Men of details

The President's Design Award, which honours Singapore designs and designers, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

At the awards ceremony last night at the Istana, President Tony Tan Keng Yam presented the Designer of the Year award to three individuals: Dr Colin K. Okashimo, a sculptor and landscape architect; Mr Franklin Po, principal of landscape architecture practice Tierra Design; and Mr Siew Man Kok, an architect who is one of the founders of MKPL Architects.

The Designer of the Year prize is given to Singaporeans or permanent residents and recognises their body of work.

There is also a second category of awards, Design of the Year, where 13 diverse projects, from a factory building in Sungei Kadut to earphones, were among the winners.

The awards go to projects completed here or those helmed by lead designers who are Singaporeans or permanent residents.

Both awards are the nation's highest honour for the best designers, products and projects in fields such as architecture and urban design, interiors, fashion and product design.

They are given out by the DesignSingapore Council of the Ministry of Communications and Information and the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

For buildings to be eligible for the year's Design of the Year award, they must have obtained TOP, or Temporary Occupation Permit, by May 31 of the year. For other nominated works, they must be completed projects, in commercial production or launched in the market.

Between 2006 - when the awards were first handed out - and last year, there have been 33 Designers of the Year and 76 Designs of the Year.

The 111 nominations this year were judged by a 14-member panel, which included feted British architect Lord Richard Rogers and former Designer of the Year winners Chan Soo Khian, principal architect at home-grown firm SCDA Architects, and Yang Yeo, executive creative director at advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy Shanghai.

The Straits Times talks to this year's Designer of the Year winners about their work to date and checks out some Design of the Year projects.



It has been a good year for MKPL Architects. Aside from the studio celebrating its 20th anniversary, two recent high-profile projects have put it in the limelight.

MKPL Architects, together with Toronto-based planning and urban design firm Urban Strategies Inc, won the bid for the high-profile Bidadari Estate Masterplan in 2012.

But last month, their concept for the 93ha Housing Board estate was launched with much fanfare. The estate will see people living within parks and incorporates Bidadari's topographical features and heritage. It will also have multiple public transport links such as an underground bus interchange.

The firm also scored a coup when its concept design proposals for two portions of the 24km-long Rail Corridor were picked by the Urban Redevelopment Authority last month. Japanese architecture firm Nikken Sekkei and Singapore landscape firm Tierra Design will do the masterplan of the corridor.

Together with Chinese company Turenscape International, it proposed that the main train station hall at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station be used as a multi-purpose community building.

Then in the Choa Chu Kang stretch of the corridor, a 50m-wide linear forest will be integrated with future residential developments.

Mr Siew Man Kok, co-founder and chairman of MKPL Architects, set up the firm in 1995 with co-partner Cheng Pai Ling, hoping to challenge the way buildings were designed and make them more user-centric.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) graduate was inspired in part by the attention to detail that went into Langkawi's Datai Hotel by Singapore- based architect Kerry Hill. Even the open-concept toilets had detailed drawings.

Mr Siew, who worked for six years with a small firm before branching out on his own, says: "Those were the days of the industry. Most architects were looking at only the big details.

"The mantra then for most practices was that an architect could not be so detailed because the fees they were paid were not sustainable. But Kerry Hill was designing at a much higher level and it inspired me."

And so the bachelor struck out on his own, finding satisfaction in controlling all aspects of his projects.

His firm started out designing private homes. For his first house, he incorporated courtyards so that the home was filled with light and natural ventilation. That design ethos - crafting a space that embraces Singapore's tropical climate - also became part of the firm's DNA.

For example, the Visitor Centre at HortPark, which was completed in 2007, has a partially open canopy. Those under it will feel a light spray of water when it rains and the breeze on windy days.

"What we're trying to advocate is that this is what the weather is. There's no need to cocoon the architecture, " he says.

For its efforts, the 50-strong firm, which has an international roster of staff, has chalked up accolades through the years. These include the Design of the Year prize at last year's President's Design Award for Kent Vale, a faculty housing at NUS.

He was particularly chuffed about the project, since the jurors liked how landscape from the public area leads into communal spaces. The group included Los Angeles-based architect Thom Mayne, known for his boundary-pushing works.

Mr Siew says: "They started whipping out their mobile phones when they first saw Kent Vale. When even a seasoned architect like Thom Mayne does it, it must be something. It confirms my gut feel that it was the right way to do the building."



Many people, though they may not know it, would have encountered a Tierra Design project at some point.

