As Singapore’s oldest housing estate, Tiong Bahru has long fascinated architects and design culture enthusiasts. In a country known for its many high-rise Housing Development Board (HDB) flats, the old estate stands out by not standing out. The historic architecture of Tiong Bahru consists of a number of low-rise buildings, now largely hidden by towering apartment buildings and condominiums of neighbouring neighbourhoods. Yet the area’s unique ambience and vintage aesthetics continue to draw an eclectic mix of people into the area. One of them, is Manuel Der Hagopian, a Swiss architect, who chose the estate as the perfect place to launch create TB80, a space for creatives and lovers of architecture to come together and exchange ideas through various events. We spoke to Der Hagopian to find out more about his latest project, and his passionate love for architecture and community.
You are an architect, running a highly successful architecture firm across Asia. Yet, you have created TB80 Space dedicated to specific exhibitions mixing photography, drawings, architectural sketches and more. Tell us more about the concept of TB80 Space.
TB80 Space is quite a young project. We had our first exhibition event in late 2019 and have hosted a variety of events (social distancing measures permitting). The space is a hybridisation of professional-working and personal-social areas, focused on design culture both in Singapore and abroad.
Through exhibitions, social dinners, events and an open kitchen, we try to encourage a feeling of communityl to create a comfortable setting to present and discuss art, architecture, design. Also, our events always have good food and ample time to share with guests!
The space is a symbolic one, nestled in Singapore’s first social housing complex of Tiong Bahru, the oldest housing estate in Singapore constructed in the 1920s. Today, it is a very trendy neighborhood full of fashionable boutiques and popular cafes, but it is the area’s rich history that really drew us here.
How does TB80 Space blend into Tiong Bahru, Singapore’s uniquely designed 1920s housing estate, and the neighbourhood’s rich architectural heritage?
Tiong Bahru is a unique area for three main reasons; its low skyline, historical architectural identity and its accessibility in that it isn’t privatised or segregated into public and private housing.
It seems counterintuitive to be attracted to low-rise environments in a city as dense as Singapore, but we definitely think that horizontal living creates a sense of community that is becoming less common in our rising urban sprawls.
This was a central aspect in the designs of the early 20th century and the utopian outlook that guided designers in their response to the need of public housing in Singapore.
How and why were the 1920s architects designing Tiong Bahru were visionaries in their field?
The early 20th century had a very interesting typology prototype where shophouse designs were already addressing environmental concerns via cross ventilation, and encouraging lively streetscapes through covered galleries and street alignment. The superblock typology with the “horseshoe” form also created a central island in the area. Then there were the bungalows typology placed in a park. These are potentially the most sustainable typologies that really address the “living in a garden” experience.
It is very rare to find such diverse spatial identities within the same quarter that attracts a wide range of people from old folks, to hipsters, as well as business entrepreneurs and interesting people, like the Chinese antique specialist, Jean-Batiste Oudea, with aphorism antiques, and African fashion designer, OliveAnkara. Anyway, if you are interested, just follow the great guide Ariane Nabarro on a tour and you will know everything about Tiong Bahru’s curiosities!
Tell us about the current exhibition of photos at TB80 Space depicting everyday Asian objects and their strong connections with architectural benchmarks around the world.
I was working closely with photographer Sébastien Löffler to create this series that aims to capture what we are calling “the architectural moment”. The collection of domestic objects displayed are presented in a certain manner that, for us, imbues them with an architectural quality.
This recalls the “poetic moment” or “objects of poetic reaction” as theorised by Le Corbusier, where a natural object, such as a shell or branch, becomes poetic and spatial. With Sébastien’s we have created a form of tension by drawing parallels between domestic objects from Southeast Asia and a selection of modern architectural landmarks.
The resulting contrasts and cohesion between these two worlds add to the questions about the universality of design. Indeed, how can a Vietnamese traditional basket consider the same design problems as the Coliseum in Oakland designed by SOM in 1966?
Your life and vision for TB80 Space seems to be creating a constant & enriching bridge between the East and the West. Tell us more about this specific vision you have developed and what to expect, exhibition-wise, in the years to come?
As a Swiss architect living and working for more than 15 years in Southeast Asia, I realise that the archaic idea that knowledge moves from West to East has definitely come to an end! Now, we starting to think about the cohesion that can merge the two worlds with a holistic vision and acknowledgement of the contrasts that are in place. Through close observation we have been able to consolidate some links and bridges.
TB80 is a space but also a bridge, hosting events and exhibitions that celebrate this bilateral conversation. Let me give you two examples; towards the end of 2019 we launched the first exhibition of artworks by Le Corbusier in Singapore, and this year we are launching the Equatorial Utopia exhibition in Venice and Geneva exploring 50 years of Singapore’s utopian architecture. In the middle of the year, we will present a delocalised launch of this exhibition with movies we have created featuring 15 of Singapore’s utopian buildings.
What are the “Hanoi Talks” series and what impact have they had on the Asian architectural scene?
The Hanoi Talks events started a few years ago in our office in Hanoi when we finally realised the luck we had to be in an “anti-hub”. It is an ongoing series that we truly enjoy hosting and that I think was also a root of inspiration for the events that we offer at TB08 Space. For us, Hanoi can be seen as the anti-Geneva, with a lot of creative potential, especially considering how regulated Singapore and Switzerland are as countries.
For a creative boutique company like G8A Architects it is much more interesting to be in a place where you can feel like anything is possible. Young Vietnamese architects have no limits or ideas of limitation about what can or cannot be done. This energy is also a great factor in our company where we encourage a lot of interaction.
The Hanoi Talks series has become quite popular, inviting presenters close to or far from the architectural world to interact with our team and the design community of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
If you were to advise a young person on the most inspiring architecture book you have read, which book would it be?
A recent publication would be “Four Walls and a Roof: The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession” by Reiner De Graf (OMA) that reveals quite a lot about the architects’ working conditions. It’s a good start for young people to know what they are getting themselves into!
A more classic or theoretical reference would of course, be “Walden” by American transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau that talks about corporal relations to the mini-maxi space called home.
The most inspiring architect(s) of all time for you?
I would have to say Le Corbusier has defiantly inspired me through his discipline, energy, and faith that everything can be changed!
The three buildings or housing estates in Singapore that you would rate as your favourites ?
Golden Mile Complex (DP Architects), 1973 for the early mixed used concept.
Shangri-La Hotel Garden Wing (Garden WATG Architects in partnership with Archiplan Team), 1978 for the early lush green architecture.
The Colonnade (Paul Rudolph + Archiplan Team), 1980 for the porous and breathing architectural vision.
To find out more about G8A Architects, head over to their website.