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Award-winning architect Yip Yuen Hong on his favourite design features and his latest project Midtown Modern

Whether it’s going down a long winding driveway shaded by palm trees, crossing a bridge over azure waters or walking through a stately courtyard, there is something special about the feeling you get in those first few seconds of arriving at a beautiful hotel or resort.

This feeling is often described as a sense of arrival and while it is an expression typically used in hospitality, prominent Singaporean architect Yip Yuen Hong is eager to bring the experience to the home.

Coming home

In fact, creating a sense of arrival is one of the features the four-time President’s Design Award winner is most excited about in his latest project with real estate developer GuocoLand, Midtown Modern. The 558-unit condominium comprising two 30-storey towers will be part of GuocoLand’s upcoming integrated mixed-use development Guoco Midtown in the Beach Road-Bugis neighbourhood.

Yip started his career with the Housing and Development Board before moving to the private sector and is now the founder and principal architect of ip:li Architects, where he mostly works on mid-sized private residential projects. Midtown Modern is his second large-scale luxury development after Martin Modern, another project by GuocoLand in the River Valley area, which will be ready by the middle of the year.

For Martin Modern, Yip worked with GuocoLand to dedicate a large portion of valuable real estate to a long, picturesque driveway leading to the carpark as well as to a drop-off point with grand steps up to a majestic canopy swathed in greenery. “The idea is that if residents have a beautiful, longer driveway coming into an imposing canopy, it creates anticipation and that sense of arrival is a lot better,” he says.

Over at Midtown Modern, Yip took its Central Business District (CBD) location into great consideration when designing the sense of arrival. “When you come home tired from work or you’ve had enough of the excitement downstairs, you take a glass elevator up a shaft of natural light. The light changes as the sun moves throughout the day. It’s like a ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ experience,” describes Yip, referencing the Star Trek catchphrase associated with the characters teleporting up and down from the spaceship to various planets.

yip yuen hong
Yip Yuen Hong

The glass elevator transports residents from the ground floor up to the third floor, where it opens up to lush gardens and separate elevators to the two residential towers. “It’s a nicer way to get to your main door but most people don’t bother with it,” he adds. “I’m glad GuocoLand did because this is the transition space that transports you away from the buzz and up to a wild landscape; to your sanctuary. This sense of arrival is supposed to allow you to breathe out, relax and let go.”

Nature in the city

To Yip, true luxury living is having big outdoor spaces. Now more than ever, there is not just a want but also a need for biophilic design, which incorporates elements of the natural world into modern environments. Spending more time at home has left many feeling more drawn to greenery and natural spaces.

For both Midtown Modern and Martin Modern, greenery takes up most of the area – about 80 per cent is gardens and landscaping. “To me these are areas of respite and reprieve, which is rare for city living,” says Yip, pointing out the lush, sprawling landscape on the third storey as a key feature of Midtown Modern – complete with various spaces for groups and individuals.

There will be more than 10 thematic gardens in the area, with several designed as forests and comprising species that recreate the seasonal ambience of Spring Wood, Summer Wood and Autumn Wood. “We don’t want another pretty manicured landscape; we wanted a wilder kind of beauty in this sanctuary,” he says. “There are many opportunities for people to escape, like in the little nooks where you can just sit by yourself and look at the view. It’s like having your own Central Park in the city. You’ll basically be spoilt for choice and that to me is very luxurious because you’re not just buying an apartment; you’re buying a piece of a park. It’s quite unbeatable.”

For the people

Embarking on his first integrated mixed-use development has not come without difficulties, as there are more rules and players involved, but Yip has always been one to embrace a challenge. One way he does this is by keeping things simple, which is characteristic of his design philosophy. “In any project, too much of a good thing dilutes the architecture. So I just hone in on what is most important, like in this case, the sense of arrival and landscaping,” he says. “Everything else is functional.”

He recounts having to work with low budgets and limited resources when he first started his practice. “We had to make do with whatever we had, and this forced us to be more creative in order to create something poetic, timeless and delightful,” he elaborates. “In architecture, like in life, there is no such thing as no rules. Whether it’s big or small projects, we always have certain constraints. But that’s where creativity comes in. Everybody has the same rules; it’s just what you make of it.”

Yip’s work is often recognisable by its simple, and almost monolithic forms, as well as for being a little eccentric. He often compares his designs to a child’s drawing of a house. “I tend to aspire towards that naivety,” he says. “Because a house is basically a shelter for us to live in and seek refuge from the outside world. But that naivety somehow evokes a special feeling, and I try to evoke that kind of feeling.”

One of the more recent awards ip:li Architects received was Building of the Year at the Singapore Institute of Architects’ Architectural Design Awards in 2019 for House Above 44 Kasai Road, a kampung-style house on stilts in the Seletar district. “My designs are somewhat quirky, but not too quirky to the point you cannot live in it. It could be a pitched roof that’s exaggerated on a different angle, casting shadows differently and it would create the feeling of, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen it like this before’.”

Ultimately, architecture to Yip is about designing for people: “To create good architecture, you have to understand human nature and how people use space. In the end it is really just for people, so I want to create well-crafted places and houses that are built to last.”

(All images: ip:li Architects/Midtown Modern)

This story was published in the April issue of Prestige Singapore.

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