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Architect In Profile: Alfred Wong

Justin Zhuang interviews Alfred Wong, one of the pioneers in Singapore’s architectural scene.

Architect In Profile: Alfred Wong

In the years leading to Singapore’s independence, Alfred Wong and other young architects founded what became the Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA) to empower local practitioners and educate society about the architecture profession.

Over five decades on, with the architecture profession well established locally, the 85-year-old has embraced the global market and built up a successful multinational practice that works on projects from around the world out of its two offices in Singapore and Chengdu.

PSA Keppel Distripark

Such foresight has helped Wong successfully grow his practice since starting it in 1957, just four years after graduating from architecture school in Melbourne, Australia. It has also made him a pioneer in Singapore’s design history. Besides laying the foundation of the profession as a founding member of SIA, Wong also advocated for architecture training to be transferred from the polytechnic to the university, and successfully delivered some of the country’s earliest modern buildings against a backdrop of decaying shophouses and traditional kampungs.

For these contributions to Singapore architecture, the veteran architect was bestowed the Singapore Design Golden Jubilee Award last week. While he has won many awards in his stellar career, this award from the DesignSingapore Council was particularly special as it marked Singapore’s golden jubilee and Wong shared the stage with 69 other pioneering local designers from a variety of disciplines.

“Fifty years ago, everything was in its developing stage,” he says. “It [the award] shows that we now have so much talent in the whole of the design field, which I think is also a good thing.”

Singapore Polytechnic

In Wong’s memories, clients back then had a “dim idea” of what modern architecture is. He recalls having to convince the Goodwood Group to build Hotel Malaysia, Singapore’s first purpose-built hotel in the 1960s. Unlike existing hotels converted from old buildings, Wong designed an ultra modern 14-storey development, which became an icon at Tanglin Circus. Its success paved the way for the firm’s other works, including educational institutions like Singapore Polytechnic and the Saint Joseph’s Institution campus, as well as commercial towers such as the former Scotts Shopping Centre and Peninsula Plaza, where his office is now located.

Despite the success of his buildings, Wong has outlived many of them – the most notable being the National Theatre. Built to commemorate Singapore’s self-government in 1959, this open-air theatre was one of his earliest works and eventually made way for an expressway in the 1980s. While acknowledging that Singapore now had a generation of modernist buildings that deserve preservation, Wong was reticent about which he would save. “I think it’s a matter of public opinion,” he says. “Buildings are very much public objects.”

Alfred Wong receiving his Singapore Design Golden Jubilee Award

Such deference to the big picture reflects his keen awareness of larger forces outside of his profession. Wong may have once believed Singapore would develop its own style of architecture, but now he doubts it will ever emerge given the global character of the profession today. Even the idea of building for Singapore’s tropical climate is less relevant now that it has become an air-conditioned nation where buildings are so tall and dense that natural ventilation is compromised.

“Besides climate change, besides just health and comfort, you have the land issue,” he adds. “In a country like Singapore, land is so highly priced. If you have a piece of land you’re going to build high up on it.”

“No one wants to put up a building that you can’t sell.”

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