Combining megastructural drama with intimate communal ambitions, Ole Scheeren and OMA’s Interlace housing has a scale and abruptness typical of Singapore’s urban milieu, but it also recasts and reframes it
Your first reaction to The Interlace, especially if you are looking with a European sensibility, could well be OMG! Possibly WTF! Because here is something that looks like the very thing long considered the worst urbanistic nightmare, the cause of the mea culpa of a generation of chastened architects - a ’60s-style concrete housing megastructure, which, notwithstanding some revisionist tinkering among some of our naughtier critics, is still widely considered (especially outside the profession) The Thing To Which We Would Never Return. Thirty-one blocks, each 70.5 x 22 x 16.5 metres and containing 30-plus homes, have been stacked vertiginously and nonchalantly on top of each other like children’s building bricks. With its hexagonal grid of repetitive elements, The Interlace bears a superficial resemblance to the Bijlmermeer, the vast, ambitious and fraught housing complex in Amsterdam, but it also looks as if in the terrible 1992 plane crash that hit that estate its blocks had been tossed in the air and landed on each other with miraculously precise disorder. Is this any way to make a home, a community?
For Ole Scheeren, in all calm seriousness, it is. He wanted, he says, to replenish ‘the idea of communal living’, to make a place ‘where people really live … something which is not natural in economics today, when people often buy things as investments.’ The project started when he was at OMA, with ‘an interest in housing, something which we had not at all dealt with.’ The practice found itself offered commissions to build luxury residential developments, but Scheeren was more interested in the ‘relatively affordable’. Eventually the Singaporean developers CapitaLand, who also have Zaha Hadid, Toyo Ito and Moshe Safdie on their books, came up with the opportunity to create what is now The Interlace: it was to be, says Eng Tiang Wah of CapitaLand an ‘urban habitat of the future’ that ‘facilitates social interaction and community bonding’. It started as an OMA project led by Scheeren; after he left in 2010 it was completed by his new practice, the Beijing-based Büro OS. According to the uneasy crediting that occurs in such situations it might be considered a creation of both.
The task was to put 1,040 homes on an elevated eight-hectare site, located between the Ayer Rajah Expressway, one of the city-state’s major roads, and a 10-kilometre long green zone that stretches between the Kent Ridge, Telok Blangah Hill and Mount Faber parks. Planning restrictions set a maximum height of 24 storeys and a gross plot ratio of 2.1, which gives a total area of 170,000 square metres. The homes range from two-bedroom flats to penthouses and ‘garden townhouses’, and from 75 to 586sqm. The conventional Singaporean solution would be a group of maybe 12 towers, with what Scheeren calls ‘residual’ space left between them at ground level. Instead he ‘toppled the towers’, and ‘turned vertical into horizontal’, putting the required accommodation into the similar six-storey blocks and stacked them, corner on corner, with up to four on top of each other, making the maximum of 24 floors. There are 11 at the lowest level, then 10, then seven, and three at the top. In so doing he created an intricate void shape between the solids through which space flows. The gaps between the blocks become portals which frame views of more of The Interlace, and of distant views beyond.
A landscape runs through the site descending through circular openings into the usually forgotten world of basement car parking, and climbing onto the roof planes such that the green area of the completed project exceeds the amount previously on the site. It is diversified into such things as a water park, a bamboo garden and a children’s play area with a fire access route that doubles as a jogging track. There are gradations of privacy - some terraces are exclusive to particular apartments; more are shared. The aim, says Scheeren, was to allow a ‘degree of freedom, places to disappear or hide - something we are losing in our world is the ability to withdraw from the single plane of control.’ ‘There are so many moods that you may have as a human’, he adds, which the multiplicity of The Interlace is intended to serve. For Scheeren the landscape, designed with the landscape architects ICN, is as important as the hard architecture and each is integral to the other. It exploits to the full the tropical abundance and ease of growth of Singapore, a place where when architects add optimistic blobs of green to their straight-lined drawings, they really come to pass.
To the lushness and variegation of the planting, the repetition and plainness of the blocks act as foils. They also offset the views beyond the confines of The Interlace, of city and nature. One way of looking at this combination of concrete and green is as the coming together of the location’s two main pre-existing facts: the expressway on one side and a forested ridge on another. Scheeren calls it ‘a spectacular structure between civilisation and nature’.
