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House tour: A home in Singapore, inspired by the gardens of Suzhou

For this family of five, living in a home filled with rock gardens, soothing water features and ample greenery gives the impression of being in a classical Chinese landscape.

House tour: A home in Singapore, inspired by the gardens of Suzhou

In the house's courtyard, a cluster of organically formed marble pieces personifies mountains rising from an ashen sea. (Photo: Studio Periphery/Marc Tan)

There are many scenic aspects to this house designed by Freight Architects, starting with the arrival sequence. Past the gate, stepping-stones trace a gurgling koi pond. It leads to cantilevering steps floating up a granite wall, and then at the top, a picture of the pool sequinned with sunlight and shadowed by feathery foliage.

A left turn leads to a dark, exaggerated portal that camouflages the main entrance door. When flung open, one enters not into an enclosed space but a luxuriant garden. There is no token landscaping here, but towering trees and grassy mounds. The portal also brings focus to a midnight black spiral staircase. Looking back out, it frames a majestic 180-year-old Olive tree.

This orchestrated welcome is one of many throughout the 1,250 sqm house that draws from concepts of the famous Classical Gardens of Suzhou in China. While many landed homes look out at landscaping, this house is immersed in it.

Eschewing the enormity of surrounding mansions, this house’s massing is split into several blocks or “pavilions” surrounding the central garden, separated by interstitial outdoor spaces. The fragmented plan means the garden can be glimpsed from many parts of the house, rendering the its name “House of Views” apt.

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“We created pockets of gardens or ‘scenes’ that connect the various volumes,” said Kee Jing Zhi, co-founder of the firm.

It is an almost literal response to the owner’s brief for an open home, which should be modern too. He stays here with his wife and three grown sons – two working and one university-going – who might continue to live under the same roof even after they wed and form their own families.

Several perimeters shape the programmatic layout. Firstly, the site is blessed with a wide 47m frontage. This, and its location in a tree conservation area bequeath it ample leafy views – although the architecture also had to thread carefully around a 15m-high conserved Angsana tree in the driveway.

Kee’s layout features the ambulatory quality of Chinese gardens. In making the occupants traverse naturally ventilated corridors as they go between blocks, they are extracted from hermetic environments – even if for a moment – as they go about their daily routines. Framed views, articulated thresholds and carefully composed tableaus slow down and embellish these routes.

The block on the entrance’s right contains the double-storey living and dining room, and mezzanine library; the one on the left by the pool contains the family room below and master bedroom above; and the rear blocks encompass utilities and other bedrooms.

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“The living room is for formal events and guest entertainment. The glass doors can open up and slide entirely into the corner to provide a panoramic view of the surroundings,” said Kee.

To deepen this dialogue with nature, the mezzanine library is accessed via exiting the living room and then meandering up the spiral staircase. In the process, the garden is encountered again.

“The spiral staircase is a sculptural feature forming part of the garden scene,” shared Kee. At night, the staircase’s underside is a glowing ribbon of white. Lit with LED strips, its curves are amplified in the darkness.

Each of the sons’ bedrooms comes with an en-suite bathroom and study, which can become future nurseries. One of the bedrooms opens to a raised Jacuzzi – another cleverly incorporated Fengshui feature – backed by city views.

In the basement garage is a second entrance that is no less impressive than the first-storey portal. At the garage’s end wall, sunlight illuminates a rock garden. It is but a modest prelude to the dramatic view past the entrance door of a sizeable courtyard floored with loose gravel and roofed with azure sky.

This courtyard is an abstracted version of the garden upstairs. A cluster of organically formed marble pieces personifies mountains rising from an ashen sea. On the side, a Carrera marble washbasin stands, its form half chiselled like a found relic.

Across the courtyard, a cobalt onyx marble slab hangs like a painting, with colouration that mimics sky and clouds. “The basement courtyard is another ‘scene’ created for a theatrical entrance. It also brings natural light and ventilation down to the family entertainment room [next to the courtyard], said Kee.

Blackened aluminium screens wrapping the spaces above the courtyard frame the spectacle like picture cut-outs. The colour adheres to the architecture’s dominant monochromatic palette.

“The house’s materials are controlled to predominantly have the [neutral] colours of a Chinese garden – akin to an ink calligraphy,” said Kee.   

“The house’s materials are controlled to predominantly have the [neutral] colours of a Chinese garden – akin to an ink calligraphy.” – Kee Jing Zhi

As in the Classical Gardens of Suzhou, Kee employs many water and stone elements, which represent contrasting qualities of fluidity and strength. His application is subtle and streamlined, rather than kitschy. It embodies the sense of balance found in the historic precedents, which were conceived as microcosms of the natural world.   

“We have a deep appreciation of marble and stone because of their elegance and unique [characteristics]. We enjoyed creating colour contrasts utilising different variations,” said the owner.

For example, pearl-white granite clads the architecture; grey granite the external floors; and silver travertine, the first-storey walls and floors. In the family room, an acid-washed black marble wall juxtaposes with the gleaming whiteness of surrounding surfaces.

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Stone is not only used in the architecture. It is found in the joinery as well. In the basement entertainment room and first-storey dry kitchen, the counters feature St Laurent marble and granite countertops respectively.

Kee and the owner worked closely on the stone and marble selection, even travelling abroad to source for specific types. To avoid having the house look like a “stone gallery”, Kee was careful to regulate variety, balancing their use with American walnut floors on bedroom and staircase floors.

The bathrooms employ the same material and colour discipline, but see more textural experimentation. Bathtubs and washbasins are formed from white Carrera marble, which contrast with black powder-coated, perforated patterned screens filtering light and views.

Black granite walls have curved, bevelled profiles, and on the white Carrera marble floors sit organically-shaped granite platforms with both rough and smooth surfaces. This tactility and muted tonality give the bathrooms a cavernous character.

The owner particularly appreciates the house’s openness. Kee’s strategy replaces dead ends with pictorial vistas. Apart from gestures such as recycling the previous house’s old wooden beams into outdoor platforms and staircases, the house’s planning makes it inherently sustainable.

“Its massing is kept relatively narrow to allow for rooms to have windows on both north-south sides for natural ventilation and light. Opening up gaps in between blocks creates natural wind tunnels, and walls on the east-west elevations buffer direct heat and glare,” explained Kee.

The owner particularly appreciates the house’s openness. (Photo: Studio Periphery/Marc Tan)

He employs these ideas not just in the houses he designs, but also in projects like the childcare and senior care centres that he has come to specialise in. The Sengkang Riverside Large Childcare Centre, with its porous, armadillo-like green roof, is one.

Regardless of scale or function, such contextual considerations are universally beneficial to its users.

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Source: CNA/ds