33 Holland Park in Singapore is one of the rare private residential projects carried out by the studio. With a design centred around the creation of an intimate yet expansive garden sanctuary holding layers of seamlessly linked living spaces, this project represents a concentration of the key architectural philosophies which recur in the studio’s larger civic projects: the importance of elegant meditative environments characterised by fluidity and a fusion between exterior and interior spaces, a deep respect for existing structures, the history and potential of a site, and the imperative for a design to be harmonious with the wider natural and human surrounds. Thanks to the open and supportive relationship between the studio and the client, this project presented a unique opportunity to explore, on a human scale, the studio’s defining interests.
The original site consisted of around 2,000 square metres of broadly triangular-shaped land with a 1930s single-story bungalow of around 300 square metres built of brick masonry with a wooden frame, flat roof tiles and interior teak flooring. Originally built for an English civil servant, the house is on the national conservation listing. As a result, no additional building could be added to the existing structure and a certain distance was required to buffer the original house from any new construction. At the same time, the brief required additional 700 sqm of living spaces including common areas, a music room, 6 bedrooms to serve three generations, and a pool. Key challenges of the design, then, were to transform the unusual land shape and spatial/conservation limitations of the existing site into a beautiful house able to combine many diverse living areas filling the greater part of the land with a sense of expansiveness and spatial harmony which is a signature of studioMilou.
A house of views 33 Holland Park is also a house of views. From each of the house’s hallways and common areas are views which traverse and link one space to another, whether from one wing of the new house to another, or between the main residence and the conservation house. Large glass windows frame the intense foliage at every opportunity, offering a warm palette of rich greens beside the stone and polished Burmese teak of the floors and walls. From the landscaped roof of the new building are tree-top views of surrounding houses, and in turn, neighbours enjoy views of Holland Park’s verdure, which discreetly contains the monumental nature of the design.
A short history of the project by Jean François Milou A few months before the inception of the project, George and Lysa had bought a plot of land at 33 Holland Park in an exclusive residential area of Singapore principally consisting of ‘Good Class Bungalows,’ the luxury houses lived in by the city’s elite. The property consisted of a parcel of land some 2000 m2 in area, in the middle of which there was a house that had originally belonged to a British civil servant and had been built in the 1930s. This house, fairly straightforward in design, had been built on a 300 m2 footprint. However, the land on which the house stood was some two metres below the level of the surrounding streets and other buildings. It was one of the last pieces of land for sale in this part of Singapore. For the couple, the area was exactly what they were looking for, but needless to say it was not entirely suitable for building the perfect house that the family dreamed of.
The shape of the land was difficult to work with, and it was often wet or even underwater. Six months after the family acquired the land, various architects were consulted for their opinion, but all of them backed out of the project after completing preliminary designs. The project was not progressing, and George even began to wonder whether he had made a mistake in his purchase. However, it was too late to stop now. A solution would have to be found. In 2009, a Singaporean architect, with whom George was developing housing projects in China, advised the family to try to find a way out of their problem but also declined the option of designing a house on the plot of land. At this time studioMilou had just won the prestigious international architectural competition for the National Gallery of Singapore, and the practice was setting up an office in Singapore to work on the new project. We had only recently arrived in Singapore, and we were not immediately enthusiastic about committing ourselves to additional projects. However, having been advised to approach studioMilou regarding the construction of his new house, George phoned my secretary on many occasions to request a meeting, but my secretary had always politely turned him down. However, George continued to insist on his need to talk to me in person, though for the time being without success. Eventually, and almost despairing of ever meeting me, he came to my office in person, at the time located in the former Supreme Court Building at 1, Saint Andrew’s Road.
Without any hesitation and accompanied by his advisor he made his way into my office, risking the disapproving stare of my secretary who was sitting outside. In the face of such a fait accompli, there was little choice but to listen to George’s story. Tea was ordered, and the conversation began. The message was clear: according to these two gentlemen, George and his advisor, only the French architect who had recently won the international competition for the National Gallery would be able to help them out of his predicament. Their perseverance, friendliness and compliments were all very disarming. We therefore surrendered in good order and accepted George’s proposal that we at least look into his problems. A few days later, having studied the land on which the house was to be built and the ideas George had for it, studioMilou signed a contract to design and build the 33 Holland Park.
A transparent paravent studioMilou’s project overcame the limits imposed by the land’s shape and the existing conservation house with a design giving a sense of transparency and fluidity between the old and new buildings, between interior and exterior. To achieve this, the outer wall of the new structure is a paravent-like wall system, consisting of rising screens opening onto a walkway which winds around the site, with both borders lined with lush vegetation that appears to venture both into the house on one side, and over the neighbouring properties on the other. A feeling that the house expands into the garden, and that the garden inhabits the house is accentuated by the closeness of plants to the house’s closed surfaces. Dense foliage caresses the many glass surfaces of the house, and towers to the second-floor spaces.
A discreet welcome, a private place Upon entering the house from the driveway, the visitor is unaware of the almost monumental scale of the new house, covered as it is by vegetation and carefully designed proportions aimed at avoiding any stark comparison with the onestorey conservation house. To further unify the two buildings, the conservation house serves as the key reception area and kitchen, through which one passes to the new residence, the door of which is aligned with the exit of the former. A rectangular pool lines one outer wall of the new house, with water and green-grey tiles softening the visual links between the conservation house and the new structures. The simplicity of the conservation house’s interior – white ceilings and walls, uncluttered furnishings – adds to a sense of openness towards the exterior and the paravent form of the new building walls, which seem to encompass the historic house in a protective manner. It is only when inside the new residence that the largesse of its design gradually becomes apparent.
Unifying materials, colours Another approach common to studioMilou’s work is the restricted use of materials and colours. Accordingly, the materials chosen for the exterior, including grey glass-reinforced concrete columns and stainless steel, have been composed in such a way as to play with the colours of the vegetation and to accentuate the impression of an architecture which is transparent and in conversation with the trees and light. The reflections and movement of the pool’s water, set off by the soft grey-green stone tiles, contribute to the play of light and life, and seem to belong equally to both houses. Sharing light wall colours and the warm glow of Burmese teak floors, the interiors of both buildings offer calm backgrounds for the ever-present plants whose foliage reaches towards and into the house from all angles.
The concept of a house within a garden was greeted with enthusiasm by George and Lysa. In practical terms, the architectural design, with its lightweight and filigree character, needed to find ways to include the demands made by the couple for a "house in a garden" of around 2,000m2. The development of the project took place over many months, and studioMilou set up weekly meetings with them at the practice’s office in order to discuss and evolve the design. These meetings usually took place at tea-time on Tuesdays. Since George and Lysa were the practice’s first private client in Singapore at the time, it was thought only right to invest in a proper tea service for these meetings. George always showed himself to be completely up-to-date with the development of the project at these friendly weekly meetings, and he never failed to exhibit his great understanding of architectural matters.
He studied the plans and sections, looked carefully at the drawings, and would always come to the meetings with notebooks full of the numbered points he wished to make, all written out in his fine handwriting. He would then go through these lists carefully, knowing exactly what he wished to say. He had a sharp eye, and he would often be able to draw attention to potential problems, trade-offs that had not quite worked out, or architectural half-measures. However, he also showed himself to be a very good listener and would let himself be persuaded of the justice of other viewpoints. On the rare occasions when agreement could not be reached, he would finally accept the opinion of the architect, giving him his trust without reserve. Lysa sometimes attended these meetings with George, and she would listen to her husband’s point of view, sometimes also giving her opinion and suggesting other possibilities with a smile. Her husband would always listen to her with complete attention. For George, this house was to be a gift to Lysa.