He may have won the prestigious President’s Design Award four times over an illustrious 35-year-long career, but architect Yip Yuen Hong remains remarkably clear-eyed about his work.
“Architects are not artists,” the ip:li Architects co-founder declares. “It’s not like: ‘I just want it this way, take it or leave it’,” Yip adds. “Architecture doesn’t need to be flamboyant. It’s just a shell for you, the inhabitant, to create a history in. It has to work for you. Beyond that, it should give you a sense of delight. It doesn’t need anything more than that.”
Yip’s first job with the Housing and Development Board probably has something to do with his conspicuous lack of “preciousness”.
“When we first graduated, we had the noblest of thoughts,” he says. “We wanted to serve the public. And then we realised how difficult the public is!” he says, ruefully recounting the time he spent three months moving a proposed overhead bridge back and forth because residents kept protesting in The Straits Times that it would lower their flats’ value.
Despite the quotidian challenges of working in public housing, Yip still credits his HDB stint with forming his raison d’etre as an architect – namely designing highly functional spaces with people and communities in mind.
Today, Yip is known for his imposing private landed homes that are typically designed with an enthusiastic use of natural wood, stone and off-form concrete. They tend to have a natural, rough-hewn look (“I like my buildings to be very simple and naive, like a child’s drawing”) that belies the sensitive design surprises hidden within.
A recent project at 44 Kasai Road, for example, has sculpted away the entire ground floor in favour of a kampung-house-on-stilts-inspired open-air layout. And instead of a standard dog-leg staircase, Yip opted for a sinuous figure-eight structure that alternately presses into and retreats from its adjacent rooms – a strangely intriguing yet satisfying effect.
His artistic inspirations provide more clues to his architectural philosophy. Yip is a great fan of the monolithic, elemental works of late Spanish Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida (“his El Peine del Viento installation at La Concha beach in San Sebastian is beautiful, magical”) as well as the experimental stylings of jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.
“He starts with a familiar tune then all of a sudden, starts wandering,” says Yip, describing Jarrett’s melodies. “And when he’s had his fill, he comes back again to the familiar tune. I try to do something similar in my work. There’s a fine line between simple and boring – you always want a little ‘wandering’, a little surprise to keep things interesting.”
At 62, Yip resists labels – “I’ve never called myself a brutalist or minimalist” – and continues to stretch his practice.
He recently took on his biggest project – both metaphorically and literally – with GuocoLand’s Martin Modern and Midtown Modern condominiums. The latter is part of Guoco Midtown, an integrated mixed-use development sitting on 3.2 hectares of land directly above Bugis MRT interchange. Aside from the 558-key Midtown Modern, the sprawling complex includes home office concept units, a 770,000 sq ft office tower, a retail hub and green spaces.
“I’ve never done anything this big. Frankly, it was a bit terrifying,” says Yip. “But GuocoLand put their faith in me and creatively, we’re in sync – everyone knows what they’re doing.”
The apartments’ living areas feel unexpectedly spacious, thanks to some architectural sleight-of-hand.
“When the space is small, we want more elbow room. So we try to steal space from here and there. In the bedrooms at Midtown Modern, we’ve increased the size of the living room by taking four inches from the bedroom, or reducing corridor space. That’s how we make it feel even more luxurious.”
Despite its imposing size, Midtown Modern’s unique “nature in city” concept means it’s filled with uncommonly lush landscaping. A Japanese-inspired tea house looks out over a tranquil lily pond while the Grand Lawn on the third floor offers a variety of wide green areas interspersed with pockets of secluded, inviting nooks and corners.
Tactility and warmth are the themes that Yip continually revisits in this project.
“We went with concrete and brown masonry to create this sense of cosiness, even though many might say that luxury is expressed with steel and glass,” says Yip, pointing also to the warm-toned striated marble and charcoal stone he specifically chose for Midtown Modern’s apartments.
“I’m always looking to design robust spaces that encourage people to fully embrace living in their own homes – rather than being reluctant to do so because it’s too immaculate or precious. Midtown Modern exemplifies this with its rugged aesthetic… we’re creating a different expression of luxury that’s warmer and more comfortable,” says Yip.