* DESIGNER OF
THE YEAR 2016

Rene Tan

Principal Architect
RT+Q Architects Pte Ltd

Rene Tan is the quintessential Renaissance man. He is an architect steeped in the intricacies of his craft, and yet equally fluent in other disciplines. Born in Malaysia, he earned his Bachelor of Arts in Music and Architecture from Yale, and his Master of Architecture from Princeton. His training in music, in particular, has been a potent influence in the way he approaches architecture at RT+Q, the firm he co-founded with T. K. Quek in 2003. Each project is an attempt to find a rhythm of space and a melody of proportion that seek to bring order to chaos – a favourite theme to which he returns time and again. Rene’s view of the world is a generous one. He serves as external school examiner and juror for the World Architecture Festival; he speaks at architectural symposiums, and has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, Syracuse University, and Hong Kong University.

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‘‘… beautifully defined spaces, whether large or small, urban or domestic, can affect our emotions and resonate with our senses.’’

Insights from the Recipient

What is the philosophy that guides your design?

In a way, I think it's important not to have a 'philosophy'. At least, not at this point in my career. I feel having a Philosophy - note the capital 'P' - inhibits and closes the mind because it presupposes an answer before the question is even asked. That prevents the creative part of us from discovering new things. I prefer the word 'belief'. As architects, we must return architecture to creating beautiful spaces, whether on an intimate, domestic scale, or on an urban environmental level. The accessorial aspects of architecture should not distract us. And so I encourage the designers in my office to think about spatial experiences and approach design in a counter-intuitive manner. Of course, we have core values that guide our work - specifically, proportion, scale and hierarchy. These are based on the Vitruvian principles of firmitas, utilitas and venustas which, loosely translated, means every design must be solid, useful and beautiful.

Insights from the Recipient

What is the philosophy that guides your design?

Rene Tan: In a way, I think it's important not to have a 'philosophy'. At least, not at this point in my career. I feel having a Philosophy – note the capital 'p' – inhibits and closes the mind because it presupposes an answer before the question is even asked. That prevents the creative part of us from discovering new things. I prefer the word 'belief'. As architects, we must return architecture to creating beautiful spaces, whether on an intimate, domestic scale, or on an urban environmental level. The accessorial aspects of architecture should not distract us. And so I encourage the designers in my office to think about spatial experiences and approach design in a counter-intuitive manner. Of course, we have core values that guide our work – specifically, proportion, scale and hierarchy. These are based on the Vitruvian principles of firmitas, utilitas and venustas which, loosely translated, means every design must be sold, useful and beautiful.

What are three defining projects of your career?

Rene: The Watten House was my own house. On an exploratory level, it was an experiment in tropical architecture without its typical accessories like screens, planting and greenery. It was a simple project where shapes and sculptural forms were invoked to provide an environment that was also a comfortable domestic setting. But because it was for my family, it was also very challenging, especially when the brief came from two women of different generations: my wife and daughter. Instead of the usual courtyard form, the house was 'bent' to bring in natural light, movement of air, natural ventilation and views. And in place of typical tropical natural materials like timber, plants and stone, we used synthetics like homogenous tiles, aluminum and glass to create a house that required minimal maintenance.

The House with Bridges made me realise that architecture is actually harder than I thought. Set on an impossibly steep slope. it defied drawing board architecture, and required a hands-on working process where on-site changes and adjustments were constant challenges. It made me rethink the vertical relationships of spaces. I became aware of the importance of the relationship between site and building. It was truly a project that transcended presumptions about architecture. By the time it was completed, I had learnt to appreciate the passion, diligence and perseverance of the project team in overcoming the death-defying degree of difficulty.

The Capers in Kuala Lumpur was my first high-rise building. It was a challenge as we needed to translate our ideas into a much larger urban scale. We designed everything from concept to details to signage. Comprising two residential towers and two low-rise blocks composed around a piazza, the meandering forms were composed as a counterpoint to the adjacent residential towers. Visible from afar, it has since become an urban and social landmark, drawing comments from laymen like "drunken and wobbly architecture", and from taxi drivers: "the crooked building"!

How has your approach to design evolved?

Rene: When I first started out, I would immediately start drawing plans just like other architects. But I soon realised that it wasn't enough. I realised it is important to identify the concept before executing the details. This inside came to me as I studied Chopin's 24 Études for Piano. Each piece literally studies a different aspect of music, be it arpeggios, octaves, thirds and so on. Each intimate piece has a point to make. When combined, they create the whole piece. This is why, today, right at the very start of any project, we don't do anything till we have identified the challenges that need to be overcome. This could be anything: the light, the terrain, the fenestration, the topography and so on. Every project must challenge some aspect of the making of architecture. So, even if there's no obvious challenge, we create one. This gives our work a purpose, an intention so that we don't design for the sake of designing. In other words, it is not the big idea that comes first.

