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The Life Interview with Koh Seow Chuan: Architect with heart

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Toh Wen Li on 16 Jul 2018

The Straits Times

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DP Architects' co-founder Koh Seow Chuan believes architecture is not about building showy structures, but creating ones that people can live in and use

 

The iconic People's Park Complex in Eu Tong Sen Street - a high-rise residential block above a retail space with atria and wide corridors simulating the streets of Chinatown - is Singapore's first mixed-use complex.

 

Built 45 years ago, it is still teeming with life today.

 

"We designed it as a 'city room', with this being the heart of the project. That's why we had this big atrium," DP Architects' co-founder Koh Seow Chuan tells The Straits Times during a tour of the building.

 

The 79-year-old veteran architect was the partner in charge of the project, whose success paved the way for projects such as Sim Lim Tower and Golden Mile Complex.

 

People's Park Complex was a fine example of teamwork, where public and private sectors worked together to make it happen, he says.

 

It was conceived in the period after the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation, British withdrawal from Singapore and the oil crisis.

 

"There weren't many developers with deep pockets," recalls Koh. "We couldn't have anything too extravagant. At the beginning, even the mall was not meant to be air-conditioned. We had to innovate and complete it in the shortest possible time."

 

The team devised a wall system where 15kg slabs of off-form concrete were carried up, allowing the external wall to be built from the inside rather than doing this with the help of scaffolding.

 

The original building facade was raw concrete, but this was eventually painted over about 15 years later.

 

Architects are often cast as having huge egos, but Koh comes across as a humble, if self-aware, man.

 

"Architecture is not about beautiful, sensational buildings with immaculate looks," he says.

 

"It's for people. Not showmanship. Don't plan for what 'I' want. Plan for the people who are using it, think about their emotional and functional requirements. Let's be humble, let's work as a team."

 

He has won acclaim for his work as an architect - The Esplanade, his last major project before he retired in 2004, won the Royal Institute of British Architects' Worldwide Design Award in 2005 - but he is also well-known for his art and stamp collections.

 

Koh, the youngest of 11 children, started collecting stamps when he was four. These were his first "windows to the world" and came from the large amounts of mail for his father, a gold bullion trader.

 

Koh later became the first Singaporean president of the Federation of International Philately.

 

At Anglo-Chinese School, he was captain of the chess and swimming teams. He went on to study architecture at the University of Melbourne, where he also read philosophy and fine arts.

 

He still peppers his speech with allusions to classical Greece's Socrates - "know thyself"- and ancient China's Laozi.

 

After graduating in 1963, he joined Malayan Architects Co-Partnership, which was helmed by Lim Chong Keat, William Lim and Chen Voon Fee.

 

Four years later, William Lim founded DP Architects - known then as Design Partnership - with Koh and Tay Kheng Soon. The award-winning firm is also behind integrated community and lifestyle hub Our Tampines Hub, which opened last August.

 

Lim and Tay later left and established their own firms.

 

The Esplanade, which also won the President's Design Award in 2006, was another memorable project for Koh as it marked the recognition of the importance of the arts - in this instance, the performing arts - in Singapore. "For a long time, we hadn't been known for being cultured," he says.

 

DP Architects' chairman Francis Lee describes Koh as having "laid the foundation of DP's values, culture, succession planning and how the firm strives to make every employee matter".

 

Ask Koh what he thinks are his failures as an architect and he says there are "too many".

 

"What I think is not a success to me may be a success to the client. To the client, very often, the more they can make from it, the more successful it is," says Koh, who would sometimes withdraw from a project if he did not think he could do it well.

 

He adds: "In the professional world, there will always be the bread-and-butter work and that which requires innovation and pushing the boundaries. We have to do both well."

 

Apart from architecture, the other constant in Koh's life has been art.

 

STRONG SUPPORTER OF THE ARTS

 

He was the founding chairman of the National Gallery Singapore and is chairman of the Visual Arts Cluster Advisory Board, and has donated numerous paintings to the Gallery and Singapore Art Museum, more than 2,700 historical works to the National Library Board and over 90,000 historic photographs and postcards to the Singapore Philatelic Museum.

 

His most intensive period of art collecting was in the 1980s, when works were relatively inexpensive and artists from the early Nanyang period were still creating.

 

The pieces in his collection of thousands range from paintings by pioneer artists Cheong Soo Pieng and Lim Tze Peng, to works by more contemporary artists such as Jane Lee, Boo Sze Yang and Suzann Victor.

 

The Gallery's chief executive Chong Siak Ching says of Koh: "He puts his money where his mouth is. He is a very strong supporter of Singapore artwork. He is very passionate about helping to profile who he feels are under-recognised artists."

 

Young artists, Koh says, should be given more spaces to exhibit their works so they do not end up "working in silos".

 

Research is another area that merits more attention, he adds. He is working with a team of artists and gallerists to chart the evolution of Singapore art history from 1930 to 1985, and also sponsoring a book on Cheong's life and work.

 

Singapore's melting pot is not just of East and West - it is also the Middle East and India, he says, adding that this is a "synthesised aesthetic", not simply a borrowed one.

 

Having "better art critics and art journalists" is also important. "They can be critical, but being critical and contributing to the art discourse will help to bring up the quality of our art," he says.

 

"If we ourselves can't appreciate our art and don't know our art, how can we project it outside of Singapore?"

 

He adds: "I want to push for a higher appreciation of arts in Singapore and give it due recognition. The Government has made a lot of contributions to making the 'hardware', like the Gallery.

 

"But if we don't get the 'software' right and weave in the right stories about the narrative about Singapore's art history, we will be leaving another vacuum."

 

Apart from art and architecture, Koh has other loves as well.

 

Twenty-five years ago, he bought a vineyard in Cape Town with some friends and has already savoured the fruit of his venture. "My wife calls me a drunken sailor," he says.

 

Koh, who drinks three glasses of whisky a day, is married to retired urban planner Lim Wen Gin, with whom he has three daughters and a son, aged 36 to 50.

 

He and his wife live in a townhouse in Pasir Panjang Hill. They share the building with their friends.

 

Eldest daughter Lin Ai was reportedly a graphic designer, while younger daughter Lin-Net is the former chief executive of the then Media Development Authority.

 

Even as he approaches 80, he has his fingers in many pies, although he says he has grown more selective about what he takes on.

 

He is now working on a "community building" project, but does not want to reveal details yet. He says: "My life is a work in progress."

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.