Nature has always been part of Gwen Tan’s world. Her childhood home was the genesis. “My house faced a plot of land with a tiny bungalow in the middle of an expansive, jungle-like garden; one could not see the existence of the bungalow, except faintly from the front gate as the vegetation was very overgrown,” says the architect. Tan wears many hats. Aside from being a partner at Formwerkz Architects, she is also co-founder of interior design firm Studio iF and design principal of experience design firm Afternaut.
That neighbour’s house is now a distant memory, having been sold and replaced with a condominium development. But it lives on in the form of her own abode, which she shares with her husband Berlin Lee, her teenage son Adan, her mother and mother-in-law. Here, Tan wakes to vistas of foliage outside the six-metre-long band of windows in her bedroom that overlooks a park. The view was a form of therapy during the COVID pandemic, when she found herself working long hours in the bedroom, drawn to the scenery. “The deep desire for a house where I could have that priceless, undisturbed green connection was most likely dictated subconsciously by the memory of that neighbour’s house, where I could stare out of my bedroom at an alluring piece of ‘wilderness’, with sightings of monkeys, squirrels and rare birds,” she recollects.
She has christened her home Open House as it engages wholeheartedly with the larger environment. Trendsetters would be quick to hail it as an exemplar of eco-living. That it is, but for Tan, it is the only way she can live. From the street, the entry is a fortified wall of timber panelling with only a sliver for the residents to peek out. But above the first storey, a pixelated skin of screens between off-form concrete party walls makes the house porous. Tall, feathery plants cap the car porch canopy as an introductory taste of the gardenscapes within.
“I like the sound of the water gently echoing in the space and the frequent sighting of birds that come in through the screens”
Sunlight, wind and sounds of the neighbourhood penetrate the screens. The acoustic contribution is mutual. “While we benefited from the concrete walls amplifying the conversations within the house such that we can speak freely and audibly across floors, we realise that the street can hear when my son is not doing his homework! It has that ability to connect with the surroundings so much so that from the third storey, we can wave to friends and smell the rain hitting the hot tarmac. We also know when the green parrots are hanging out in the trees, or where the wild chickens are grazing just by listening out for their sounds,” Tan muses.
The house’s openness is encountered when one walks through the front door. A 10-metre-tall Memphat tree in a planter rises up a skylight that halos the tree in daylight and frames a patch of sky. The powder room is privy to this view, which sequences to a full-scale garden at the rear terrace. Backing the living room, it is a riot of viridescent shades that commingles into one stupendous living, growing canvas.
A shady and picturesque outdoor spot, this has been the venue of quite a few Sunday lunch barbecues. “Architecture sited in the tropics, especially homes, must be designed to embrace the climatic attributes. This house can ‘breathe’ very well,” Tan shares, highlighting the well-ventilated interiors. On the second storey, the screens on the front façade become the backdrop to a 13-metre-long lap pool. Potted plants along the water’s edge form a linear garden for Tan to indulge in her horticulturist habits. The pool sinks into the first storey as a floating white box above the open kitchen, with a round window as a playful round portal. “When I’m underwater, I have a view of the open park space beyond the house through this aperture,” Tan lets on.
In the afternoon, when the fierce tropical light washes in, the presence of the screen is augmented with mosaicked shadows cast onto the concrete walls and still pool water. These theatrical silhouettes and the warm sun make swimming on late afternoons an enticing weekend family activity. “I like the sound of the water gently echoing in the space and the frequent sighting of birds that come in through the screens. Sunbirds have made many nests on my hanging plants from the sun lounge room suspended above the pool. A cuckoo bird has made it a point to drop by almost every day to perch on the screen, either looking in or glancing out from a high point,” describes Tan on visiting fauna.
The bedrooms are stacked on the rear end of the plot, where it is cooler. They enjoy internal views of this semi-outdoor space, lit from above by skylights. Above the pool, there are plans for the greenhouse-like sun lounge to be a gym, surrounded by landscaping but currently, the abundant sunlight in this apex of the house makes it ideal for the occasional sunning of laundry. A wall of Jalousie windows facing the pool amplifies the presence of sunlight and wind in the atrium.
Tan spent the most time at home during the circuit breaker, and she sought comfort in quiet night swims. The office’s weekly thematic Zoom lunch parties were also partaken at the poolside patio. This part of the house offers quiet respite, but it can also switch energies during pool parties when “a crazy array of inflatables are thrown in, including floating coasters for mojitos”, Tan recalls with a laugh. On parties, the house has witnessed many. The couple are avid hosts. A row of glass-fronted cabinets stacked with novel teacups and tableware suggest care to the plating process.
“The house is totally bespoke to our lifestyle needs, allowing us to connect to the people who matter most to us. Sometimes, we throw parties and curate menus just to celebrate the harvest from the gardens: lemons, papayas, pineapples, pumpkin, mulberry, custard apples, passion fruit, bitter gourd, assorted leafy vegetable, just to name a few,” Tan enumerates.
