Most architects would baulk at the thought of working on a theme park development. After all, fairytale castles, as pretty as they are, would hardly be considered Architecture with a capital "A". Still, when Lim Koon Park of Park + Associates (P+A) was offered the chance to work on Universal Studios Singapore (USS) in 2008, he welcomed the opportunity.
P+A were not the lead architects at USS and had no involvement in the actual design of the theme park; this was left to theme park specialists from the US. Instead, P+A was offered the somewhat tedious job of producing "shop drawings" (the drawings contractors used to build the theme park) for 18 of the 19 attractions at USS. Explaining why he was grateful for the opportunity, Mr Lim, 49, recalls: "In October 2008, there was the financial crisis. Then the next month, we were offered the Universal Studios job. We took it on without thinking too much."
The then modest firm "doubled in size in a matter of weeks" and, more fortuitously, got even more job offers later for theme parks in the Asia region. With a staff strength of 70 and a dedicated team that specialises in theme park design, P+A now has jobs at Shanghai Disneyland, 20th Century Fox World in Genting Highlands and most recently, at an as yet unnamed theme park in Abu Dhabi. Mr Lim does concede that working on theme parks has been "a steep learning curve". But it has proven to be worth the effort. "Theme park design is a very specialised field and we are now one of the few firms here that can handle it," he adds.
Looking back, Mr Lim believes that it was the firm's first association with theme parks that was a defining moment in the ethos of P+A, which was formed in 1999. "I didn't start the firm with heroic notions (of architecture). But we became more conscious of what we were after 2008," he says. Describing the firm's design philosophy, Mr Lim says: "It's about the opportunity to create a delightful experience. We draw (our inspiration) from a sensory experience, not a visual one."
In many ways, P+A's 8,000 square foot office at the former Nan Chiau High School in Kim Yam Road is just as "delightful" as any theme park attraction. While out looking for new office premises in 2013, Mr Lim's keen eye for design zoomed-in on the old school's library situated on the top floor of a block of classrooms. Although the rest of the building was unremarkable, the library was designed with high ceilings and nine barrel vaults. "It was like a cathedral. It had a sense of awe," he recalls.
After signing the lease for the space, P+A undertook a S$300,000 renovation. But the barrel vaults were almost untouched with even the existing worn and weathered windowpanes left intact.
The sense of "awe" is best experienced in the entrance foyer where the arch of the barrel vault is accentuated by black metal spandrels that also conceal light fixtures. The open concept workspace sits under the remaining barrel vaults with the only concession to Design being a pantry cum cafe that looks like it could double as a hip lounge bar. Notably, parts of the office that have been newly constructed are painted black while most of the original structure has been left a pristine white. For its efforts in creating a sublime workspace, P+A also recently won the US-based Interior Design magazine - Best of Year Award 2014 for outstanding design in the Designer's Own Office Category.
Another project where P+A was able to inject a sense of fantasy in the design is in the 1919 Black & White Residences at Mount Sophia. Built on a site that had a row of old shophouses, Mr Lim reveals that his client was hoping to build a new condominium development that would recall a sense of the "romantic" past. To do this, P+A reinterpreted the typology of colonial Black & White bungalows to create an architectural vocabulary exemplified by the shuttered windows, segmental arches and white balustrades.
Given its overt nostalgic references, purists will probably not consider "1919" architecture with a capital "A". But then, neither is the development likely to be as divisive as some of the more monolithic glass and steel structures parading as homes, proving perhaps that there is still a place for delight in architecture today.
This article was first published on Jan 24, 2015.
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