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Designer of the Year, Sonny Chan

Singapore’s President’s Design Award recipient, architect Sonny Chan, tells editor Janice Seow how a concern for climate, culture and the appropriate use of technology has defined his work.

Designer of the Year, Sonny Chan


November 22nd, 2011

Architect Sonny Chan has what he calls a “propaganda sheet” that has been specially prepared in response to clients who come to him requesting non-local building types, such as the ’Balinese house’. On it, one will find such familiar images as the Malay kampong house, the Chinese shophouse, and even the colonial black and white bungalow.

Why should a Balinese house or even a Spanish one be in Singapore, questions Chan “when in fact we have our stock of buildings”.

“So we would tell them what’s wrong with it, and why don’t we look at what we have.”

The 70-year-old recipient of this year’s President’s Design Award ’Designer of the Year’ title in Singapore pursues authenticity with a deep passion; his work in a long-spanning career also very keenly demonstrates a sensitive response to climate, culture and the use of appropriate technology.

Chan Sau Yan Associates

House at Bishopsgate, Singapore, 2007

While the founder of Chan Sau Yan Associates is closing in on his 50th year as a practising architect, the answer to his most important project to date comes easily enough – it’s his mother’s house.

“My first commission was my mother’s house in Petaling Jaya when I was in the 4th year, in 1961. And the house is actually based on the Malay house, which is raised on stilts. And it’s sort of like a doughnut, with a courtyard, so you can get cross ventilation throughout the house,” says Chan.

Chan Sau Yan Associates

Chan Sau Yan Associates

Sonny Chan’s first project was his mother’s house (scaled model pictured here).

This was before the architect took up a Tropical Studies course at London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture, but having been born and bred in Malaysia, he was already very familiar with the local vernacular.

Chan Sau Yan Associates

Sketches of his mother’s house.

Chan shows a scaled model of the house, which has been specially reconstructed for a monograph that he has been busy working on for the last 2 years.

“After almost half a century of practice, I thought it would be good to compile what I’ve done. But it’s not going to be a coffee table book. It’s more to do with my generation at that time, so that hopefully it will give the younger architects an idea of what the practice was like then,” explains Chan.

Chan Sau Yan Associates

Mandarin Oriental, Sanya, 2009

Chan Sau Yan Associates

Hyatt Kuantan, Malaysia, 1979

Another one of Chan’s significant projects was the Hyatt Kuantan, which was completed in the 1970s. It was his first opportunity to apply the knowledge acquired from his graduate studies. Being a beach resort, it was also an ideal building type to demonstrate design in the tropics with optimal natural cross ventilation, sun shading and rain protection provided by pitched roofs with generous overhangs and open sided verandahs. This was typical of the stilted Malay kampong house, and re-interpreted the colonial black and white house. “It was a distinctively fresh approach of looking inwards at our heritage for inspiration instead of the West,” Chan explains.

Chan Sau Yan Associates

Nassim Hill, Singapore, 2010

We then fast track to Tokio Marine Centre, a recently completed and award-winning tropical high-rise project. Chan had originally submitted a competition entry for the design of the Maybank headquarters in Singapore that though unsuccessful, served to inform the design of the latter.

Chan Sau Yan Associates

Tokio Marine Centre, Singapore, 2010

“We actually have the carpark suspended over the ground floor, and the whole of the ground floor is free… so it becomes a public space,” says Chan. The building’s distinctive ’exo-skeleton’ facade, Chan adds, is meant to serve as supporting columns and provide sun shading.

Chan Sau Yan Associates

Hotel Maya, Kuala Lumpur, 2005

Insights gleaned from his upcoming monograph perhaps offer the best summation.

“What I found very pleasing was that from my first commission, which was my mother’s house, to our latest one which is the Tokio Marine office building, that it was a continuum of what I have been doing,” Chan muses.

“It is nice to know that the design imperatives that we value are actually relevant over half a century.”

Sonny Chan / Chan Sau Yan Associates

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