“The sun sets our bearings, marks the east and west, south and north, the front and rear of houses, what is in the light and what is in the shade, what needs to be sheltered by porches and roofs and what needs to be opened up through windows and skylights. The sun is always a special spectacle and participating in it is a privilege we often fail to take advantage of because of silly little things getting in the way. The entertainment provided by the day’s great cosmic events certainly deserves a bit of attention.”
Italian architect and designer Michele De Lucchi penned these words in the book 12 Tales with Little Houses in 2005 to accompany images of miniature houses he carved with a chainsaw. These observations of habitat and the wider world they are set in is a reminder of what meaningful spaces can do for the body and soul. They come to me as I ambulate through the light-rich home of Paul Tan. From the outside, the all-white architecture appears like a sculpture with round cut-outs, alabaster bands wrapping around glass walls and a curved roof—very unlike the neighbouring houses that are capped with terracotta roofs or mundane box-and-screen constructs.
The front gate, painted a deep pine colour, opens and my feet crunch on gravel carpeting the driveway. The small garden is minimally planted with lawn grass, cat’s tail and a lone leopard tree that has popped through the car-porch roof through a circular aperture. Inside, the early morning illumination washes in through the geometric openings that frame views both ways, concocting silent light and shadow theatrics, and almost whitewashing the greys from the off-form concrete walls. But it feels comfortable in the house, thanks to the far-reaching roof eaves.
Tan is an amiable, bespectacled lawyer with a wide grin and smiling eyes. The partner at Clifford Chance Asia has made headlines as a high achiever in the industry, and heads the litigation practice for Southeast Asia, specialising in commercial litigation and international arbitration. The recently appointed treasurer of the Law Society of Singapore’s council also co-founded the Young Lawyer’s Task Force to support younger talent. On top of that, he has published a book on Singapore’s legal history and is now penning three legal textbooks. It is all very cerebral work—and pressurising too for sure—which is why he appreciates the calm that the house provides. It is filled with material and phenomenological qualities, and yokes him close to nature.
Tan had always lived in this part of Singapore—a residential street in Serangoon that, while witnessing increasing construction activity transmuting one-storey houses into three-storey edifices, still retains a certain languid charm. His parents and two siblings live a street away and it is not uncommon to find him strolling over to mum’s kitchen for lunch as he now works from home due to the pandemic. “A large part of living [is defined] by our professional lives and for the longest time, our home was synonymous with the non-professional aspects. But COVID has changed all that in that the home is really the host of all aspects of our lives: professional, recreational and restorative. So I am grateful to have a place where all three can be had,” he says.
To build his dream house, he found a worthy collaborator in Mikael Teh of Monocot Studio. He found the architectural designer online and was drawn to his simple yet articulated spaces. “I was looking for someone young and who could relate to me. Mikael had his own point of view that I appreciated as I didn’t want a cookie-cutter house,” explains Tan. A house embodies its owners’ personalities, likes and aspirations. In this case, the Zen-vibe reflects Tan’s inherent introspective nature while accommodating his love of interacting with people that comes from his work and public speaking. Travel—including doing his master’s degree at the University of Oxford and later working in the UK and Geneva—exposed him to design, but he credits Teh for deepening this knowledge beyond nice pictures.
For inspiration, he looked to minimalist British architect John Pawson and Japanese architect and maestro of brutalism Tadao Ando. “I love the simplicity, clean lines and use of natural materials in their work,” says Tan. The long staircase climbing up one side of the house pays homage to the former. Around and above the steps, sharp-edged picture windows and skylights make an artwork of azure skies and shifting clouds. No wonder he christens it ‘the stairway to heaven’. As I traverse up, my hands clasp curved profiles etched into the walls—the most minimal of handrails. This ethos of simplicity contributes to the house’s serenity. “You can see that the house is very stripped down. Many areas use just one or a few types of materials so it’s very modest but also very powerful.” At the stairwell, it is plaster and paint, timber, glass and sky. In the master bathroom that unabashedly greets one through glass walls past the second-storey landing, granite wraps the walls, floor, bathtub and washbasin counter.
“According to my parents who visited, the double volume living room has a cathedral-like effect”
Even the house’s programming is unusually basic—there is only one bedroom—allowing Tan to enjoy the pure expanse of space, which is most palpable in the voluminous living room. Here, a gathering of tasteful and cosy furniture invites flowing conversation. A glass-fronted mezzanine-cum-study area above allows another perspective of the space. Split-levels between the living and dining “give the dining area a sense of intimacy in such an open and tall space. We also wanted Tan’s friends to be able to sit on the window ledge to chit-chat or dip their legs in the pool,” says Teh.
Sometimes, Tan enjoys a cup of coffee perched on the raised surface. “I think living is about taking moments for yourself and every morning now that we work from home, I’ve had the time to make my own pour-over coffees. I grind the coffee beans by hand; it gives me an opportunity to do something for myself before facing the rest of the day,” says the coffee connoisseur.
