Thanks to architectural titans like Le Corbusier and Herzog & de Meuron, Swiss nationals have long made it to the forefront of the global design scene. Collectively, they have brought a sleek modernity into iconic structures such as Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, the brand new M+ in Hong Kong or the swooping curves of the church of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, and these structures have served to challenge and aspire generations of architects and interior designers.
Today, these Swiss sensibilities have made their way to Southeast Asia, where architect Manuel Der Hagopian and his team at G8A Architects are weaving together Eastern and Western influences to create a style of architecture that is uniquely their own.
An alumnus of the Geneva Institute of Architecture and the Belleville School of Architecture in Paris, Der Hagopian is a co-founder and partner at G8A Architects, as well as a curator at TB80 Space, a unique event space in Tiong Bahru which seeks to foster cultural exchange between the east and west.
In 2015, he and his firm were given the distinction of being the first foreign company to be awarded the opportunity to work on one of Singapore’s HDB projects, specifically the Punggol Waterways Terraces.
As an architect, what is your personal aesthetic and design philosophy? How have these manifested in your work?
Gregoire [du Pasquier], my co-founder and partner at G8A, and myself are both Swiss and were educated in Switzerland, so we were deeply influenced by our country’s cultural and design heritage.
Now, we are on a constant quest to find the right balance for each specific project. We do not defend one impermeable aesthetic; instead, we strategize in order to see how we can benefit from and contribute to the context where we are working. Many of our projects are international and each has its own unique elements. It is thus important for us to remain humble and to know when contributing Swiss values can be positive.
Who or what are your influences and inspirations for your work?
First of all, architectural culture is very strong in Switzerland. It [has grown] through several famous design schools such as the ETHZ, EPFL, Mendrisio Academy, as well as several iconic Swiss architects who have made an impact on the world of design.
Ever since we began working in Asia over 15 years ago, our immersion into its rapidly growing cities and urban centres pushed us to create and implement new strategies that would cohesively embrace and resolve the contrasts between the East and the West.
How did you come to work in Singapore and how has it been so far?
In 2009, G8A’s Hanoi studio was thrust into the limelight with the competition-winning scheme for Punggol Waterway Terraces in Singapore. We were the first international agency to be awarded such a large-scale project, and it was a significant milestone for my work and dictated the direction where our agency went next.
When we finished the Waterway Terraces in 2015, our work on it gave us an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to both environmental sustainability and social cohesion.
From then on, we at G8A have worked on a number of other public housing projects in Singapore, and we are especially interested in a patient and determined exploration of affordable and dense housing typology design.
For you as an architect and design professional, is there a difference between creating for clients in Europe and your current clientele here in Asia?
Yes, of course. Prior to working for private and public entities, we were trained to adapt to the different contexts and agendas of our clients. No two clients are alike regardless of their location, but the specifics in Southeast Asia have brought in another dimension in the practice of adaptation.
We constantly need to remember that Geneva is not Zurich, and that Hanoi is not Ho Chi Minh City. It applies to clients, as well: everyone has their own idiosyncrasies and priorities that can be more or less understood through contextual elements.
I understand that your work has also involved fostering cultural exchange in the fields of architecture and design. How much of a challenge did you face to push through with this given the ongoing pandemic?
The pandemic revealed the need for certain communication systems to be put into place if you were involved in organisations like ours that functions as international network. Fortunately at G8A we have met similar challenges in the past and, for several years now, we have been practicing in three different environments. Each location functions differently, but we have seen how strategies and behaviours developed in Asia could be adapted to the Swiss or European context.
8+, the think tank of your firm G8A, expands the reach of the agency’s practice beyond architecture and design. What have your insights been so far and how have these influenced your ongoing projects?
When we began to explore Southeast Asia, we noted that the paths were very different from those in Switzerland. The topics of interests differed, as well, and we needed to rethink the scope of our research and knowledge.
8+ became the vehicle with which we formulated these questions and ideas. We have invested in several themes that became like “mini-obsessions.” These have influenced our design projects and informing our daily practice. Our TB80 Space and the Hanoi Talks are two specific initiatives that were born from the 8+ think tank:
TB80 Space is a hybrid event and social space that hosts non-commercial exhibitions as well as events with no fixed medium or topical agenda. The programme highlights projects that share cultural insights and knowledge between east and west, reinforcing the already longstanding relationship between Switzerland and Singapore.
The Hanoi Talks pre-date TB80 by a few years. Launched in 2017, these are a series of presentations mostly hosted at and organised by the G8A office in Hanoi. We invite specialists to offer their insights on topics that influence or have been influenced by the practice of architecture. These conversation-driven interactions serve as a laboratory for thinkers: a place to share the ideas of tomorrow.
Your firm's office is located in a beautiful heritage building in Tiong Bahru. What's the concept behind the associated TB80 Space and how did its unique juxtaposition of local and foreign cultures come about?
Tiong Bahru is a location of amazing heritage value and it’s an exceptional prototype of a scaled community.
The spaces here were designed to reflect the area’s history, its surroundings, and how it has evolved over time. That said, this was the perfect location for both our agency’s Singapore office and TB80 Space as it encourages contemporary reflection on housing design.
[Over the years,] Singapore has developed unique responses to public housing. As designers who are thematically interested and also professionally involved in the creation and development of contemporary projects, [TB80] is also our way to close that design circle.
As a Swiss national and design professional, what have you learned throughout your time in Singapore and what lessons does the Singaporean design sector stand to learn from you and other foreign practitioners in the field?
Singapore has gone through an amazing journey since it gained its independence in 1965. I would highlight, of course, the wide-ranging and persevering exploration it did in the early days with regard to public housing. It has paid off and, today, Singapore is considered a true pioneer in dense and green building typology throughout Southeast Asia. [I am also inspired by] the way Singapore has been able to incorporate digital and smart technologies [into the discipline of] island planning and the city itself.
Learn more about the amazing work Manuel and his team at G8A are doing at their website: https://g8a-architects.com.
So much more from Switzerland!
Cover: Patrick Bingham-Hall
Picture #1: Regis Golay Federal Studio
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