Conversations // Gwen Tan

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Gwen is one quarter of one of the most successful young architecture firms in town in this milieu, Formwerkz Architects. She also co-owns A Thousand Tales, a lifestyle and F&B group whose creations include furniture gallery White House Living (which retails the wonderful Shanghai-based furniture brand Stellar Works), Olivia Cassivlaun Rancourt (OCF) at The Arts House and Bar Stories at Haji Lane, as well as mom to lively four-year-old Adan. Aside from juggling the workload of an architect, the side projects, and motherhood, she’s also found time to design her own home, which was recently completed.

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The concrete house is nestled in a quiet enclave in the east with its back facing a park connector (just a few blocks down from my place actually; ambling up and down multiple times I never noticed the house until now). Gwen has made the home at one with nature. The back faces a small green area with lush, low trees next to the park connector and the front is surfaced on the second and third stories with dark-coloured louvres to filter light and breeze into the home. Just behind this screened facade is a double-storey atrium where the pool is at—an indoor oasis with borrowed green; so tropical a feeling. There is so much of inside-outside goodness in this home, which is actually quite the trademark of the beautiful houses produced by the firm.

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Gwen has so kindly taken the time to answer these questions as well as let me poke around her place. The textures, shapes (of furniture and architectural elements), openness is a delight to explore.

Tell me about your creative journey, on how you came to like architecture and how Formwerkz Architects came to be. 

Art has always been part of my life from young and I’ve always been a curious kid, wanting to know how things are put together or created from scratch (including experimenting with food recipes and ploughing through my father’s numerous tool boxes). Add six good years in a primary school set among gorgeous colonial flats and black-and-white terrace houses, a super big green field and lovely array of big trees all around the estate and that would probably sum up why I became an architect who appreciates all things old and love gardens immensely.

Back when I needed to pick a course for university, architecture was not that glamourous a profession, not that it is now [compared to some other professions], and apart from a few well-established Japanese architects who have built in Singapore, the local architectural scene was hardly publicised. Before I enrolled into architecture school, I remembered asking to speak to a practicing architect to find out if there’s actually enough land in Singapore to build by the time I graduate! I ended up working for him before I entered university, which was a really nice sneak preview of what was in store for me—architecture is livable art. It’s art that’s backed by science and a whole lot more. In my opinion it’s probably one of the most complex art forms, if not the most challenging.

Formwerkz was started by my three other partners while they were pursuing their Masters degree in architecture—a daring move unheard of during our times. I met my husband through common projects after graduation and joined the guys a year later. We all made tons of sacrifice to take a path that no one else took, taking turns to get our professional qualifications. Without passion, I don’t think we would have made it this far. Without a deeper love and respect for each other, I’m most certain we would have gone on our separate ways long ago.

How is it like working having your husband as your colleague? 

We have different roles to fill so we don’t get to see each other very much at times. I can only imagine how miserable it would be as a couple if we don’t even work in the same place. We would probably be weekend couples as much as we are weekend parents to our son most of the time.

Of course working together has its down side too as conflict at work can often strain relationships. I always try to draw a line between work and family life. Once I’m home I try very hard not to discuss work but given the tight and crazy schedules, we inevitable arrange work meetings/ discussions on weekends from time to time. I recently find discussing work issues while in the pool at night or while having a brisk walk to the beach quite therapeutic. Maybe it’s because the setting has nothing to do with work at all or there’re no potential distractions like the mobile phone, etc.

 You have a very busy career. How did having Adan in your life affected that

Running my own practice allows some flexibility in terms of phasing out my maternity leave. I did half days until he was six months old, running into office right after an early lunch. I also learned how to multi-task, like writing emails or work research while pumping milk. Some meetings were arranged at my place during my maternity leave.

 Preparing for two-week long work trip to Italy when Adan was four-and-a-half months old was ultimately nerve-wrecking. I insisted on keeping him on at least half breast milk when I had to leave him behind in my mum’s care. Having my mum volunteering to care for him full time after my work trip literally meant that I could have my full work life back. I no longer felt like a zombie every afternoon. Given the nature of my job, to persevere to supplement breast milk till Adan turned one, I had to adapt to pumping milk everywhere (something that I mastered while on my work trip to Italy).

 As a full-time working mum with such a challenging career, I had to learn to give up some ideals when I had my own kid. As the full-time care-giver is not me, I was not able to control every aspect of his upbringing as well as his emotional attachment when he was younger.

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 Do you find having a child has influenced your design process and outlook?

I think being a mother intrinsically drives one to be more cautious with elements of danger so I think I do pay a little more attention to safety aspects of design but I’m a perfectionist at heart so I would strive harder to find a perfect solution that does not compromise on aesthetics. I never believe in being over-protective when designing the built environment for a child. I believe that a child should be guided to develop his/ her own perimeters for what’s dangerous and what to avoid. So some may feel my house is not the safest for young children.

What are the biggest challenge in balancing motherhood, work life, being a wife and finding time to yourself?

There’s never adequate time for everything. As I age I realise it takes a lot longer to recover from consecutive late nights at work. Mondays to Thursdays I work really hard such that I keep my weekends mostly free to be a mother to my son, as well as my duties as a wife or daughter. Occasionally I’ll take some time out to spend with friends on my own—a nice lunch, girls night out, weekend get-together or plan a girls only trip, etc. I’m trying to shift the balance of how I’m juggling those needs to have a little more time for myself (which is the most rare apart from some massages and trips to the hair salon, or a swim at my own pool). I used to have Date-Night Tuesdays with my husband but that got scrapped when I got swamped by work and the new house. We are trying to reinstate that in the near future and include some exercise time together.

What’s a typical day for you like, from morning to night?

