Cover Wong Chiu Man and Maria Warner Wong and their dog Biggles in the living room, which features a long horizontal alcove with a window that perfectly frames the plants; the space is also thoughtfully decorated with seedpods and seed sculptures; Wong wears a Piaget watch.

Sustainability has become an urgent issue due to the Covid-19 pandemic but for Wong Chiu Man and Maria Warner Wong, the founders of Wow Architects, it has always been the only way

In the past decades, sustainability and biophilia have been gaining momentum across industries as awareness of man’s destruction of the Earth becomes more documented. The Covid-19 pandemic has tipped the scales for this agenda to evolve from trend to necessity. But even before sustainability garnered a greater sense of urgency, Wong Chiu Man and Maria Warner Wong of Wow Architects have been propagating this in their work.  

There is Vivanta by Taj, the hotel in Bangalore, India that has an accessible green rooftop that slopes continuously from the ground to the top of the building; the 2012 Archifest Zero Waste Pavilion that was made from upcycled materials which were later repurposed; and the St Regis Maldives resort that is ecological from building to operations. They are currently working on the Mandai eco-resort in Singapore that will nestle guests among conserved trees and is envisioned to be the island nation’s first super low energy resort.   

The couple’s home in Singapore, which they refer to as Chiltern House and built eight years ago, is yet another stellar example. Moss colour the exposed concrete walls, a money plant creeps around the house, and a water lily pond outside the master bedroom evokes calmness. The placement of openings optimises seasonal light and wind direction, and in the master bathroom, full height windows replace the large vanity mirror designed for witnessing the daily interactions of biodiversity.   

(Related: How Architects Are Bringing More Greenery To Singapore With Biophilic Design)

During this interview, I am seated in the living room where a long horizontal alcove with a window frames the landscape like a painting. Wong shows me a photograph of him and Warner Wong 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 shares. 

The couple met while studying architecture at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Warner Wong transferred to the university after early architecture studies 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 hardworking,” recalls Warner Wong on what attracted her to her husband. The couple bonded over their love for the outdoors, as well as a fervent desire to see the world.  

We had an affinity for its architecture and landscape. We also wanted to learn how to build and detail, and Japan was the best tectonically at that time.

—Maria Warner Wong

Gaining new Perspectives together

Nature and adventure set the basis for the future, crossing continents to satiate their curiosity about new environments and cultures together. Their experiences of studying architecture abroad in Italy and China made it clear that their education was strongly Western focused. “We weren’t learning enough about Asia, Latin America and the rest of the world,” says Warner Wong. While pursuing a Master of Architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design, they intentionally focused on other subjects such as landscape architecture, East Asian cultural studies and more.

Studying under pre-eminent architect Tadao Ando affirmed their determination to work 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 tectonically at that time,” says Warner Wong. Weeks after their marriage at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, they graduated from Harvard and immediately departed for Japan where they found jobs with large architectural firms in Tokyo. “We didn’t pursue work with starchitects because we felt that the big firms in Japan had more influence internationally,” says Wong.

(Related: How Nature-Inspired Designs Help To Improve Our Wellbeing, According to Wow Architects)

About two years later, Wong was offered the opportunity to join the Singapore office of Nikken Sekkei and the couple’s move home coincided with them starting a family. Wong quickly rose up the ranks in 10 years to earn a place on the company’s board of directors, while Warner Wong established Parallax Design to work on small, meaningful projects. These included the documentation and conservation of a family ancestral home in Malacca where she travelled to, child in tow. During this time, Warner Wong frequently took purposeful walks at MacRitchie Reservoir and other nearby parks. “These forests have always been my sanctuary—places I feel safe, at peace and that is key to my mental well-being,” she says.  

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.

—Wong Chiu Man

Culture, MEMORY and Place

This refuge in nature hearkens back to a childhood where Warner Wong was always outdoors—running, camping and poking around trees. In the living room, the continuity of the garden is experienced through a curated collection of seed pods and seed sculptures by Singaporean artist Kumari Nahappan. “I’ve always been fascinated by the botany of 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,” she says passionately. 

This period in her life gave Warner Wong time to formulate the core values of creating total sensory experiences rooted in culture, memory and place. It is the ethos of Warner Wong Design, which the pair started in 2000; they later founded Wow Architects in 2003. Wong is the managing director and Warner Wong is the director of design, although in actuality 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 [encountering a space], you’re more aware of it and you tend to remember it more. What appears to be small gestures can have a deeply transformative effect if carried out regularly,” says Warner Wong. Combining architecture, interior and landscape design also helps create holistic, thoughtfully crafted environments.  

The relation between Covid-19 and sustainability

The current pandemic has catalysed this focus. “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,” Wong shares. 

In an industry whose carbon footprint is substantial, architects have great responsibility as “stewards of the environment”, notes Wong. He added that 39 per cent of all carbon emissions in the world come from building and construction activities, with 28 per cent of it coming from energy used during the building’s operations. As such, it is also the architect’s duty to educate stakeholders on design issues for reducing the carbon footprint and for long-term, sustainable building management. 

The firm’s St Regis Maldives project is an example that embodies their values. The team from Wow Architects replaced displaced plant material with locally sourced species from a neighbouring island, and specified pre-fabricated timber systems to minimise construction impact, logistics and labour. The focus on employing local staff also sustains the community. 

The most important sustainable behaviour is to become increasingly aware of our own wasteful patterns and mindfully change the way we live.

—Maria Warner Wong

How the couple practises sustainability in their lives

In our own homes, the uptick in horticultural hobbies during the pandemic demonstrates nature’s healing power. But beyond plants, a holistic ecological environment also comes from choosing the right methods of construction management, material selection and internal organisation of functions and spaces so as to control the consumption and life cycle of the environment, according to Wong. 

“Everyone can live a more sustainable lifestyle in any home by being aware of how our habits of consumption and lifestyle affect the environment. For example, how much energy we consume, the types of food we eat and their sources, how much refuse we produce, and how much is recycled or upcycled. We have choices.” 

In their household, they are constantly trying to improve. Says Warner Wong, “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, carbon footprint and the effect on local businesses. The most important sustainable behaviour is to become increasingly aware of our own wasteful patterns and mindfully change the way we live.”

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