to protect their Mondays. They don’t use Facebook or Twitter. The team really works hard.
Of course sometimes we come back on Mondays, especially when we have competitions. We use those Mondays to discuss ideas and brainstorm about design. We don’t answer the telephone nor schedule meetings and our clients respect that. It’s a day for everyone to quieten down and design. After all, design is a very deep activity. It involves your senses and also your emotions – you need to feel and you can’t do that on a typical workday when the phone rings every ten minutes and you have to rush to meetings.
Bungalow at Sentosa Cove – front view
Your body of work is appended by an array of other activity, including teaching and serving on committees. One of your other roles was chief editor of Singapore Architect magazine from 1996 to 2001. What are some of the most important issues you wrote about during that period?
Something I was championing was the creation of a level playing field for Singaporean architects. In that period, a lot of projects were awarded without a competition, or through an exclusive pre-qualification process. That meant 95% of firms would not qualify. Those who did qualify would tie up with foreign architects who seemed to do better work on their home ground than in Singapore. It was not about just giving jobs to the locals; it was cultivating a culture of architectural competitions that will nurture our own talents and give them an opportunity to shine.
I’m glad that the situation has improved a lot now, but sometimes there’s still a hiccup – for example, with Terminal 4 at Changi Airport.
The other thing I was championing was the importance of heritage. There was always a heritage page in the Singapore Architect magazine because I wanted to share that knowledge with architects as well as other readers.
Conservation bungalow at Chapel Road – exterior view
From a cultural and social perspective, what principally fuels your interest in conservation work?
To me it’s very sad when a person has no sense of history. If we don’t know how we got here, we won’t have an understanding of how the urban problems come about. And if we don’t understand that, how are we going to solve them? We can’t.
Conservation shophouse at Cairnhill Road – living room
Problems such as what?
Housing affordability, traffic, how the city is designed and planned, for instance. Singapore is, I agree, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But where is the spatial justice for those who have no money? Singapore is a city for the rich.
Conservation shophouse at Emerald Hill Road – lap pool at roof terrace
What are some of your main concerns about Singapore’s architecture/building industry at the moment, and what are you pleased about?
It’s very result-oriented and formula-based, which makes it easy to administer. For example, it’s easy to say that every building above a certain size must have Green Mark certification. To score high points in the Green Mark scheme, it seems that you have to invest in technology. But good design is not about just buying technology; it’s about the fundamental design decisions you make. How do you make the building cooler? How do you make the sections narrower so the air can flow through? How do you shade from the sun?
On the good side there is also now a wider awareness of good design in general. It’s great to have programmes like the President’s Design Award that recognises a design professional’s life’s work. I’m very grateful for the Designer of the Year award and for my staff, both past and present, because without them this wouldn’t be possible.
SPCA New Animal Shelter – aerial view
What are you all working on right now?
We were invited last year to enter a design competition for the new SPCA Animal Shelter and Office Facility, which we won. It is going out for tender soon. We’re also working on an apartment block on a very tight and difficult site, a few houses, and some commercial projects overseas.
Congratulations to Richard Ho and all the winners of President’s Design Award 2013.
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