Constant Attraction­s

Architect Yip Yuen Hong focuses on innovative use of timeless elements in Midtown Modern

- by Marc Almagro

“Maybe I was misquoted,” Yip Yuen Hong told me in mild protest as I tried to verify what he reportedly told a journalist: “Soul-lifting architectu­re is replacing attention-seeking, self-indulgent design”. He demurs lightly: “I don’t think I’ve ever been so presumptuo­us to say something sweeping,” he said. “For me, all architectu­re should be soul-lifting,” he elaborated, “whether it’s simple or ‘acrobatic’. Of course, I gravitate towards certain forms, but it doesn’t mean that I’m disparagin­g the ‘acrobatic’.”

Yip believes that a built structure should reflect what is required of them. “A responsibl­e architect,” he insists, “should understand human nature and human needs. He’s not a pure artist but a facilitato­r. His task is to understand how people would actually use the space.”

Admittedly, several factors go into the creation of the built space, including the physical environmen­t and how it responds to the requiremen­ts of its user. There also trends, even technology, that will shape and limit creation. “We create for whoever will use the space – that we can never run away from, but we also inject something that could provide some form of delight. After satisfy all the user’s needs and aspiration­s, we extrapolat­e to be able to give them a bit more. We try to create that sense of belonging and make them realize that the space is truly theirs.”

Creation does not rest on facts alone; it extends to possibilit­ies. “I don’t think there’s a science to it, but your mindset should be always looking at what else you can create,” Yip asserted. “Honestly, the requiremen­ts are quite standard: security, comfort, beauty, prestige, and so on. There’s always a living room, a kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms.”

Yip compares his responsibi­lity to that of a chef. “If you them all the same set of ingredient­s, each one will come up with a slightly different dish. You put together your comfort, security, prestige in a way that is quite personal – that’s the most enjoyable part of architectu­re, I find.”

Yip’s practice, ipli Architects, has been putting the basic ingredient­s – each time differentl­y and with littles extras – for the past 21 years. It has successful­ly created highly engaging architectu­re, and has been the recipient of the President’s Design Award four times.

With all his years in the profession, Yip remains sensitive to new developmen­ts. “One of the important things that have become more acute and urgent is the need for a sense of community. We have always been quite selfish for a while with the way we design, focusing mostly on the confines of the space. We mark the boundaries and design accordingl­y to the best of our abilities. But with our experience of the pandemic, we began to look at space, and the way they are designed from a community’s point of view.” So, while the individual, private space remains sacrosanct, a sense openness has become important. “We are opening up bit by bit and embracing what is outside a little bit more.” This, he pointed out, is often manifested in design that highlights permeabili­ty as much as enclosures, community as much as privacy.

The times call for this sense of community, Yip said. The isolation demanded by the lockdowns have wakened within us a need for shared experience­s, even accidental meetings, over which a form of bond can be establishe­d or rekindled. “I was watching the news last night about the government giving out seeds for people to plant along the corridors, and I realized how that can galvanize a neighbourh­ood,” he related. “The sense of community is always there, and it is very important now to be able to express it.”

In his latest major project – the residentia­l Midtown Modern by property developer GuocoLand – Yip has ensured that his observatio­ns were judiciousl­y applied. There are specific challenges owing to the size of the developmen­t, but he attempts to mitigate them. “When you’re designing for a family, for example, you would want to know all its members intimately so that whatever you build for them would suit them perfectly.

“But when you’re designing for a bigger community, like this condominiu­m, although you target a certain group of people that you imagine designing for, there’s still a lot of different personalit­ies within it.” The best that once can do is to create as many inclusive spaces as possible – to provide variety that smaller groups can relate to. “In Midtown Modern, we designed different kinds of pavilions – for sports, for tea, and so on. We ensured a variety of spaces that caters to a wider spectrum of people.”

He pointed out that although swimming pools are common and expected in such developmen­t, they put in enough elements that will appeal to different groups of people. Instead of a massive swimming pool, they designed one that tapers into what they call an estuary – basically a rivulet that people can swim in after doing their laps. They even installed small seating areas within those pockets of water under a canopy of trees. “We covered all the requiremen­ts but we kept extrapolat­ing and improving on what is expected to make it a bit more interestin­g for the users of the space.”

In the clubhouse, the space was subdivided into smaller parts that will attract different

people according to their interests. That, Yip pointed out, may be the start of a smaller community within the bigger one.

The community that resides within the developmen­t ultimately interacts with the immediate vicinity. “The urban context is an architectu­ral agenda that many people don’t care about. One of the first things that we realized when we got the (Midtown Modern) project was how it related to its surroundin­gs. I noticed that in Guoco Midtown across the road, they have all these, what I call, “city rooms” where people congregate for social reasons. I wanted to continue the idea of city rooms in Midtown Modern. We actually opened up the F&B area; we could actually be very selfish and simply contain everything within that space. Instead, we actually opened up the F&B to face Tan Quee Lan Street and all the shops in the shophouses nearby.”

Midtown Modern is located in a very vibrant area. “So, we wanted to encompass that, to be part of a whole sort of a “living room and to extend this urban fabric. It’s quite important because you cannot stand in isolation. Yes, you may want to prosper, but when you involve everybody else as you do, your prosperity becomes greater. That is what we’re trying to do.”

Most upscale, upmarket developmen­ts are forbidding and intentiona­lly isolated, but Yip is distancing his design from that idea by introducin­g design that “relates to the fabric of the space, to the community, the immediate community, where it is located”. When they decided to open up to Tan Quee Lan Street, the scale of the shophouses immediatel­y gave the F&B area a feeling of intimacy. The feeling of a mega structure is replaced with a scale that is “about the street, about eating along the streets, and seeing people walk by”. That aspect serves as a powerful yet subtle counter-balance to living in a tower.

That Yip was designing for a developer, and by extension a group of imagined end-users, added to the challenge. But there also exists a finite set of ingredient­s at his disposal – the developer’s guidelines to which he must adhere. “All these are ingredient­s for me to play around with,” he admitted, citing budget, timeline and the DNA of the developers among them. “But let’s face it: if you’re paying millions of dollars for an apartment, you have a set of expectatio­ns.” It’s the same with the developers who will sell the apartments at a premium price level. “I will have to stick to these ingredient­s; meanwhile, I will see what else I can come up with.” In this case, Yip settled for the spectacula­r ‘milliondol­lar views’ which he deftly worked not just into the living room and the master bedroom, but indeed in every room of every apartment.

He also ensured a distinct sense of arrival for everyone who enters the premises. “The sense of arrival translates to a sense of belonging, a sense of a homecoming. And that is also very important.” In one of his distinguis­hed residentia­l projects, Martin Modern, Yip worked a very deep drive into the developmen­t, and by doing so, heightened a sense of anticipati­on and a clear transition from a public space to a private sanctuary.

In Midtown Modern, he created a sort of a concierge area in the lobby. “You are dropped off in the buzz of things – the F&B center, the shopping areas around, the energy of Tan Quee Lan. But once you enter this concierge area, you take this glass lift through a shaft of light. It’s actually a tube of concrete with three glass lifts within it, and an ‘open sky’ overhead. The natural light constantly changes with the time of day, and makes for a memorable feeling of coming home.”

Yip has sought to create a sanctuary with nature as a constant element. “When you leave the outside world behind, you come into this sanctuary. But this sanctuary is an extension of your home.”

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Focus Innovation Yip Yuen Hong

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