A little bit of home in Singapore

This past month, I had the opportunity to visit Southeast Asia. It was a trip I won’t soon forget. On the flight home, wedged into seat 47H on Delta Flight 7851, I considered how different this area is from my comfortable hometown: the people, the food, the culture. But the climate would be familiar to anyone from this part of Florida: hot, humid and green.

Architects in both countries face the same difficulties and, interestingly, although some solutions there may appear unique, many are familiar to anyone building for the climate challenges here.

Exceptionally privileged to be “on assignment” in Singapore, I took the opportunity to visit two high-rises designed by the architect most familiar with the challenges of designing for a tropical climate: Paul Rudolph, who spent his formative years in Southwest Florida, learning his profession.

In my last article, I mentioned the two remaining Rudolph houses in Lee County and how in Florida, he experimented with innovative construction methods of the early 1950s and explored fresh, modern architectural concepts of space, light and a response to climate.

Paul Rudolph’s early work in South Florida was prolific — mostly in Sarasota, some in Miami. He designed houses and public buildings; offices, schools and churches.

These projects were regularly highlighted in the national press.

It was that attention that earned Rudolph the invitation to become dean of the School of Architecture at Yale University and open an office in New York City, where he practiced from 1965 until his death in 1997.

The buildings I visited have only recently been recognized as modern icons and two of his finest projects. Both are in central Singapore City: The Colonnade, a residential high-rise (built in 1980) and The Concourse (started shortly afterward, in 1981), a mixed-use development with a 41-story office tower, a residential hotel and shopping mall.

What struck me about these buildings was the blatant use of ideas developed in Rudolph’s early projects in Florida.

His familiarity with design in the tropics was apparent, and the outcome was a considered response to shade, ventilation and protection from the rain. But here, Rudolph translated the lessons learned on small buildings into large structures that functioned on an urban scale. And nearly 30 years later, they are vibrant and working astonishingly well.

Of the two buildings, The Colonnade most successfully typified the early principles of Rudolph’s work. Immaculate after 28 years, the apartments, available only for lease, are spacious and luxurious. It is a revolutionary building. The units are not traditional one-story apartments. Instead, a high percentage of the 90-plus units are double height units with living and dining rooms ceilings 30 feet high and tall sliding glass doors opening onto deep terraces.

Rudolph used an exposed structural framework of round concrete columns, giving the 24-story apartment block its name. One-story “boxes” are inserted between the columns, creating intimate bedrooms and outside, blocks that protrude out beyond the columns. They appear to float and deliberately protect the largely glazed living and dining spaces and terraces of the unit below.

On the exterior, this creates a solid/void effect much like a wooden “Jenga” tower about to topple (have you played this game?)

Rudolph’s obsession with complex space creates intricate voids between the boxes and terraces, allowing natural light and ventilation to freely filter through the interiors.

The views of the lush landscape are spectacular.

It is easy to recognize the original ideas and details of shading and ventilation Rudolph used in the design of the Walker Guest House on Sanibel Island 25 years before. However, Rudolph’s Asian masterpiece is a much more complex structure, able to be appreciated by the most demanding architectural critics. Its popular appeal can be found in its simplicity, like the beach house on Sanibel.

This simplicity creates an inherent livability that makes it one of the most highly sought addresses in Singapore.

And although his boldest projects were built far from Florida, and often outside the United States, we can be proud that his roots are here. How fortunate we are to have the architecture of this region influenced by one of the greatest modern designers of the second half of the last century.