Award-winning couple behind Pinnacle@Duxton

SINGAPORE - The first time architect Khoo Peng Beng set eyes on his wife Belinda Huang, she was a second-year architecture student, dressed as a Viking queen, shouting at National University of Singapore freshmen on orientation day.

He was a new student who had just joined the architecture faculty.

When asked if it was love at first sight, MrKhoo, now 44, says with a chuckle: "No, there was no, like, water-cooler moment."

Ms Huang, 45, who was too invested in her Viking character to remember the freshmen streaming through the doors, says: "I remember only that I had to wear a helmet and laugh very loudly."

The husband-and-wife team are the founders of Arc Studio Architecture + Urbanism, best known for designing the Pinnacle@Duxton - the first 50-storey public housing project in Singapore - along Cantonment Road.

Their careers started at RSP Architects Planners & Engineers, where they worked together for about six years before starting their own company in 1999.

The arrival of their first child and maid problems prompted Ms Huang to leave RSP Architects first. When jobs started coming in, Mr Khoo joined her a few months later.

They caught the attention of the architectural world when their entry to the Duxton Plain Public Housing Design Competition beat 201 international submissions in 2002.

The company, at the time, was a mere infant - just four years old, compared with much more established architecture firms. It teamed up with RSP Architects in the second stage of the competition.

"It was a super big break for us," says Ms Huang, who graduated from NUS with a bachelor of arts in architectural studies in 1989. She completed her diploma in architecture in the Bartlett School of Architecture in the United Kingdom in 1992 and became a qualified architect in 1996.

"We were considered very young to handle such a big and important project, so everyone was looking at how we were going to manage it."

When they won the competition, they could hardly believe it themselves.

Recalling the moment when he opened the letter informing them of their win, MrKhoo says their eight-person team was in the office and nobody knew what to expect. Ms Huang adds: "We were like 'We really won? Wow, now we've got to build it.'"

But looking back, they admit they felt good about their submission because they had found solutions for all the complexities of the project.

For starters, the 2.5ha plot of land is shaped like a bone-in lamb chop.

The couple, who have three sons aged 15, nine and six, also had to incorporate a linear park and a sky park in their design and avoid trees on the ground that had been earmarked for conservation.

Despite all these requirements, "I think we somehow solved everything", says Mr Khoo, a Malaysian who came to Singapore to study when he was 12 and is now a permanent resident. Ms Huang is Singaporean, but born in Malaysia.

The team also found a way to provide sufficient parking for residents. The development has one basement level for carpark lots and more levels above ground.

"We made it into an urban hill. That was one of the ideas - that the ground swept upwards to form a new topography," says Mr Khoo, who graduated from NUS with a bachelor of arts in architectural studies in 1990 and then a bachelor of architecture in 1993.

But the most important feature of their design was maximising views, says Ms Huang. Adds Mr Khoo: "We had so many models and we just kept looking to see which one felt the most open."

The project also has 12 sky bridges that link the seven blocks. The 50th-level sky bridge is open to the public at a $5 fee.

The development was completed in 2009 and became a great success, winning Design of the Year at the President's Design Award, Best Housing Development at the World Architectural Festival Awards and Best Tall Building in Asia and Australasia, awarded by the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, in 2010.

However, there were moments of uncertainty, says Mr Khoo. "We had to battle through the economic cycles such as Sars," he says, adding that the property market was not as buoyant at the time when the project was launched and they worried the uptake would not be good.

As a small firm, that was the only project they were working on at the time.

The Pinnacle, which opened for booking in May 2004, was sold through the build-to-order system, where construction starts only when most of the flats are booked. "So there was a risk that if there were no orders, then the project might not go ahead or it would have to be developed in phases," he says.

But his worries were unfounded. Despite the lukewarm property market then, 3,149 applications were received for the first 528 units released.

The project raised the profile of Arc Studio tremendously, giving it opportunities to design more properties in Singapore, Malaysia and India.

Before landing the Pinnacle job, the company had worked on private homes and offices. In 2003, it had also clinched second place in the design competition for a Master Plan for the Tanglin Club.

Ms Huang says: "Towards the end of Pinnacle@Duxton, we got more commissions because developers know we can deliver."

In Singapore, some of the residence projects they have done since the Pinnacle include L'viv along Newton Road and Foresque Residences in Petir Road.

They recently completed the first phase of luxury high-rise Setia Sky Residences in Kuala Lumpur, which features another version of a sky garden.

They have 24 staff at Arc Studio now.

After years of working closely, first in RSP Architects, then in their own company, the couple say they are "quite well rehearsed" in their working relationship.

Mr Kenn Goh, 31, a fellow architect at Arc Studio, says of their work style: "I have never seen them shout at each other. If they are not comfortable with something, they will raise it and discuss."

Explaining why they do not bicker over work matters, Mr Khoo says: "When you see it as an extension of the self, then it becomes an issue.

"When we see ourselves as facilitating the emergence of architecture, it is more like trying to solve the puzzle than doing it your way or my way."

