How can we generate sustainability through architecture? How can the built environment create and promote a sense of community? How can we tackle the problem of increased urban density while simultaneously improving services? Multi-award-winning architectural practice Woha, founded by Wong Mun Summ and Richard Hassell in Singapore in 1994, has responded to all of these questions with a revolutionary approach to architecture based around human beings, wellbeing and a balance with nature. Woha’s design ethos, which encompasses anything from macro-architecture to micro-urban planning, uses vegetable matter to create “breathing buildings” – green lungs that generate oxygen, integrate with the natural landscape and minimise their impact on the environment. These are buildings that comprehensively rewrite the traditional concept of architecture, creating vertical cities complete with every service imaginable. The overall aim? Self-sufficient cities that can provide their own supply of energy, food and water. We spoke to Richard Hassell himself to get his take on this unique approach to architecture, which combines an in-depth knowledge of the local area and traditions with meticulous research processes to pursue a sole, idealistic aim: the creation of a better world.

Permeable Lattice City (Singapore) for the Vertical Cities Asia International Design Competition & Symposium

When you started working together, did you already have a clear idea of the approach that you would come to be known for around the world – architecture that harmonises with and incorporates the natural eco-system – or did that develop over time?
We definitely developed and matured over the years, but right from the beginning we had a very strong interest in designing for the tropics. Actually, when we were in university, in the 1980s (so a really long time ago!), there was a movement in architecture called “Critical Regionalism”, by the theorist Kenneth Frampton. It looked at a way to make modern architecture relevant to local cultures and climates. When we started working in the tropics, it was something that was obviously very immediate to us, because it’s actually quite a challenging climate to be comfortable in: in temperate climates you can do lots of things with architecture – so if it’s hot you open the window, if it’s cold you close the window – but the tropics is a little bit uncomfortable unless you have some air movement. So, we started from the beginning with small projects and then, as we got larger and larger projects, we discovered something very strange. All the things that we knew from low-rise living, we had to throw them away. It’s like: “Why is this so?”. We started with the goal of seeing what the problem was, and surprisingly there wasn’t much of a problem at all: it was just that high-rise is based around a field of expertise coming from consultants in New York and Chicago, where there is a very harsh climate – very strong winds, very cold winters. In subtropical to tropical building, you can design very different kinds of high-rises, much nicer, because you can have indoors and outdoors. Then we went began thinking that big buildings are not necessarily like apartments – they have lot of communities of people in them, and when you’re in a very dense environment all these people actually need the same things that people on the ground do: they need parks, they need playgrounds, they need spaces to be quiet and get away. And so we started looking at how we could incorporate these kinds of important spaces that really affect people’s quality of life, and whether we could include them in buildings as well.

How are sustainability and wellbeing linked in your work?
Wellbeing is central to your entire experience, through the day. We see it not only in architecture, but from urbanism through architecture into interiors and even products. I think that as cities get denser, we are more and more surrounded by man-made elements. Architecture is very stressful, because it all has something to do with people: if the environment is ugly, it’s because somebody made it ugly. It’s almost like an attack on you – you are suffering because of someone else. That’s one of the reasons why we believe wellness through plants is really important, because plants are not man-made. They’re more relaxing to be around. And then I think the whole sustainability thing is about wellbeing too. We have to do things right if we want to continue life on the planet. It can also make feel people a lot better that things are progressing and changing for the better, that your actions can actually contribute to a solution, rather than being part of the problem.

SkyVille @ Dawson, Singapore
Photo © Patrick Bingham-Hall

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