A typical weekday is sending my son to school by 8am, then grabbing a light breakfast at home with my mum and a glass of nice juice from my trusted Hurom before heading to work. My work day can take me to all places from my little bungalow of an office at Shenton Way to sites all over the island, including going offshore like Jurong Island where we are currently working on an interesting gallery for the government. External meetings, internal discussions, technical meetings, occasional shopping (for furniture, accessories, hardware. etc.), project site visits, catching up on emails and Whatsapp group chats for work, sketching ideas, internet browsing, occasional caffeine breaks, and staring at the wild animals that roam the fields across from our office once in a while to take the steam off an intense day. A work day ends as early as 7.30pm or as late as…well, you don’t want to know. Well, last night I got home just before 2am and that’s not record-breaking late. Thankfully I don’t need to do this all the time.

Catching some news or TV before bed is usually my nightcap except for the super-late nights at work, which would render me dead tired by the time I get back so much so that  I simply want to bury my head in my pillow instantly.

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You’ve just moved into your new home, which you designed. What’s it like to finally design a house for yourself? Did you consider your child in the design?

It’s tough to be your own client but awful to have my husband as my client. He’s the ultimate critic, always unhappy about something. The end product is probably 80 per cent of what he would have wanted but to achieve what he would really have loved I would need a bigger piece of land I suppose.

It’s an exciting and painful, sweet and bitter experience for me—the longest lasting project I’ve ever undertaken. Seriously it has taken even longer than the biggest house I’ve designed ever and completed (a good-class-bungalow on a 40,000sqft piece of land.] Actually at this point, I still have several components not completed, items that I need to spend time crafting and detailing. I always like houses to ‘grow’ with their owners and it’s only meaningful that their collection of art, plants and travel purchases multiply and ‘mature’ with time. It doesn’t feel like home if I don’t get to ‘play’ with my indoor greens and myriad collection of art, artifacts and accessories from various parts of the world. So even if the house is architecturally is completed, the interior part is just beginning to get started.

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For me the best thing about building your own home is that you can safely use it as a test bed for the ideas you love. I can accept that with the way I kept it so well ventilated, it can’t be  [totally] rain-proof or haze-proof. I love daylight and openness so I can accept a small porch just deep enough to get my groceries out of the car properly in the rain but not necessarily dry when getting out of the driver’s seat. I love my three-storey tall Singapore Sakura tree in the house enough to accept that it produces sap that drips to the ground daily to be cleaned by hard scrubbing.

In designing my house, I considered the ideal lifestyle that we would like to have as a family. I tried to strike a balance on including sufficient safety features in the house that do not contradict the concept or aesthetics: sharp corners in tiles are filed to prevent injury; a camouflaged security grill gate is built at my son’s level to keep him at upper levels and away from the pool unsupervised; extra key locks are added to his room’s balcony doors and the ground floor’s rear pond terrace doors. Other than these, the house is still filled with ‘child-unfriendly’ or ‘dangerous’ design features like open-thread stairs, no railing at the second-storey master window—a bench leading out to a narrow strip of planter acts as an indicative barrier—a low bench barrier at the pool, big gaps at the second-storey pool edge’s glass parapet that a kid can potentially cross and fall over into the entrance courtyard, etc.

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Do you integrate design into Adan’s life, international or otherwise?

He’s taking art lessons not because I want him to or that he loves it but out of chance and a strange turn of events. We think of it as art therapy to help him with his hyperactive nature. By default that he spends time with us, he gets exposed to design from time to time without us intending it to be so. Sometimes he goes to my office on weekends and spend time looking and playing with the building models and materials. When we go for design exhibitions, shopping for furniture or visit project sites on weekends, he tags along. When we hang out at nicely designed places, he’s experiencing that as well.

I remember being rather amused when he fancied a particular bed design and the matching sheets at a shop that he snuggled into it with a smile and later returned home to critique that my bed’s design was not as nice and was boring in comparison! At some point in time, his favourite colour was black and his teacher complained that my son would, without fail, colour the clothing of the people in his colouring book black. I wear something black—a small component or entirely black—for work almost everyday. I guess he has had a keen eye for details from young.

You’re so busy during the week. What are your favourite activities to do with Adan on weekends?

We spend time in our pool; I cook for him, bring him to the beach; kite-flying, supermarket-shopping, and play-dates with his friends and occasional movies. I’m thankful that my mother will fill in my role for me come school holidays as it’s like weekend all week for him without school. She will research with the other mummies in the group for activities and classes to sign up. They just went Science Centre and Singapore Art Museum during the March holidays this year.  The longer holidays will be filled with activity camps, special classes and excursions, etc.

What in your opinion is/are the best toy(s) for a young boy?

I like Magformers. It’s a creative building system using magnetic simple shapes to form simple to very elaborate 3D objects. The way it’s put together is quite a spectacle. Start by following a 2D diagram and by pulling a particular piece upwards and the pieces will transform into the desired object in that singular, upward motion—simple yet dramatic. It also allows kids to create their own games with it easily. It’s something they can play for many years.

What’s the most surprising thing about motherhood for you?

I was not expecting that it would give me this other level of strength and resilience. I also cherish my own safety and life a lot more after having this new responsibility. Hence I take less risks in the activities in my life like I think twice about taking up projects in politically-unstable countries and refrain from doing certain dangerous activities while on holiday, or even simply speeding less in the car. I’m probably more tolerant to other children’s tantrums or cries on planes, which I guess is mostly true for all mothers.

Lastly, please share your thoughts on the best thing about having a little boy?

Boys are usually more active and more game to try sports. The nice thing about my boy is that he’s extremely sweet and caring so he never fails to warm the hearts around him. He’s also got so much positive energy and smiles that his happiness rubs off on the people around him so it’s a joy to be with him.

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+ photo credit: Playground

formwerkz.com

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