Creative romantic

Architect Khoo Peng Beng, 44, is a man with big ideas. His wife Belinda Huang, 45, says: "Both of us can come up with very good ideas, but his ideas can grow larger in terms of options and complexity."

Adds Mr Kenn Goh, 31, who is an assistant architect at the firm: "Peng Beng is very idea-driven - he will look at a lot of ways to solve one problem."

Mr Khoo's more philosophical side surfaces as he speaks about the company and the idea behind its name - Arc Studio Architecture + Urbanism.

He says in a distant, thoughtful voice that they wanted their company to be more like a collective of artists instead of the typical architecture firm, which is why they called themselves a studio.

As for the word "urbanism", he says: "Urbanism is about the city and communities... Architecture tends to be more centric on individual buildings, but as buildings become bigger, it becomes building upon building and you have cities."

While ideas flow freely from him, it does not mean he is the designer and she is the project manager in the team. Their roles in the company are not defined that way, says Ms Huang. "We work together all the time. It's hard to define our roles."

But when it comes to their relationship, the lines are much clearer. Mr Khoo was definitely the romantic in pursuit of Ms Huang.

On her 30th birthday, in 1997, he asked her out for dinner. "I didn't have a date, so I said, 'Okay, let's go,'" she says with a shrug, indicating that she thought it was just a casual meal.

They were colleagues at RSP Architects at that time and had been friends for about four years.

After dinner at an Italian restaurant, which has since closed, they headed to Labrador Park and started chatting. Out of the blue, Ms Huang recalls: "We were chatting for a while, then Peng Beng said, 'You know I'm going to marry you right?'"

Her reaction was: "Get out of here."

Mr Khoo says of his bold statement: "We already knew each other very well through work, and it was just taking it to the next level."

Says Ms Huang to her husband, with eyebrows furrowed and a broad smile: "But it's just weird - nobody says that. I hope your son doesn't say that to his girlfriend. So scary."

After two months, Mr Khoo proposed and another two months later, they were married.

Ms Huang says she has no regrets marrying him. "All our lives, it's just a lot of laughter... When I get my crabby moments, he's always the one to reach out to me," says Ms Huang, whose father, 80, is a civil and structural engineer and mother, 78, a former teacher.

She is the youngest of three siblings. Her brother, 48, is also a civil and structural engineer while her sister, 47, is an economist.

When asked, she finds it hard to criticise her husband. "Maybe he could be more organised."

But in the same breath, she adds: "The thing about Peng Beng is he is always improving himself. I wish he could be more organised, so he's been trying and he is more organised now."

Kind, sensitive soul

If there is a design problem to be solved, Ms Belinda Huang is the woman for the job, says her husband Khoo Peng Beng. "She will look at random things and find a pattern, and structure it into a workable plan," he says.

He admits that he, on the other hand, would "keep looking for more ideas and opening up more doors to explore".

"When a client talks to her, he wants to get things done. When he talks to me, it's more like talking to an artist or something," he says.

But when there are too many ideas floating around, "she is able to tease out all the knots and help. She always brings that to the table".

"She finds the method in the madness and so do I, but maybe I start in a more chaotic fashion."

Of the two, she is also the more sensitive one, says Mr Khoo, which is important in architecture because they need to understand how other people will feel in a space.

She has "a sense of how people will feel in a space and wanting other people to feel good in that space".

This stems from her kind, empathetic nature, says Mr Khoo, who is the eldest of four children. His sister, 42, is an accountant and an artist; his brother, 40, is a paediatric neurologist; and another brother, 37, is a developer who has taken up farming.

His father, 68, is an accountant. His mother, 65, helps in his father's office.

"Belinda has a very kind soul. If she sees anyone suffering, she will try and find out why," he says, adding that she is also helping out at St Joseph's Home for the elderly in Singapore and trying to design a more dignified compound for them.

This kind and helpful streak, together with her clear-headed approach to problems, made her the natural choice as relationship counsellor when MrKhoo was having girlfriend troubles back when they were colleagues at RSP Architects.

He says: "It was just one girl, I was messed up. I was not sure about whether I should continue."

At the time, Ms Huang was not dating anybody.

He jokes: "Of course, she advised me, 'Aiyah, dump her lah.'"

At which point Ms Huang rolls her eyes and says: "I'm being accused of planning all this because I said 'So much problems, then don't want already lah.'"

She adds in her defence: "It didn't even cross my mind that we could be together."

Her husband also says she is very sporting. Although he is the more sporty one in the relationship, "she is always brave enough to come along".

For example, when Mr Khoo - who has a fourth-degree black belt in aikido - wanted to head to Japan for training just after their wedding, she was happy to sign up too. "She has a sense of adventure," he says with a grin, but adds that she could be even more active.

The couple have three boys aged 15, nine and six. "We have a house full of boys so, sometimes, we just want Belinda to join us in our active fun. Sometimes she does, but we want more of it," says MrKhoo with a laugh.

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