The total effect is certainly imposing: wherever you go within it, the architecture is a powerful presence. When an opening occurs between the gridded surfaces, it might frame sky, horizon or trees, but also more of the same. It is embracing and insistent. It has a magnificence, which is a great thing for residential architecture (see Le Corbusier in Marseilles or the Royal Crescent in Bath) if you can pull it off. At the same time it manages to achieve intimacy within the massiveness, and to run through the scales with simple but effective means.
The Interlace gives climatic and atmospheric pleasures. The blocks with their 120-degree angles catch light nicely and contrastingly and the deep shadows that fill the chasms between them are welcome in the prevailing heat. The acceleration of wind between the blocks, often an unwanted side effect of architecture like this, is beneficial. With its shadows, water features and cooling breezes, the architecture turns the Singapore weather, which can be unbearable, into a better version of itself.
Its Singaporean properties also go beyond its response to climate and flora. Its sheer scale and abruptness, for example, is less startling in a city where large multi-storey housing complexes can often appear at the end of a two-storey street. More than that The Interlace embodies the country’s ability to be at once collective and capitalist, expressed architecturally (loosely speaking) as Modernism and the iconic. It is a place where, for example, 80 per cent or more of the population live in publicly owned housing, which therefore includes most social classes. There are plenty of blocks of flats built by the government’s Housing and Development Board that would not look out of place in the socialist municipalities of postwar Europe. At the same time the government is itself close to being a business, its ministers departmental directors, always looking for ways to promote and encourage the island’s economy. So projects like Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay Sands hotel are built, whose three large towers support the long curving tongue of its roof-deck and high-level infinity pool.
The Interlace clearly has iconic punch, not unlike Safdie’s hotel, a once-seen-never-forgotten quality arising from its stacking, but the blocks themselves are more like the sort of thing that the HDB would have put up in the 1960s. In which ambivalence it is entirely characteristic of OMA, who combine a (sometimes well-hidden) sympathy for northern European municipal ideals with their desire to embrace the 21st century as it is, no matter how (or especially if) bizarre.
There is a further pairing of provocation and logic, whereby the apparent madness of the flying blocks comes with a perfectly reasonable explanation (which I suspect but can’t absolutely prove is not quite perfectly reasonable). The apparent simplicity of the concept required some challenging engineering, in which techniques borrowed from bridge design by the engineers TY Lin are adapted to building homes. But the common temptation to display structural drama with parabolas and wires is suppressed behind the overt normality of the blocks’ elevations, normality explained with reference to budget: Scheeren wanted to spend whatever generosity there might have been on the constructional ambition, not on exotic cladding.
Scheeren is keen to point out his rigour in other ways, such as the efficient planning of apartments, the discrete integration of potentially obtrusive elements such as air-conditioning units, his care to make sure that living rooms were not placed under the overhangs and his efforts in persuading his clients to pay attention to the soffits of those overhangs. Here the control joints in the concrete have a simple hexagonal pattern that echoes the driving grid - it is a matter of more thought, says Scheeren, not more money.
This deadpan drama, this pursuit of logic-illogic with calm efficiency is appealing. More so, for example, than the laboured avant-gardism, typological conservatism and palpable constructional agony to be found on Hadid’s apartment towers for CapitaLand. The remaining question is whether the big idea from which everything else follows, of renewing community life in a modern condominium, is achieved. Short of a long and exhaustive social survey this question is incapable of a conclusive answer.
We should also know by now that architectural form can only contribute so much to social behaviour - people determine their relations with other people more than buildings do, and at The Interlace things are given a fair wind by the fact that it is inhabited by people who have chosen to buy property and live there. The common spaces are places where people linger and relax and possibly even talk to each other. Scheeren says that 60 of CapitaLand’s staff bought homes there, an unprecedented number, which he takes as a stamp of approval. And, if it is possible to feel part of a larger whole whether or not you engage with your neighbours, The Interlace certainly achieves this. For all its resemblance to architectural types commonly considered alienating, this is not the experience it offers.
Architect and client disagree as to quite how affordable it is. Scheeren says it is aimed at ‘the lower end of the mid tier’, whereas CapitaLand put it a little higher than that, but it is certainly not in the luxury bracket. It might be troubling to European eyes that it is gated but there is little to speak of in terms of urban grain around it, so it is hard to see who might be seriously excluded or affronted. It does not communicate aggression or hostility to its surroundings. The Interlace combines boldness and intelligence in a way rarely seen in housing projects.