What kind of space makes you happy?

Rene: I believe that beautifully defined spaces, whether large or small, urban or domestic, can affect our emotions and resonate with our senses. I am most happy when I find myself in quit spaces like a library or a gallery – where my mind is at ease and where my thoughts can roam. The dual phenomenon of space and silence is powerful.

Which city or space best expresses your idea of the perfect urban space or architecture?

Rene: At the top of my list is Louis Kahn's great courtyard of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. It's a stunning space in its simplicity of materials, comfort in proportions, and orientation towards the Pacific Ocean. Its scale is, at once, intimate and dramatic; its proportions humane, yet urban. It's a space of contemplation and reflection. It induces an emotional catharsis. For me, it is perfect architecture in an ironic sense – in its nothingness and emptiness, it is architecture without architecture.

What inspires you?

Rene: Lots of things. Besides music, the good work done by my peers in other offices inspires me It is a great thing to be practicing amongst such great talents. I believe we can all learn from one another. My colleagues at RT+Q also inspire me. With passion, ambition, spirit and diligence, each plays an important role, always staying focused on achieving great results for the project in question. In this regard, I am always reminded by something my daughter Lara once said: "The real beauty of architecture is not in how it looks, but rather it is in the heart and character of every building." That thought continues to inspire me too.

Which social gap would you like to address with design? How would you do it?

Rene: I've been thinking about this question for a long time now. I've always wondered what architecture is like for people who cannot see. I think it would be interesting to design a facility for the visually handicapped. That would really test a few fundamental presumption we have of architecture, particularly because it is a visual discipline. It's really not, and it cannot be that architecture is just for people who can see. What if we were to take away the visual aspect in our design and focus in stead on the other senses of touch, smell, hearing and so on, so that we create an environment that is even more dramatic and sensorial? This raises interesting questions about what architecture has been, and what it could be.

Citation

Jury Citation

Rene Tan’s talent as a designer is evident in his extensive portfolio of architectural works. Through the years, he has adapted a modern and elegant design language to suit the local tropical climate.

Rene is constantly challenging himself to experiment with materials and details in order to find an optimum solution for each project he takes on. The House at Watten Drive, for instance, is a commendable rethinking of terrace housing, and demonstrates how the constraints of a long and narrow site can be turned into opportunities. In The House in 3 Movements, the spaces are well conceived, and display a fluid quality between floors that is also experienced in the spaces between the house and its neighbours.

Rene’s repertoire exhibits skill, control and an attention to detail, enabling him to consistently produce buildings of very high quality that are masterful responses to site conditions and the needs of his clients. In addition to being an accomplished practitioner, he is also a nurturing mentor and a keen supporter of design education initiatives.

The Jury recognises Rene’s unwavering passion in the way he creates delightful spaces. In particular, it commends him for being an inspiration to the architectural fraternity.

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Nominator Citation

KELLEY CHENG
CREATIVE DIRECTOR
THE PRESS ROOM

A veteran in Singapore’s architectural industry, Rene Tan started out in SCDA Architects as a partner, and contributed much to carving the firm’s signature style. In 2003 he co-founded, with partner T. K. Quek, RT+Q Architects – a firm rooted in a counter-intuitive approach to architecture and design – and continued to push the envelope of experimenting in form and space in architecture. An outstanding student, Rene received his Bachelor of Arts in Music and Architecture from Yale, and his Master of Architecture from Princeton. His musical influences are often visible in his works, shown through rhythmic structures and choreographed spaces. To say his architecture is poetic is an understatement. Attention to detail and a great sense of proportion and composition are what make Rene’s architecture so elegant. RT+Q Architects has won numerous awards, including the Singapore Institute of Architects Design Awards 2013, the Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia Awards 2011, the Singapore Architectural Heritage Awards 2011, the short-list for the World Architecture Festival 2012, and most recently a gold medal at the 2014 Architecture Asia Awards (ArcAsia) for the Bali House. An active participant in academia, Rene has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, Syracuse University, the National University of Singapore, and the University of Hong Kong. He has also been a speaker at DATUM KL 2008, the Jakarta Triennale 2009, and the Liveable Cities Symposium Berlin 2011. In 2013 and 2014, he was both speaker and juror at the World Architecture Festival. RT+Q is currently working on, amongst other things, an apartment project in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Penang and two residential high-rises in Jakarta. The firm recently completed the Capers mixed residential towers, whilst another big-scale mixed residential project, Fennel in Kuala Lumpur, is nearing completion.

OTHER RECIPIENTS

Hans Tan

DESIGNER OF THE YEAR 2018

Founder, Hans Tan Studio; and Assistant Professor, Division of Industrial Design,
National University of Singapore
Hans Tan Studio

VIEW RECIPIENT