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Experiencing WOW

The founders of WOW tell us how their projects engage not just the physical senses, but our sense of memory and time.

Experiencing WOW


January 15th, 2015

Top image (left to right): Wong Chiu Man and Maria Warner Wong, founders of WOW

Wong Chiu Man and Maria Warner Wong of WOW have invited me to their home for this interview, and it’s little wonder why. The husband-and-wife team has long been a strong advocate of experiential design – way before the term came into vogue. And really, could there be a better way to experience the design DNA of the multidisciplinary firm than right where the founding partners make their home?

The home of Wong Chiu Man and Maria Warner Wong

For the past 15 years, WOW – which comprises Wow Architects and Warner Wong Design – has been building up a significant body of work across the region, due to the huge demand for their work overseas. Currently, 95 per cent of their projects are done outside Singapore, with China and India making up their largest markets. But ask Chiu Man and Maria about the challenges of working as ‘foreign’ architects overseas, and they are quick to put the notion of being foreign to rest.

Vivanta by Taj, Bangalore

“I think a lot of times clients hire us because they want a different viewpoint, and they find that we bring a unique perspective to the project,” says Maria, who has lived, studied and worked around the world. “What I have tried to develop is a very strong sensory connection to place. It may not only be about understanding the social norms and culture necessarily; it might be a very physical connection to the earth, to the trees, to the environment, to the people, to the customs… The important thing is not whether we are foreign, it’s the deep desire to understand people and places deeply.”

Mandala House, India

“I went to India for the first time in 1978,” Chiu Man chimes in, “even before some of my Indian clients were born. So it doesn’t really matter [where you’re from] I think. What really matters is your methodology, your process and your sensitivity to the local culture.”

Sheraton Hangzhou, China. Photo courtesy of Starwood Hotels & Resorts

On the flip side, Chiu Man says one can also look at the situation from a local perspective and to the number foreign architects who are doing work in Singapore. “Personally I have never had a grudge against these architects coming here. I’ve just a sadness that their best work is not being done here. So when we go overseas, it’s absolutely important for us to really immerse ourselves in the place, and make a difference and a positive contribution to the country.”

Bishopsgate House, Singapore

Maria explains that WOW’s design approach encompasses a broad range of sensory experiences that engage the body, memory and time.

Hilton Bandung, Indonesia

She points to some of the pieces in their living room. “What do you call the sense of remembering my mother’s table which she bought in the 1950s from Mexico, or my parent’s furniture from Peru, or that screen from Bel Air in Beverly Hills which I brought back and rebuilt in parts… it’s a west facing screen and when the sun comes through and glows on those gold and red glass beads you see there it casts a warm golden light, which is what we want you to feel when you come into our home.”

Chiu Man and Maria’s home (detail)

While there is an underlying rigour of modern design to be found in their work, each WOW project is interpreted experientially, rather than through a specific style. “It’s more about creating what makes sense for a particular place and time and program and client set. And that’s what I think makes design connect,” says Chiu Man.

Ion Residence, Singapore (detail)

Late last year, the firm launched their very first monograph entitled “WOW: Experiential Design For A Changing World”, which Maria says “was a long time coming”. The book is a powerful tool to communicate WOW’s 15 years of work beyond the limitations of two-dimensional photography. As Maria points out, it enables the reader to experience the work of WOW through different layers: from photography through to drawings, images of 3D models, text, and even texture. Just as important, the book allows readers to easily compare one project against the other, and appreciate their differences and similarities.

The firm’s first monograph – “WOW: Experiential Design For A Changing World

“We felt that the book was a great leap in terms of communicating what we do, and a great opportunity to share experiential design. To experience the book is to experience the firm,” says Maria, adding, “I also think one of the progressive things about this book is that it is very much about architecture, interior design and landscape design on any given page; they are integrated and cannot be experienced in the absence of the others.”

Sentosa Cove House, Singapore

Chiu Man and Maria are already planning their next book, explaining that the firm has simply too much work for one publication to cover. Says Maria, “If you look at the book’s Portfolio section, about half are renderings [of work in progress]. Over the next five to ten years you’re going to see some really huge projects being completed.”

Archifest Zero Waste Pavilion, Singapore

Going on to reflect on their 25 years of work in the industry, Maria admits that the profession is one long and continuous process of learning. “I would say it takes 25 years to get good, and what happens between now and 50 years is where it can be potentially great.

“Another reason for the book was to [present] what we had done in the past, and then to move on to do something that’s even more exciting with the confidence that we can do it.”

Photography by Aaron Pocock and WOW Architects


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