Architect Yip Yuen Hong. Photo by Jason Quah. 

Small is beautiful in Yip Yuen Hong’s ideal architectural world. In land-scarce Singapore, the cost of building a dream home has reached the point where owners who can afford to are choosing to go monumental when something more low-key would suffice. That’s where Mr Yip comes in. As principal at ipli Architects, he represents the voice of restraint in residential design: a rebel with a cause, intent on preserving the spirit of homes from an earlier, less indulgent era. It’s a niche he’s occupied with some distinction. Since co-founding his firm in 2001 with wife and fellow architect Lee Ee Lin, Mr Yip and ipli have won multiple accolades – most recently last month for Building of the Year in the residential category at the Singapore Institute of Architects’ annual Architectural Design Awards.

Mr Yip is the eldest of five children who grew up in a shophouse in Chinatown. His father was a skilled shipfitter who taught his kids the art of repairing things. Early on in his career, Mr Yip gained experience in the public sector with the Housing and Development Board (HDB). He also worked in the private sector with well-respected Singapore firms William Lim & Associates and Akitek Tenggara. In the early 1990s he started HYLA Architects with two former colleagues before going independent with ipli – a lowercase (as in small) practice staffed with six other architects.

Preserving and adapting various aspects of Singapore’s architectural heritage are key to his design philosophy – whether it’s a kampung-style house on stilts, a modern riff on a colonial bungalow or a small scale ode to a bygone era. “I think we build wastefully in the quest for modernisation,” he says. “Architecture is to design what you need – you don’t need to design more than that.”

You turned 60 earlier this year, a milestone age for many but possibly only mid-career in the architecture profession?

I feel as if I’m quite a late starter, that my career only started at 45 or 46 when I won my first SIA Design Award. Unfortunately, in Singapore you have to win awards to get recognition, that’s the sad part of it. By the time I realised it I was already 45. We need to reach maturity as architects, to have certain years of experience before we garner some kind of voice. That first (award-winning) project was a tiny kampung house that encapsulated some of the thoughts I had at that point. That little house was crafted together at a scale we can call somewhat human. I was harking back to history – we don’t have much history and can’t compare to old civilisations with huge histories like China and Japan that provide cultural reference. I was focused on the old houses we had – I still am. Those houses were very crafted, built by two people. This craft is almost
gone and now everything is concrete, mechanised and super sleek, not hewn by hand.

At the HDB, you contributed to building the Singapore community but at small firms like ipli, there aren’t many opportunities to work on large public projects.

My frustration is that as a small firm we don’t get the opportunity to participate in these kinds of exercises because we don’t meet certain requirements. The majority in Singapore are small firms. I know the mechanics of a large firm – it doesn’t suit me. For me to have a voice, it actually needs to be this size. In a big company, there are just too many concerns, too many people to answer to. From early on, I realised I had to do my own thing – I just wish I could contribute more to society.

You have a reputation for designing homes inspired by the traditional kampung house, adding an innovative twist and combining simple materials like off-form concrete and timber.

The best houses are the small houses. Small footprint houses are more intimate, charming, homely. I know land is expensive in Singapore but to have a small footprint and a big garden, that’s true luxury. To me, a house is a shelter – it doesn’t need to be expensive or excessive as long as it works and keeps you secure. After the shell is done, you can buy an expensive piece of furniture that you can keep and bring with you in future. Architects are trained to understand needs. The true test of good design is that after satisfying the functional, you can inject something that lifts the spirit a little bit. That’s the job of good creative solutions. I still do whatever I feel is correct.

This story was first published in The Business Times. Click here to read the original story.