Architects Wong Chiu Man And Maria Warner Wong On Building A More Sustainable Future
Every day seems to bring a new, dire warning about the state of the environment. But before climate change was on everyone’s lips, husband-and-wife team Wong Chiu Man and Maria Warner Wong, the founders of Wow Architects in Singapore, were promoting sustainable living in their designs.
Among their most famous eco-friendly projects are Vivanta by Taj, a hotel in Bangalore, India with a vast, grass-covered rooftop; the 2012 Archifest Zero Waste Pavilion in Singapore, which was made from upcycled materials that were later repurposed; and the striking St Regis Maldives resort that seems to float over the ocean. The latter won the prestigious Prix Versailles for its bold design. The couple are currently working on the Mandai eco-resort in Singapore, a 328-room property set to open in 2023 that, if all goes to plan, will be the city-state’s greenest hotel.
The couple’s home in Singapore, Chiltern House, which they built eight years ago, is another example of their environmentally friendly approach. Moss covers the exposed concrete walls, a money plant creeps towards the roof and a lily pond outside the master bedroom creates a sense of calm. In the master bathroom, full height windows allow the couple to watch the animals and birds who call their garden home.
I meet the couple in their living room, where an alcove with a long, horizontal window frames the landscape like a painting. Wong shows me a photograph of him and his future wife as students, embracing in a forest clearing. “Here we are camping. I show this photograph because we share a deep love of nature. It has been very much a part of our inner journey as well as our lives together,” he says.
The couple met while studying architecture at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. A young Maria Warner had transferred to the university after she began a degree in architecture in Mexico City, where she grew up.
“Singaporean guys who study abroad are older than other students because of national service. I noticed that Chiu Man was very mature and hard working,” recalls Warner Wong today. The couple bonded over their love for the outdoors and their fervent desire to see the world.
Aware that their education had been focused on the West, the couple began travelling regularly together. “We weren’t learning enough about Asia, Latin America and the rest of the world,” says Warner Wong. Later, while pursuing a master’s in architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design, they intentionally focused on subjects such as landscape architecture and East Asian cultural studies to broaden their minds.
Studying under celebrated architect Tadao Ando led to a deep interest in Japan. “We had an affinity for its architecture and landscape. We also wanted to learn how to build and detail, and Japan was the best at that time,” says Warner Wong. Weeks after their marriage at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, they graduated from Harvard and immediately departed for Tokyo, where they found jobs at architectural and engineering firm Nikken Sekkei.
About two years later, Wong was offered the opportunity to join the Singapore office of Nikken Sekkei. The couple’s move back to Wong’s hometown coincided with them starting a family. Wong rose through the ranks to earn a place on the company’s board of directors, while Warner Wong established Parallax Design, a boutique design studio, to work on small, meaningful projects. During this time, Warner Wong frequently took walks along the banks of MacRitchie Reservoir and in other nearby parks. “These forests have always been my sanctuary—places I feel safe, at peace. That is key to my mental wellbeing,” she says.
Warner Wong has sought refuge in nature since childhood, when she was always outdoors—running, camping and climbing trees. The couple have brought nature into their living room through a collection of seed pods and seed sculptures by Singaporean artist Kumari Nahappan. “I’ve always been fascinated by trees. Interested in finding out more, I have built up a body of knowledge over the years, and it extends to the flora and fauna of Singapore,” says Warner Wong.
Her first few years in Singapore gave Warner Wong time to devise a vision for an architecture studio that would create total sensory experiences rooted in culture, memory and place. This was the ethos of Warner Wong Design, which the pair established in 2000; they later founded Wow Architects in 2003. Wong is the managing director and Warner Wong is the director of design, although in reality their roles overlap.
“In our designs, we try to include nature in the rituals of daily life—when you’re in the bathroom, walking down the stairs or cooking—to bring about a total sensory experience. If you engage all your senses in [a space], you’re more aware of it and you tend to remember it more,” says Warner Wong.