Visitors to Singapore at Changi Airport's Terminal 3 will be wowed by the 300m-long vertical green walls. The firm also did the landscape masterplan for the airport campus.

Guests at the Parkroyal on Pickering will feel like they are staying in a garden as the building has 15,000 sq m of greenery, which include sky gardens and cascading plants on the terraced facade.

Architecture firm Woha was behind the architecture design.

Meanwhile, office workers at 158 Cecil Street are greeted by a lush, seven-storey vertical garden.

Last month, Tierra Design's masterplan for the 24km-long Rail Corridor - it was crafted together with Japanese architecture firm Nikken Sekkei - won the Urban Redevelopment Authority's design competition.

Tierra Design's founding principal Franklin Po, 69, is happy the landscape industry is getting more recognition.

Mr Po, who is both a registered architect here and an accredited landscape architect, says: "There's no difference between a landscape architect and architect. Both should blend and give you a product that looks like it came from the mind of one person. "

Despite its big projects, Tierra Design, a multi-disciplinary practice, is a small outfit - it has a team of 20 landscape architects, architects, designers, horticulturists, and water and lighting design specialists.

While the Singaporean works with buildings and greenscapes now, he almost became a doctor.

He started on a pre-medical course and graduated in 1968.

By his final year in school, he had found other interests, taking classes such as fine arts, anthropology, graphic design and photography.

With his love for the creative field, his older brother suggested he pursue architecture.

He got into the California State Polytechnic University-Pomona and later won a Welton Beckett Fellowship to the University of California, Los Angeles.

He graduated with a master's degree in architecture in 1973.

He worked in America before returning to Singapore in 1993

to work with RSP Architects Planners & Engineers for two years as a project architect on King's Centre.

The father of two joined Tierra Design two years later and is now founding principal and creative director.

He says of his President's Design Award win: "I was very surprised I was nominated at all.

"In someone's career, you don't aim for honours - you do your job and enjoy it. That's enough for me."



Before sculptor and landscape architect Colin K. Okashimo accepts a project, he sometimes meditates about it - on site.

He repeats the process after accepting the job. Before he starts designing, he heads to the project area in time for daybreak. Armed with torches, he finds a place to "sit and witness the birth of the day". When he starts working on the project, he also continues meditating there.

For him, meditation helps him find calm. He has practised it for 18 years.

"I'm trying to understand the site at a different level and to develop a sensitivity towards what I believe exists in every place, a state of calm that we should respect as we make an intervention into it.

"I do it with the idea that I'm going to experience the nuances of the site and develop an intuition I would later use as part of a criterion when I'm designing the property. Whether it's a resort or a high-rise residential project, there's something to understand at a deeper level."

The Canadian, who is of Japanese descent, is the principal at Colin K. Okashimo and Associates.

The firm, which has its office in Syed Alwi Road, has done landscape architecture projects such as Grange Residences in Tanglin Road and Hotel Maya in Kuala Lumpur. It has also come up with masterplans for sites such as the Ephelia Resort in Seychelles.

In-depth research also goes into designing each project - right down to documenting aspects such as the geography and cultural elements.

Dr Okashimo, a permanent resident here, says: "It's not simply going on the Internet and finding what's available. We talk to specialists, university professors and people who know local folklore. The information is conveyed into our work and it makes our design more meaningful."

His projects feature plentiful greenery, open spaces and reflective pools. Most also have sculptures he designs. He works on miniature clay versions in his studio and later experiments with different finishes.

He fell in love with the art form when he took a sculpture course, which was a component of his landscape architecture undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph in Canada. He would later do a master of fine arts at the Chelsea School of Fine Arts and Design in London. He also has a PhD from the University of the Arts London.

But Dr Okashimo, who was born in Toronto and moved to Singapore 33 years ago to work at Belt Collins International, a global planning, design and consulting firm with an office here, says he does not plonk sculptures randomly on properties - like a "turd-in-the-plaza".

The phrase was coined by American architect James Wines to describe a mandatory public sculpture that many developers feel is a must-have for their properties.

Dr Okashimo, who is married and has a son, does not go for big, statement pieces when he designs.

"That's not to say that big is bad. But how can you take something that is so big and make it calm? Sculptures shouldn't scream 'look at me'. Instead, people should get to experience a calm that they wouldn't otherwise feel."

He straddles the titles of designer and artist, but tries to "amalgamate" the roles. "Both the architecture and art are speaking the same message and I'm trying to do it in a way that each strengthens the other."

This article was first published on December 12, 2015.
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