Features

WOHA

March 10, 2010

This monograph shows that WOHA’s work has become more experimental, somehow masterful and lighthearted at the same time.

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WOHA
Anna Johnson
Pesaro Publishing 2009, 400 pages, HB, $90

At first I thought it was too soon for a monograph on WOHA – the Singapore practice headed by Wong Mun Summ (the WO) and Richard Hassell (HA) began life only 15 years ago. This one is large format (340x254mm), glossy, and seductive; and by the time I reach the end it’s clear the document is warranted.

Beginning with an introduction by Leon van Schaik, a succinct paper by William SW Lim and a long essay by principle author Anna Johnson, there follows the work of Patrick Bingham-Hall and Tim Griffith, whose luscious photographs of the projects comprise the vast majority of this 400-page tome. The projects are grouped into four sections, roughly organised by location, project type or scale. It takes a sturdy table and a few sittings to finish the book with a proper level of attention, but it’s also easy (still with the table) to ignore the essays and flick idly through, scanning and absorbing the plentiful eye candy.

And it is a sweet experience. The photography is excellent and offers graphic as well as architectural delights. The architecture is all good, ranging from individual house to residential tower, church to underground rail station; and from sheer elegance to playfulness and provocation, all well considered and finely executed. It’s fascinating to observe the breadth and development of ideas in WOHA’s work, and inspiring to comprehend its achievement in the relatively short period since the directors’ break away from Kerry Hill Architects in 1994. The spatial generosity, rational planning and fine detailing they learned under Hill is evident everywhere, with only a hint of resort style lingering in some of the houses; but as they’ve continued to grow, and as the scale of projects has increased, WOHA’s work has become more experimental, somehow masterful and lighthearted at the same time. As though they’ve gathered the fundamental tools and are now free to play, using those tools to test and try ideas.

It looks like they’re having fun, but what’s better is that it does not appear to be gratuitous. What is clear about the work, and this is emphasised in the essays, is its authenticity… its belonging to place. While the extreme, flawless elegance of Kerry Hill’s work is almost scarily generic, this work is more real; rooted in and expressive of the culture(s) and climate of Singapore. WOHA’s mode of practice also feels authentic, dedicated and engrossed, and the book conveys an image of unity and friendship between the two directors. This is amplified in the supplementary material: an interview about ‘environmental design’ in which they finish one another’s sentences; a record of Hassell’s art works including life drawings, abstract paintings and pastels; and a series of drawings and photographs of furniture designs. Almost hidden among the project chronology, bibliography and staff list are five verses by Erwin Viray, which present as a zen-like farewell, a poetic parting song to the experience of WOHA.

Perhaps my presumption of their friendship comes partly from the sense that everyone who has contributed to this publication is fond of Wong and Hassell, and their work. The whole effort feels affectionate. On a personal level I feel entirely comfortable with this as I have some carried-over affection of my own. I worked with the duo momentarily almost 20 years ago, while they were still with Kerry Hill and I was with Melbourne architect Kai Chen. I remember them as gracious, intelligent, unpretentious and passionate about architecture. I don’t mention this to diminish the strength of testimony expressed, but I do wonder if a slightly colder, more detached editorial eye would have made a better book.

I can see why it would have been hard to edit. The photographs are gorgeous, and the writings are perceptive. Nevertheless, after my page-by-page study, I close the cover feeling that every third or fourth photo could have been left out; that the content could have been a little more selective; the essays trimmed and sharpened… and I’m sure I would still have gained a strong understanding of the work. I’m thinking of those more compact, taut architectural monographs which convey the breadth, richness and detail within a body of work, but which also leave space to imagine; where the balanced offering-and-withholding of content incites desire, provokes closer scrutiny of each image and drawing, and stirs a yearning for more. In the case of this publication, I come away happy but a little overstuffed.

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