President’s Design Award winnder Yip Yuen Hong is Singapore’s very own home-grown ‘starchitect’
Yip Yuen Hong wouldn’t necessarily call himself a late bloomer, but success came later than he might have liked. He was 17 years into his career when he won his first major award for architectural design in 2006, from the Singapore Institute of Architects in the Individual Houses category. Today, he says his proudest achievement remains that winning residence, at 6 Sunset Place in Singapore, partly because it was the springboard towards his present zenith.
Just over a month ago, he was conferred Singapore’s prestigious President’s Design Award, the ‘Design of the Year’ (for a house located nearby, coincidentally, at 19 Sunset Place), for the second time — the same award last year went to another of his house designs, at 26 Cable Road. Earlier this year, his firm Ip:li architects won in six categories (including Building of the Year and three Residential Design awards for three different houses) at the 2012 Singapore Institute of Architects Design Awards, bringing full circle his career rejuvenation.
He was much less sanguine back in 2006, a turbulent year which included some health issues requiring convalescence, partially due to a heavy nicotine habit he has since vanquished. “At the time,” he remembers, “I was 46 years old and very frustrated, smoking two packs a day, not getting much work and feeling like I was getting nowhere while my friends were talking about retiring.” Previously a partner at HYLA (Han, Yip, Lee and Associates), he had started Ip:li architects in 2002 with his wife, fellow architect Lee Ee Lin; Ip:li is a portmanteau of their surnames, Yip and Lee (‘Li’ in hanyu pinyin). Its portfolio also includes interior design, most recently on the Singapore campus of New York’s Tisch School of the Arts and the Rihiveli Beach Resort in the Maldives, though Yip’s forte is clearly his residential projects.
"I’ve always liked houses that are a bit smaller and more intimate, because of the proportions,” he says. Much has since been written about his specialty — the design of the ‘tropical modern Asian house’, dubbed by some architectural pundits as ‘kampung modern’ (a sly nod to the old Malay villages or kampungs). It is a style drawn from his own background, having grown up in a poor neighbourhood at Upper Chin Siew Street in Singapore’s Chinatown. “When you are young, you can get inspiration as an architect from everywhere, but what you do might be suitable here and also anywhere else, so there is no sense of roots. As I got older, I began to question that, whether what you do can somehow connect you with wherever you are. As an architect, I do want to feel more grounded and a bit more connected. From that perspective, it makes you a bit more unique.”