The mention of her edible garden resurrects more fond memories. “Growing up in a landed home also means that I could experiment with growing edibles, rearing an array of animals and so forth. I remember cultivating different fruit and vegetables, bringing what we learnt from science class in school to hands-on experiments at home. We grew lady’s fingers, honeydew, tomatoes, basil, chilli, groundnuts and potatoes. We also had seven chickens that laid eggs for us apart from more exotic animals like squirrels, many varieties of birds and always three dogs simultaneously. It’s like I grew up in a farm,” laughs Tan on her private menagerie.
Her greenery expanded during the pandemic, when she brought home plants from the office and they stayed, embellishing her poolside. “I also adopted plants from colleagues who couldn’t care for them anymore,” muses the accidental plant doctor. Tan obviously has green fingers. Some plants transplanted from her first home 18 years ago are still thriving. They include a Jungle Bush plant that has propagated several generations. “One particular pineapple plant only fruited after I moved into this house in 2014. Since then, I have introduced new pineapple plants to keep it company,” she shares. Tan also enjoys discovering new and rare plants, a recent purchase being the sapling of the African Baobab tree.
The ample greenery colours the house’s basic palette of warm and sleek, rough and smooth materials. In fact, Tan sees landscaping as another material, alongside the abundance of timber deployed. Ash timber screens and staircases stained black match the black mild steel structures, while an observant eye would seek out the subtle imprints of the brushed pine wood strips used to form the concrete party walls.
The house offers places of sun and shadow. It marries beauty with comfort, granted by passive cooling strategies integrated into the architecture. “Air that comes in from the front is cooled via the pool before it is distributed throughout the house. The slits in the skylight above the pool allow accumulated hot air to escape and in return, draw more air through the space,” Tan explains. When the windows in the bedrooms are opened, through breeze cools the interiors, enhanced by 16 fans distributed across the house.
“The open-concept kitchen is the only space on the first storey to be fitted with air conditioning to facilitate the temperature control needed for baking,” says Tan. Hidden glass ‘curtains’ can be extended from the cabinetry and walls to enclose the space if needed. Tan and Lee are obviously gourmands. In fact, together with other partners, they founded the first bespoke cocktail bar Klee in 2007 and Bar Stories in 2010—a bar paired with a furniture retail concept, A Thousand Tales.
“That was when I was not yet a mother and could travel extensively to get inspiration. Back then, the retail and F&B scene wasn’t that exciting so we decided to take on more ‘hobbies’ and created a bunch of vibrant F&B concepts,” Tan shares. The furniture store came about from their love of mid-century modern design. When her partner who was in charge of operations grew her brood and could not commit to running the shop, they decided to close it. Some of the furniture found their way into her home, lending an organic sensibility that complements the greenery.
Tan and Lee met in school as architecture students. Before he had even graduated, Lee established Formwerkz in 1998 with two other classmates to work on an interior project. This later developed into the architecture firm that has become known for experimental and tropically attuned work, especially houses. In Ramp House for example, a path rises up the house’s border as a running track for the children, while a tree punctuates the centre of Park House. “We picked a path rarely walked by others during those days, paving the way forward for those passionate enough to set up their own practice right out of school,” says Tan, who joined the company later and started to date Lee after working closely together. Most fresh graduates would enter a firm to gain experience as a first step, so this means the four brave, young architects learnt as they went.
“I always remember my wedding speech, where I thanked my three ‘husbands’ I had spent so much time with that I ended up converting one of them as my sleeping partner,” Tan jests. Lee, one of the co-founders of Afternaut, now spearheads the business development of Formwerkz. “We believe that through our design methodology, we are able to create purposeful and sustainable works that bring about a positive impact,” expounds Tan.
On the home front, the couple have embraced a new project. They have bought the plot next door and are extending their dwelling sideways. “Every level will have two connections to the existing house, and the connection detail, as well as vertical circulation, will differ from floor to floor. In a way, it is like designing a degustation menu, where ingredients are paired to complement one another,” she explains. Aside from a lift for easier access, it will also accommodate space for Tan’s father who will move in with them. (Tan’s mother lives with her to look after Adan and her father lives in the family home while coming for meals daily.) It will also have more room for each family member’s hobbies: Tan’s dad is also an avid horticulturist, her mum runs culinary classes and a speciality home catering business with her aunt, and Lee hankers after a wine cellar.
And for sure, the magnification of space will allow Tan to exercise her green thumbs even more. “Double gardens, another greenhouse and rooftop farm for me,” she reveals with glee.
Photography Sayher Heffernan
Styling Jasmine Ashvinkumar
Hair and make-up Angel Gwee using Nars and Davines
Stylist’s assistant Carmen Sin
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