At first, you barely make out the architecture. A thick, green cloud of plants hangs over the house’s front. Only slight partings in the leaves revealing mustard paint suggests a built form. You see first a gate, simply made with slim metal bars and whose sea foam colour has aged. And then, your gaze distracts to the driveway’s unexpected zigzag pattern made from an assortment of gravel—unexpected because who would give artistic thought to something as rudimentary as a driveway?
A ‘hello’ sounds out from a figure in the shadows behind a vintage Volkswagen, parked at the end of the graphical pathway. As I walk in, trees and bushes wall my sides like an arbour. The deep, warm timbre belongs to Mohan Shanmugam, who lives here with his wife and younger son Marcus. Mohan and Marcus are architects, and the house was designed in part by both. While father and son work in different local firms, here is where they experiment together with space, light, material and nature. The waifish Marcus appears and invites me to sit at the outdoor courtyard. It is a space between the original house at the rear and a front extension, built when the now 26-year-old Marcus was 18. The home embraces tropical living wholeheartedly, with intertwining indoor and outdoor spaces. Concrete steps topped with terracotta tiles trace the sloped terrain, becoming seating for the table in the courtyard.
There is something convivial about gathering beneath timber trellises and foliage that filigree the morning light. Above it is a beguiling scenery of wind chimes, hanging from the branches of a majestic ficus tree. Their tintinnabulation harmonises with birdsong, evoking an idyllic retreat. “Dad collects wind chimes—among other things such as elephant and frog sculptures, as well as vintage irons—on our travels. We have wind chimes from Chennai, Bali, Bangkok and Galle, to name a few,” shares Marcus on these endearing mementos.
“The garden plays as integral a role as the house itself; it was important to us that every space in the extension would have access to greenery”
Discourse on biophilic design has intensified due to the coronavirus pandemic for its benefits of wellness, but for this family it has always been a way of life. Nature in this house is neither token nor manicured. Trees take on a life of their own and mosses peer quietly through terrariums. This informality reflects the duo’s unassuming personalities. “I grew up in Choa Chu Kang, with a forest behind my house where we would play in. That closeness with nature has always been in me so when we came here, subconsciously it was still there,” says Mohan. When he bought the house 30 years ago, he constructed an extension behind the existing building to add three bedrooms. He left the front of the unusually long plot untouched. The grassy garden space abutting the driveway was ideal for two young boys to grow up in. It is beholden of many good memories, including barbecues with family and friends, as well as the young boys camping out in tents.
Mohan and his wife Soo Kiang met studying architectural drafting at Singapore Polytechnic. The couple’s artistic leanings rubbed onto Marcus, who studied visual arts at the School of the Arts (SOTA) before heading to The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. “My parents have always been crafty so the household centres on the arts. My mum made a lot of ceramics when we were growing up; many of the pieces you see on display here are by her. She also did flower arrangements for weddings so it was not uncommon to see pails of fresh flowers around the house,” shares Marcus. Soo Kiang currently makes jewellery under her label Juan, and has a workshop table in the old house where tools of her trade lie alongside half-finished pieces.
Noting that Marcus was keen to build something of his own, Mohan gave him the front of the house as a site before the latter left for university. The quaint, two-storey building is painted entirely on the outside with the aforementioned mustard yellow. This cheery shade also colours the walls of the courtyard, which was created to avoid touching the ficus tree. Designed as an isolated block, the extension still relates to the old house in terms of scale and porosity. The first storey contains a living area, whose doors open to gardens on both sides. Here, guests are received, but it has also become another lounging nook for the family; Mohan sits here when conducting his Zoom meetings to the luxuriant backdrop. It segues at the front into a lush garden cornered with a towering asoka tree that was planted when the family first moved in, and on the other side with the stepped courtyard.
“The tropical weather influenced the design. Because the space sits on a fairly narrow and long plot of land with everything essentially back to back, we wanted to make sure that all the spaces could be fully opened, rain or shine, so that there is constant airflow in the house throughout the day,” says Marcus. Thus, the upstairs spaces are also one-room deep, edged by balconies and stretched eaves. Raised above the garden and wrapped in flourishing foliage, there is the feeling of being in a treehouse. This is Marcus’s respite, housing his bedroom, a bathroom and a studio-cum-study room.
“I enjoy the fact that nothing is set in stone. I think what makes a space a home is when it begins to evolve and grow with the family”
“Gardening is a common interest in the household and we wanted to incorporate as much greenery as we could. The garden plays as integral a role as the house itself; it was important to us that every space in the extension would have access to greenery,” says Marcus. He removed the railings at the front balcony, using plants as a natural barricade. When opened, a timber, louvred window in the bathroom frames a fern tree. Pots of manifold sizes line the balcony and trickle onto tabletops indoors.
Both father and son are admirers of Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, who championed tropical modernism—a comfortable way of living in this region. Its characteristics of pitched roofs, deep eaves, reflecting pools, interior courtyards, natural ventilation and symbiosis with the landscape are present in this home. Bawa’s Lunuganga Country Estate is a place of pilgrimage for many architects; author Michael Ondaatje had used it as a setting for his book Anil’s Ghost. The family made their own sojourn, which left a deep impression.
