Architect's Artistic Training Gives Designs a Whole New Bent

Richard Hassell talks about innovation & sustainability

Issue: Jun 2010

Richard Hassell
Hassell's interest in sustainability was fuelled by his father's work on solar air-conditioning at Solar Energy Research Institute of Western Australia in the 1980s
Photo courtesy of WOHA

Australian architect and design wonder, Richard Hassell, is half of the dynamic duo that is WOHA. He and fellow founding director of the Singapore-based regional design practice, Wong Mun Summ, have been garnering multiple awards both national and international, including the President’s Design Award for three years running.

Hassell’s works
Hassell’s works are internationally recognised, like Alila Villas Uluwatu, Bali Indonesia, winner of the Best of Year Awards under the Hospitality: Hotel-Resort Category by Interior Design Magazine and winner of the 2009 Green Good Design Award by The Chicago Athenaeum among others
Photo courtesy of Tim Griffith

Innovation and sustainability are central to WOHA, whose design philosophy is to “explore the intersections of culture, context, history, nature, climate, sustainability and social behaviour to inform innovative design”. The firm also takes pride in the fact that it has “no fixed language or style”. Instead WOHA “lets each project evolve around a set of objectives and strategies that emerge from within the project”.

A native of Perth, Hassell, was a graduate of the University of Western Australia. He worked with Kerry Hill Architects from 1989 to 1995 during which time he became an associate. He has given lectures, presentations and published papers at various tertiary institutions around the world and is also architectural adviser to the Singapore Land Transport Authority. He has been appointed to the Design Council of Singapore and is a Board Member of the Board of Architects, Singapore and the Building and Construction Authority (BCA).

Hassell’s creativity extends beyond buildings though. He studied fine art and has been doing oil paintings and charcoal drawings since he was four. His first solo exhibition opened in Singapore in 2002 and his works have been featured in Vogue Living and are in collections in Singapore, Australia and Indonesia.

INSIDE: You have won so many awards for your designs. Which would you say you’re the most proud of and why?

HASSELL: All our awards are important to us as they are recognition of the hard work we put into our projects. But a few do stand out: the President's Design Award as the highest accolade in Singapore; the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for 1 Moulmein Rise in Singapore as it is the most highly researched award by an amazing group of intellectuals who really think about what is happening in the world today; and the World Architecture Festival Awards for The Met as it is the only real global award programme - like the Olympics for architecture.

The Met
The Met, soaring above the heart of Bangkok’s CBD, is a world-class luxury residential development
Photo courtesy of Tim Griffith

INSIDE: One of the central tenets of WOHA is creating innovative and sustainable designs. How do you ensure sustainability in your designs?

HASSELL:With each project we need to look at the client's needs and then design a sustainable approach around it. For residential this means making something marketable for the buyers as they will be the beneficiaries. So it has to be something quite eye catching with lifestyle benefits, for instance sky gardens. For a commercial building where the developer will own it long-term, then operating costs and lifecycle costings can be proposed, for example a higher performing facade. We try and always have sun shading and less dependence on air conditioning in all our projects. The naturally ventilated corridors at Wilkie Edge, Singapore, is a good example.

INSIDE: How do you define “innovative design” and how do you keep your designs innovative?

By responding to the project, the client and the site and view them as always distinct, rather than trying to push a WOHA style onto each project. We look for projects where we can innovate, so we tend to avoid projects that are very similar to the ones we have just done. This is to make sure we don’t end up repeating ourselves. It is good for creativity, but bad for making money!

Innovation is literally making something new. This could be new in terms of function or use, or new in terms of expression or aesthetics. It means not just following standard solutions but actively seeing how we can do it better or differently, by imaging a better future.

monsoon windows
Monsoon windows have horizontal openings. They let in the breeze but keep out the rain which is an improvement on bay windows that gathers too much heat.
Photo courtesy of Tim Griffith

For example, with 1 Moulmein Rise, we developed a contemporary aluminum openable version of the traditional bamboo fixed opening monsoon window. With Newton Suites, we created the world's tallest green wall. And at Alila Villas Uluwatu, we sought to invent a new architectural language combining elements of local traditional and international modern architecture.

Sketch of 1 Moulmein Rise, Singapore
Sketch of 1 Moulmein Rise, Singapore, that won the prestigious 2007 Aga Khan Award for Arthitecture
Photo courtesy of Richard Hassell

INSIDE: WOHA is noted for focusing on “the architectural potentials within each project, and developing a formal language around these”. What are the things you look out for when designing a building? What inspires and influences you?

HASSELL: We keep our eyes open and let the project inspire us. This might be the local landscape at Alila Villas Uluwatu, or the clashing scales of the neighbourhood at Wilkie Edge or a local lantern festival for our hotel in Chiang Mai.

We are always on the lookout for clues as to how to design. The hardest part of design is that there are so many ways to design so it is difficult to settle on a direction. Something like a lantern can suggest ideas about form, about colour, lightness, contrast, something glowing in the dark, or about symbolising luck or hope. The best things for inspiration allow for a lot of interpretation so it can guide lots of different aspects of design, from mood to the shape of things. It should make a good story, so that all the people involved can understand and support the design.

Vision CWilkie Edge
Wilkie Edge was created to bring life to the streets around, and “mend’ the large disjunctions in scale, texture, and detail between the buildings around it
Photo courtesy of Patrick Bingham-Hall

INSIDE: You have designed a wide mix of building types and scales, including commercial, residential, hospitality, transport, infrastructure, institutional, religious, mixed-use and interior projects. Is there anything that you would like to design but have not?

HASSELL: We would like to do a major public cultural institution, such as a museum because these kinds of projects are very stimulating. You need to design great spaces, you can provide a major contribution to the city, and to respond to the exhibits in terms of space, light and materials would be very enjoyable.

INSIDE: How has your art influenced, inspired and contributed to your architectural work?

HASSELL: Art is something you have complete control of, and you are working on the finished product. Architecture, on the other hand, is a team activity, plugged into the economy, and you are making plans for something others will build. The complete control that you get with art is a good antidote when the projects are suffering from major revisions due to outside forces!

Being an artist has made me an architectural artist, I suppose, which is not necessarily a better artist. Architects are less emotional and more rational than artists. In general, although art is such a wide and varied field, there are many hyper-rational artists. Probably my art has made me a better architect, in that it gives experience and confidence in aesthetic judgments, in expression and in composition.

Hassell’s art
Hassell's work as an architect often influences his art and vice versa as can be seen in this bold, quirky piece with a touch of surrealism
Photo courtesy of Richard Hassell
Hassell’s study
Hassell’s study, a haven where he finds solace
Photo courtesy of Richard Hassell

INSIDE: Your office is decorated with several of your artwork. What is your home like?

HASSELL: It is an apartment. I have a few of my paintings on the wall. It is furnished as a comfortable home, not a showpiece or architectural statement. I like my study/guest room, which is designed as a library, full of all my books and things I have collected. It’s comfortable and quiet, with soothing colours, textures and art pieces.

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