No more vast stretches of concrete, glass and stainless steel. With two thirds of the planet’s population set to be living in cities by 2050, the way our metropolises are designed needs to change. Singapore-based architecture practice WOHA has a plan.

“The basic responsibility of a designer is to do good,” says Richard Hassell. “Do good ethically, good urbanistically, good climatically and environmentally, good socially. And that being good should bring benefits to everybody – the developer, the public, the end user.”

Along with partner Wong Mun Summ, Hassell co-founded Singapore-based architectural practice WOHA in 1994. Inspired and propelled by the teeming city-state they call home, WOHA has, over the years, become synonymous with a holistic approach to sustainable design, producing organic buildings that improve the overall quality of life for a city’s residents.

A human-centered approach

With a range of diverse projects including the Parkroyal on Pickering hotel in Singapore and Bali’s Alila Villas Uluwatu resort, WOHA’s architectural strategy – integrating social and environmental principles into every step of the design process – is laying down a blueprint for future city planning.

Put simply, the practice deals in buildings that function as integrated mini-cities, which simultaneously encourage the development of self-sufficient cities. Macro-architecture micro-urbanism, as the duo calls it.

“Rapid urbanization and overcrowding in megacities have caused green, open, civic spaces to shrink at an unprecedented rate, while chronic traffic congestion, vehicular and industrial pollution further worsen the city’s environmental conditions,” says Wong Mun Summ.

“We’re looking at high-density, high-amenity designs where we provide not only basic spatial needs, but also quality of life needs: green spaces, community spaces, nature spaces and civic spaces within large developments. The city becomes more hospitable and enjoyable, rather than feeling increased pressure on the same old facilities.”

Image of prospective sustainable architecture
City or forest? One of WOHA’s visions.
Image: WOHA

Award-winning design

It’s an approach that has won WOHA a slew of international awards, the most recent of which is the Maison & Objet Asia 2017 Designer of the Year. WOHA’s approach is becoming increasingly necessary: Two thirds of the world’s population are set to be living in cities by 2050 and 21% of city dwellers are more likely to suffer from depression compared to their countryside counterparts – as long as concrete, glass and stainless steel continue to dominate urban space.

Breathing structures

One of WOHA’s design signatures is buildings that breathe – literally. Take the Skyville @ Dawson project. Housing 960 apartments, 500 car parks, a childcare center and a shopping plaza, it’s a structure of striking geometry – composed of four vertically stacked sky villages across three interconnected blocks.

Light streams into every corner of the building; exposed and elevated skyways lend a quality of space and transparency; terraces and gardens provide open nature within the building.

“We made it without a single internal corridor,” Hassell proudly points out, “with every circulation space naturally lit and ventilated. The whole place relies on very minimal energy, and most importantly, the energy use is discretionary – you can choose to air-condition your bedroom, but you don’t have to.”

A tropical challenge

“It is a design skill which takes a long time to learn, and needs to be built into the DNA of the building,” Hassell continues. “We get many foreign architects coming to the tropics and they don’t have this skill or even awareness of the problem – so they design attractive, but sealed-up, towers. And there you have made a 50 year commitment to pump huge quantities of carbon into the atmosphere.”

For Hassell and Wong, the way cities – and the buildings that populate them – are designed, is detrimental to human wellbeing. Trophy sculptures made of cold, sterile glass and steel with little thought to the user experience do little to enhance quality of life.

“Shiny walls of windows staring at each other are obviously a recipe for stress and paranoia,” says Wong. “Endless repetition is stressful too, while diversity is stimulating. Parkroyal on Pickering shows that buildings that are more like landscapes are very appealing, and we relate to them in a completely different way than to something mechanistic, hard and shiny.”

Wong continues, reminding city planners, architects and developers that they have choices available: “Open, diverse, delicate, interactive, natural,” lists Wong. “Building hard, shiny, dominating structures made sense at the time, but we don’t have to keep doing it.”

The façade of the PARKROYAL in Singapore
Less concrete, more jungle: the Parkroyal on Pickering.
Photo: Patrick Bingham-Hall

Preparing cities for challenges ahead

So what’s next for WOHA? The Kampung Admiralty project in Singapore – a flagship building that brings together a community hospital, senior citizens’ apartments, hawker centre and community spaces – is scheduled to be completed later this year, according to Wong. And there are hopes that one of its master plans for the city – a radical feat of urban planning – will come to life.

“We have proposed a new kind of city, self-sufficient in food, water and energy, and filled with nature,” explains Hassell. “It is realizable with current technologies and costs. We have shown what can be done at the architectural scale, we only need a courageous decision from a jury to make a prototype at a district level.”

Looking forward, both Hassell and Wong have faith in the power of architecture to profoundly change the way our cities function. Innovation and vision are key.

“Most architects are just styling 20th century building types in fashionable 21st century facades,” says Hassell. “It is hugely important to imagine where we need to be in 50 or 100 years, and start making steps towards that with every project. We want to be even more adventurous and bold – we have to be.”

WOHA’s book, Garden City Mega City, is out now. For more information on WOHA, visit their website.