“In Lunuganga, we liked how nature comes first and the building is secondary,” says Marcus. Mohan directs my attention to the frangipani plant at the front garden, which is more wall than shelter as it leans to one side like a dancer in a side bend, almost touching the earth. They had seen such trees with low, sprawling branches during the trip, and wanted to replicate it here. “At one time, we had dumbbells weighing the branches down,” laughs Marcus.
The father-son closeness is palpable. There is camaraderie, but also mutual respect. They tinker with the house like partners in crime. During last year’s circuit breaker, they transformed the front garden’s rotting timber deck into a quaint sitting area, screened from the road by the skewed frangipani plant. A week was spent laying out brick pavers into a circular pattern. A pathway currently topped with soil snakes gently up one side, interrupted by a stack of bricks suggesting that this is still a work in progress. “We have not decided how to pave that path. The grass doesn’t grow there so we have to have something natural, yet practical,” contemplates Mohan. “Maybe gravel?” suggests Marcus, adding: “We are always working on DIY projects to change things up. I enjoy the fact that nothing is set in stone. I think what makes a space a home is when it begins to evolve and grow with the family.”
Change does not just refer to tangible things, but also the metaphysical. “I enjoy the change in light the moment you walk under the curtain of draping plants at the driveway, the dappled morning light in the bedroom and then the harsher amber afternoon light toward the end of the day,” Marcus expresses. One senses a poetic soul belied by a boyish visage. It is captured in the myriad elegiac paintings that adorn the walls of the old and new parts of the house. “I took a liking for drawing and painting at a young age and went for art classes before majoring in painting in school. I see some similarities between architecture and painting. Both consider things like light, shadow, texture and proportion. Painting will always be a hobby of mine. I’m glad that I still have it as an outlet and that I have a space in the house for it,” he says.
In his bedroom, he made a painting of his grandmother when she was young, encased in a timber frame. It hangs above a recent acquisition—a Mattiazzi Clerici armchair designed by Konstantin Grcic—whose assembly of timber planks complements the unpretentious architecture. New and old, nature and art mingle in a sensual potpourri within Marcus’s retreat, their compelling narratives making one pause at every object. His bed is a weighty, old Indian swing platform—Marcus debates with his father about it being a bullock cart—from retailer Xtra that had to be unloaded by at least six men and hoisted up into the room with a crane. Its adornment of knobs and carvings shows the makers’ handiwork.
“On weekdays, I can hear their dragging of chairs and clinking of cutlery as they sit down for breakfast in the courtyard while I get ready for work upstairs”
The raw surfaces of plastered walls, highlighted by sunlight streaming in through large openings, beckon touch. Among the canvases on the wall is a portrait of Marcus’s girlfriend, whom he met at SOTA and at the time of our visit was working in Boston. Another large canvas stands on an easel, filled with soft colours and delicate strokes. “This painting is of a park near my girlfriend’s family home. I was supposed to give it to her family last year but it’s incomplete,” he says.
The abundance of tactility gives the house its charm. “We love terracotta—the warm colour, how it feels when you’re walking on it barefoot. We used terracotta tiles throughout the extension’s ground storey. In contrast, we went with dark, varnished timber planks for the second storey’s rooms. It has a calmness that I think is perfect for more intimate spaces, and I love how it pairs with the landscaping,” says Marcus. Void of cement grout, recently laid fair-faced bricks on the balcony floors click-clack upon footfall. They were chosen to match the exposed brick walls dividing bedroom and studio.
Mohan’s other son lives separately but visits occasionally with two grandsons who enjoy the spaces just as much as time with Uncle Marcus—witnessed through a childlike pirate drawing that the latter has pinned proudly on his wall among his own works. Unlike many compartmentalised houses where family members are attuned only to their own domestic routines, this house encourages awareness. “My parents usually begin their day much earlier than I do. On weekdays, I can hear their dragging of chairs and clinking of cutlery as they sit down for breakfast in the courtyard while I get ready for work upstairs. I begin my mornings by turning on the irrigation tap for the front balcony’s planter. You can tell that the water is fully running through it once you hear it draining out into the large clay pot in the front patio. In the evenings, dad and I usually have our teh halia and pisang goreng. And then just as the sun sets completely, we turn on all the lights in the patio and garden.”
There is something wonderful about being in the spaces Mohan and Marcus have crafted. It beats expensive furniture, the colossal scale of mansions and calibrated hallways of name-dropping artwork. This visceral concoction of honest feeling, of things made and measured by hand, of the time-honed and timeless, of the succulent embrace of a miniature Eden is of immeasurable richness, grasped and beholden by too few. It takes one away to far-off places and yet, makes one feel so at home.
Deputy Editor Amelia Chia
Photographer Sayher Heffernan
Fashion Director Desmond Lim