I Can’t Believe it’s not Gothic: an Interview with Tan Kok Hiang, Architect of Yale-NUS College
JOHN WAN (M.Arch 16)
Across the globe from New Haven, workers put the finishing touches on Yale’s new tropical home. Yale-NUS College is Yale’s venture with the National University of Singapore (NUS), the Southeast-Asian city-state’s only liberal arts college, and one of few in Asia. Established in 2011, the college houses 1000 students and 100 faculty in three on-campus residential colleges: Elm, Cendana, and Saga, all named after trees. A central block houses a sports hall, fitness centre, amphitheatre, multimedia hub, dance studios, laboratories, and a black box theatre. The US$154 million, 690,000 square-foot campus was completed in July 2015, just in time to welcome students from the Class of 2019.
Undeniably contemporary but drenched in what observers term a ‘colonial’ look, the campus is a union of disparate, sometimes opposing disciplines: contemporary Asian tropical regionalism meets the familiarity of old-country wood interiors, a tactile expression of the Yale-NUS curriculum, which fuses an American liberal arts education with the best traditions of Asian thought and philosophy.
Singapore-based architectural firm Forum Architects, famed for creating works in a tropical context, has been intimately involved since the project’s inception. Paprika! speaks to Forum’s founder and principal Tan Kok Hiang to find out more about the design intentions and challenges working on the campus.
JW: What is the story behind this project?
TKH: To be fair to everybody we should go back further than Pelli Clarke Pelli. This job started in 2008 when we won an NUS competition for residential college on the same site. We’d been working with NUS for a very long time, and completed a major institutional project for them, so they had confidence in us. When Yale got on board (Rick Levin and Linda Lorimer were the most involved in terms of what they wanted for the college) they said that was a good location for them but the job grew to about four times the size.
KieranTimberlake and Pfeiffer Partners were brought in for their familiarity with Yale campuses, and I worked very well with Stephen Kieran, because we both have the same methodology, we think the same way. There was a very good connection. We wanted a contemporary tropical building, so all our presentations were contemporary in style. There was homage paid to culture of Yale, such as the portal staircase and pedagogical methods manifest in space, but the actual style was very tropical and very modern as you would expect in Singapore.
Yale wanted a different direction. They wanted a more collegiate feel. At least, that’s how I interpreted it. So, Pelli came into the picture. By then we had already formulated the masterplan, the courtyards, the suite arrangements, the sky terraces – everything was pretty firmed up. The plan was pretty much already in design development.
Pelli felt the overall massing could be better and he suggested significant improvements to the masterplan by introducing a total of five towers as opposed to the original three in the masterplan. Pelli’s firm was also asked to design the exteriors of the buildings to a style more akin to what you have in New Haven – they were adept at that.
JW: What challenges did you face during design?
TKH: I thought maybe the interiors could be more contemporary, but I think Yale had other ideas. They still wanted it to be stylistically referential, so I had to find a way to reconcile my own design inclinations. Someone in the senior management of NUS reminded me that Yale is used to three-storey, at most five-storey colonial-era buildings hugging the ground but here in Singapore, they are in a high-density region and have to contend with being thirty storeys up in the air. I understood that to mean that Yale was already giving up some ground: instead of the stair portals, we gave the students sky gardens in the towers, with staircases that serve communities spread over three stories. So Forum worked hard to bring more ‘Yaleness’ into the design.
As for the interiors, I would call it ‘contemporary classic’. The colors are modern, the expressions are modern, the details are modern: cornices don’t curve, they are straight. So to me it was a happy marriage between what was desired and what we managed to achieve.
JW: How is the campus adapted to the tropical climate?
TKH: The courtyard and five-foot ways along its edges are very amenable to the tropics, so there is always an inside-outside feel, which is wonderful because you can’t do that in New Haven–it’s too cold most of the year. They are not designed to be used in the way that you’d imagine a square in New Haven or in any temperate country is used. Here the edges of the courtyards are designed to be used. We don’t expect usage at the centre; nobody gets out there because it’s too hot. The courtyards are a visual anchor. Usage only occurs under the shade of trees,and the central courtyard has three heritage trees providing a huge shading effect. So one thing about the tropics, when we design a building and its garden, we try to put the trees very close to you, so that they are the filigree or the filter through which you see the courtyard, as opposed to the tree being a thing for you to look at.