The Covid-19 pandemic has strengthened their commitment to the natural world. “The pandemic is a consequence of not taking our impact on nature, other species and biodiversity responsibly. We have made it our life’s purpose to promote these issues even more emphatically. This means more restraint in choosing what and when to build—and the outcome of what we build should be purposeful, transformative and regenerative,” says Wong.
The most important sustainable behaviour is to become aware of our own wasteful patterns— Maria Warner Wong
Working in an industry with a substantial carbon footprint, architects have great responsibility as “stewards of the environment” says Wong. He explains that 39 per cent of all carbon emissions in the world comes from building and construction, with 28 per cent of all emissions coming from energy used to light, heat or cool buildings. With that in mind, the couple believe it is architects’ duty to educate stakeholders on ways to reduce buildings’ carbon footprint through design.
The St Regis Maldives embodies the couple’s values. Wow Architects worked with pre-fabricated timber frames to avoid using environmentally harmful materials and re-planted any local plants that were disturbed during construction. The focus on employing local staff also supports the community.
On a day-to-day basis, the couple encourage people to examine their own habits. “Everyone can live a more sustainable lifestyle in any home,” says Wong. “How much energy we consume, the types of food we eat, how much refuse we produce and how much is recycled or upcycled. We have choices.”
In their household, they are constantly trying to be more green. “We buy most of our food at the wet market to avoid packaged and processed food; we avoid online shopping because of the huge amount of packaging, the carbon footprint and the [detrimental] effect on local businesses,” says Warner Wong. “The most important sustainable behaviour is to become aware of our own wasteful patterns and mindfully change the way we live.”
A closer look at some of Wow Architects’ most memorable projects, all of which incorporate sustainable features
The St Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort
Situated on the Dhaalu Atoll in the Maldives, this resort is a case study for sustainable tourism. Its 77 villas are split into three zones—lagoon, coast and jungle—all of which have access to the resort’s private lagoon, six restaurants, spa and an outdoor infinity pool. Wow Architects conserved the island’s flora and fauna as much as possible and used materials such as concrete and steel sparingly. Instead, they turned to pre-fabricated timber to reduce the resort’s impact on the island and the carbon footprint of the construction process. The organic shapes of sea creatures also inspired much of the design—a salute to the Indian Ocean that surrounds the resort.
Set to be completed in 2023, Mandai Eco-Resort will be the first Banyan Tree hotel in Singapore. Plans for the property show rooms nestled into the forest on the 4.6-hectare site, which currently houses Singapore Zoo’s back-of-house facilities. Among the 338 rooms are 24 treehouses, each of them shaped like a seed pod, which seem to float in the air, letting native wildlife move freely on the ground below. Wow Architects have incorporated natural ventilation systems and solar panels into their design, and they hope the resort will be the most energy-efficient hotel in the city-state.
Vivanta By Taj—Whitefield
Completed in 2009, this business hotel in Bangalore is Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces’ flagship property for its Vivanta brand in India. The building’s twisting façade is a matrix of green shades, using highly reflective tinted glass to pay homage to the original colour of the landscape. A highlight of the building is its grass covered rooftop, which has views over the surrounding city. The project won multiple awards at the SIA Architectural Design Awards in 2010.
Archifest 2020 Pavillion
Wow Architects’ winning entry for the first ever Archifest Pavilion Competition was a flexible, zero-waste event space located at Fort Canning Hill in Singapore. The pavilion was made by using readily available materials in new ways. A permeable skin was created using VersiWeb, a grid of lightweight thermoplastic that is typically used by landscapers to stabilise soil and prevent erosion. The net-like holes were filled with planters made out of recycled PET bottles and straw mats that visitors could sit on during presentations. After Archifest ended, the pavilion was dismantled and its materials were reused. The VersiWeb, for example, was given to the National Parks Board to control hillside soil erosion on Fort Canning Hill’s slopes.
- PhotographyDarren Gabriel Leow
- Art DirectionMatilda Au