Around the house, cooking tomes hint at one of Tan’s proclivities, which is confirmed by a thorough set of Wolf appliances in the Dada kitchen imported from Italy. “I prefer Western cuisine as it’s easier to pick up compared to Asian food, and I don’t bake as that requires more precision. I like to be more creative rather than follow the rules, which is ironic as I’m a lawyer. But then, I like to explore the grey areas,” he says with a laugh.
He also tasked Teh to think about how to ground the house’s design in its context. “We definitely took inspiration from the greats. But I wanted to avoid the generic Balinese-themed house or a modern cube. So I asked Mikael if we could take something identifiable of Singapore architecture and modernise it.” After some research that involved a saunter around Tiong Bahru—an area Tan is most fond of—Teh decided to incorporate the characteristics of the area’s pre-war apartment blocks such as circular windows, elongated corridors and curved walls.
“The home is really the host of all aspects of our lives: professional, recreational and restorative. I am grateful to have a place where all three can be had”
One of these walls envelops the attic, fronted by timber bookshelves and lined with pale-green kit-kat tiles. These tiles also clad the base of a table that Teh designed. A Noguchi lantern and rattan chairs from Carl Hansen & Søn complete the room’s Zen feel. “I jokingly call this space the multipurpose hall. But I think that’s a good illustration of how the design of the space was shaped around what I needed it for. It can be a secondary study, a lounge area or a workout room,” says Tan, who meets with personal trainer and local athlete Calvin Kang here twice a week.
Friends and family who have visited enjoy the space as much as Tan. “According to my parents who visited, the double-volume living room has a cathedral-like effect. Some of my friends say the house has echoes of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye; others say it has aspects of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. I think that goes to show what Mikael created was something really unique,” he gleams.
In furnishing the house, many trips to showrooms were made by the duo. “The selection started out with a mid-modern century vibe, very Danish,” Tan recalls. A vintage timber console in the living room as well as a bench in the master bathroom from local Scandinavian second-hand furniture boutique Noden are all but what is left of this initial direction. “Over time, I wanted the furniture to reflect the architecture, which is a bit old and a bit new, a bit Asian and a bit European,” says Tan. He points out Pierre Jeanneret-designed Easy armchairs in the living room from Phantom Hand popularised by social media, whose use of rattan references the colonial era. It faces a bench with chunky curving legs by French designer Christian Liaigre that Tan felt reminded him of traditional Chinese furniture, albeit updated. Same too for the Stellar Works dining chairs poised beneath Astep lamps that hover delicately like glass bubbles threaded through with a needle. Belgian architect Vincent Van Duysen was also an inspiration. “His work has a certain old-world charm but feels very contemporary at the same time. The overall styling of the living area, in particular, has a slight shade of the living room in his VDC Residence [in Belgium],” says Tan.
“Many areas use just one or a few types of materials so it’s very modest but also very powerful”
The light that flows into the home enlivens the forms, proportions and passageways Teh has crafted. “We studied the sun direction and created the double-volume space to allow ample morning sun in, and the circular cut-outs to create a dramatic effect. A circular window was also studied to frame an existing banyan tree that didn’t survive and that we replaced with the leopard tree,” he shares. In the master bedroom, deep overhangs reduce the heat from the morning and evening sun, and the lush landscape outside the window makes for a fine morning view.
While Tan gave Teh plenty of creative freedom, he did ask for a large bathtub in which he could soak away the cares of the day. This is situated in the master bathroom which as big as the adjoining master bedroom, surrounded by glass walls that look to greenery on a perimeter terrace. “The bathroom is the first place you step into after you wake and the last you enter before you sleep. So I wanted a bathroom where I could decompress and that feels meditative,” says Tan. The large receptacle lined with cobalt kit-kat tiles is evocative of Japanese onsen—“it’s like a mini pool,” says Tan in jest. “We see emptiness and open space as a form of luxury,” adds Teh.
After living here for a while, Tan has had the chance to appreciate the home. “In the day, it has an Australian vibe. It’s very chill, with the sunlight streaming in and when you lie down on the couch and look out at the leopard tree, it feels like you’re overseas, maybe by the beach. At night, there is a sense of calm. I feel that I can do my work here but I don’t feel the stress of it.” The relaxing vista of a water body—in this case, the swimming pool—is another element that provides tranquillity.
In his younger days, the illustrious Tan would spend all his time working. Now older and wiser, he has learnt to relax, and separate work and personal life. “On weekends I try not to work. In the evenings, I switch off and do something like take a swim or soak in the tub. But I also like having the space by myself with my thoughts [even when I am working]. Just last week when I was preparing for a case, I would walk around the house thinking about the case theory. I need the quiet to think and the house allows me to do that effectively. At the same time, once it’s time to relax, it gives me the opportunity to switch over,” says Tan.
Deputy editor Amelia Chia
Photographer Sayher Heffernan
Stylist Desmond Lim
Hair and Makeup: Zhou Aiyi/Makeup Entourage using Clarins and Keune
Stylist’s Assistant Joey Tan