JW: What do you think about the final result?
TKH: The final result is not bad. The good thing about it is that it’s got a very collegial feel, which is difficult to do with an ultra-contemporary look. It harks back to New Haven, and the courtyard idea worked out very successfully.
JW: How has Yale received the campus so far?
TKH: Before I became the architect, the Yale Project Team made me take them through the buildings I’ve done. We looked at the International Arbitration Centre Building at Maxwell and the Bukit Timah campus, which was more classical. While they see a certain quality, it’s always in a very contemporary style. The details are contemporary, and they ask me if I can do a classical thing the way they want it, and they have the tendency to think, “Yeah, but we use solid wood, our furniture is made to last a hundred years, so yes that’s a beautiful detail but it doesn’t look like it’s going to last.” At the back of their minds they always see a difference of standard.
The Yale board members come down regularly, and the last time they came, I was told they are happy and probably pleasantly surprised that we could do it so quickly. We started planning this job in 2009, and in six years, this college was built.
JW: What are your impressions of Rudolph Hall in New Haven?
TKH: That was a stunning visit. It was an incredible thing for me. It’s very strange. It was only during my second or third trip that I got the chance to squeeze in one or two hours before I had to catch a flight. When I visited Rudolph Hall, I felt the most amazing thing: I had the feeling of coming home. But why? Because I’ve never been to Yale before, I’ve never studied here, but I had this feeling of coming home. The reason was simple: When I was young – fourteen or fifteen years old – I wanted to become an architect. I used to read GA. I remember there was one copy I had with Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building on the cover. That was my book and that was the thing I looked through every day. I knew the building so well when I was young, such that when I visited it I said, “Okay, of course I know this building.” But I’ve never seen the building in real life!
JW: How do you feel about Brutalism as a style?
TKH: It was about sincerity, about expressive materials. Brutalism was about being authentic to the materials that we use. I think the connotations of its name is sad because its ideas are essentially gentle – it was about sincerity and humility, letting the material take over as opposed to your ego. But it really was a ‘brutal’ style: cruelly singular. I think the lessons of the style are worth noting, but the actual execution of the style may not be so relevant.
JW: How do you feel about Robert AM Stern’s new residential colleges in New Haven?
TKH: They are relevant to what he’s doing in New Haven. It is relevant to Yale in New Haven and its historical context. The next question would be how well it’s done, and the spaces created. I have no qualms about any kind of style as long as it serves its purpose and is done well. One of my favourite of Ruskin’s Lamps is the Lamp of Sacrifice. Why sacrifice? Because the artist sacrifices by putting in his/her labour of love. So for me, in any style you choose, you put in your labour of love, you put in your whole heart. And there’s sacrifice in whatever you do: that to me is very powerful because people feel it. You go into a church you feel it’s amazing because somebody built this incredible thing, you ponder it for a while, “Which crazy guy did this, and gave up his life to do this.” I think occupants of a building appreciate human effort, human strife. So to me that’s a very abstract, very subconscious part of architecture and art – actually, more craft than art – that I think is a powerful driving force.
JW: How do architects impart an artist’s touch in the buildings they design?
TKH: Architects don’t have to be craftspeople, but they can be ‘imagineers’. They are the guys who shape the engineering that takes place. That’s the art of building, and the deeper you think through a project, the more faithful the result is going to be. I am always trying to do more complex projects because I find it a really interesting challenge. How do you still maintain the thread of artistry and remain faithful through all these routes, turmoil and obstacles? To me, doing a house is the easiest thing you can do: just you and the client, and you can still do your architecture, but it’s not challenging enough for me. I am challenged by doing very utilitarian projects like hospitals: complex and technical. How do you still draw a thread of art, of craft, of love in a project like that? To be honest, I haven’t succeeded. But I want to get there one day.