There is good reason Tan Kok Hiang describes his own architectural style as “thoughtful”. Take one of his favourite projects, the S$7.8m Assyafaah Mosque in Singapore. An architectural statement that has received multiple awards both locally and internationally, it neatly epitomises Kok Hiang’s approach to architecture: understanding the raison d’être of a building and creating a design that conveys this in context.
Dispensing with traditional domes and arches, the contemporary mosque looks different from what one would normally expect of such a building.
“Most mosques in Singapore are very Middle-Eastern modelled, so you’ll see arches and domes. And I used to think that they had nothing to do with Singapore”, he explains. Instead, Kok Hiang designed a thoroughly contemporary structure incorporating the arabesque, the design element predominant in Islamic buildings. This is defined as two or more geometric patterns coming together to form a third pattern, says Kok Hiang, who completed a thesis on Islamic architecture in university.
“These patterns were developed by scholars, maybe a thousand years ago, because they wanted an art form to represent the Qur’an. The Qur’an cannot be represented in figurative terms. You have to use abstract terms”.
About the Assyafaah Mosque in Admiralty Lane, Kok Hiang adds: “The happiest thing for me about this building is that it looks nothing like a Middle Eastern mosque. It is contemporary and it belongs more to Singapore. Today, many visit the mosque, including non-Muslims”. To Kok Hiang, the real triumph behind a well thought-through and executed project is for the architect and the client “to be able to think about the different aspects of a building, and its impact on the community, today as well as in the future”.
Another project he is proud of is the Singapore Chancery in Manila, the Philippines. He says: “It’s a functional building that has to exude a sense of what it means to be a Singaporean in a foreign country”. So Kok Hiang incorporated the landscaping to reflect Singapore’s positioning as a garden city. In addition, as Singaporeans are known to be precise, punctual and efficient, he designed the building, in spatial flow and physical form, to convey all these characteristics.
Kok Hiang also takes pride in the “rainbow wall” at the Singapore Science Centre that stretches past the entrance of the Centre to give the complex a new front, and orientate visitors to the main entrance.
Kok Hiang, 54, is Managing Director of his own firm Forum Architects Pte Ltd, which he established with his wife and fellow architect Ho Sweet Woon in 1994. Holder of a Bachelor of Arts degree (Architectural Studies, 1984) and a Bachelor of Architecture Honours Degree (1987) from the National University of Singapore, he has held numerous exhibitions and participated in various conferences locally and internationally and garnered more than 30 awards, including the Chicago Athenaeum International Architecture Award in 2008 and 2010, the URA Architectural Heritage Awards in 2007, and two nominations and an honourable mention in the President’s Design Award. He is also involved in architectural education and sits on several professional committees.
Early in his career, Kok Hiang had trained with William Lim and Tay Kheng Soon. He learned about building in context and having a deep concern for the environment from the two architecture veterans. From the latter, he also learned that an architect should be a partner to a client. “Not necessarily equal, but a partner. Then we have a shared objective: achieving something together as partners. This is a very important stance”, says Kok Hiang, recalling the advice.
When collaborating with a client who is a visionary, Kok Hiang is the partner who takes on the role of a facilitator. “If the client is pursuing his vision, I’m not going to force my own on him”. While not every client is a visionary, sometimes he or she may turn into one with a bit of help, according to Kok Hiang. He names the Japanese martial arts form, aikido, which he has been practising for the past 25 years, as having indirectly helped him in this regard. Aikido’s basic philosophy is harmony, Kok Hiang explains. In a conflict, aikido advises practitioners “to move in and confront the conflict and take charge of the situation from the weakest point”. By adapting the philosophy to his work, he can sometimes help his clients become visionaries.
Reviewing the evolution of Singapore’s design scene, Kok Hiang thinks the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s inaugural “20 under 45: A selection of works by under 45 Singapore-registered architects” in 2004, and subsequent instalments to have done much in creating design awareness in Singapore. When the exhibition moved to Venice as part of the La Biennale di Venezia, Kok Hiang feels a turning point was reached where Singapore’s talent in the field was given a place on a prominent world stage. For him, the President’s Design Award is a continuation of paying this homage to design.
Now that he has received the most prestigious of Singapore’s design awards, Kok Hiang says: “I want to continue looking for openings and opportunities. Architecture is about so much more than just space. It’s also about influencing people’s attitudes and lives, and always in relation to harmonious living”.
Tan Kok Hiang’s advice for emerging designers:
“Architects are the only professionals charged with being guardians of the built environment. This is a serious responsibility that will test every ounce of your being. Honour this role by conscientiously developing your skills and thinking.”