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BHATCH Architects: We See Designing As Limitless

Regardless of project scale or budget size, architect Joseph Lee believes in being authentic and relevant in the work he does

In the middle of architect Joseph Lee’s office at Tyrwhitt Road is a colourful display of models.

“They are slightly different from the conventional ones in the sense that these are made up of actual materials that we want to test out for various projects we are working on,” says Lee, who started his firm BHATCH Architects in 2010.

Experimentation is particularly important for him. His firm’s work ranges from houses to cafes, offices and public projects.

Their design process is highly inclusive in involving clients and stakeholders and uses a range of strategies in exploring materials and ideas.

This is especially so for projects with limited budgets.

“Good design need not be expensive,” he says.

Chatty and with an infectious energy, Lee tells us why architects should talk more to one another and why he misses the former Tiong Bahru market. 

What do you love most about being an architect?

It is the diverse social interactions that I encounter every day with clients, stakeholders, contractors and others that I find most fascinating. I enjoy the process of understanding the brief and developing design solutions together with people.

You have taken on many projects with limited budgets.

I find it very exciting and challenging to be able to produce beautiful and compelling designs even with smaller budgets.

Tell us about one project that challenged your creativity.

It was my first shophouse project in Joo Chiat. The owner wanted to do a three-storey extension in the rear and the budget was tight. I saw it as a challenge to do something interesting. At that time, I was running a studio at the National University of Singapore. There was a stockpile of bamboo left over from the course. I bought all of it for $150 and used it to create the façade for the shophouse. It shows that good design need not be expensive. It is about exploring the use of material and continuing to be creative in designing something meaningful.

Your firm has an interesting name.

It is inspired from the boundary hatch, a command from AutoCAD, a software programme used to create two-dimensional and three-dimensional designs. It reminds us that in everything we do, we always work within a framework and various parameters. But this does not limit design itself. We see designing as limitless. We want to produce designs that are authentic and relevant. Whether it is a small space or a project with an unusual shape, we welcome all challenges, it makes us work harder and be more creative.

3 Wimborne Road, shot by Goh Jin Chuan 3 Wimborne Road, shot by Goh Jin Chuan

Who inspires you?

Fellow architects. I learn a lot from conversations with my peers. There is always something to gain from every interaction. It is also a chance to share with each other our stories and struggles.

How do you see the role of the architect evolving?

As our cities grow more complex and interconnected, there is a need for architects to relate more to the urban landscape and to each other. I was part of an interesting project, The Lien Villas Collective, when I was at K2LD Architects, where six houses in Singapore were designed by six architects for a family, connected by a common landscape. The architects met every month to understand each other’s designs and how each of the houses relate to each other as a whole. The project is a reminder on the need for architects to interact more with each other to explore how their designs can contribute to the larger urban fabric.

You grew up in Tiong Bahru and you live there now. Why is the neighbourhood special to you?

I like that the neighbourhood is constantly refreshing itself. There is a lot of energy and vibrancy amid the cafes, shops and communities that is different from any other estate.

If you can create or alter something in Singapore with no constraints, what would it be?

I would bring back the old Tiong Bahru market. Markets tend to be the focal point for many cities. There are many things about the old market that I miss – the smell of food, the chatter, the cooking at 2am.

BHATCH Architects’ works were exhibited at the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) AUDE Space in July 2019. Launched in 2019 at The URA Centre at 45 Maxwell Road, AUDE Space is a dedicated platform that seeks to inspire good architecture and design in Singapore as part of URA’s Architecture & Urban Design Excellence (AUDE) programme. Click here for more information about the AUDE Space. This article first appeared on the Board of Architects website.

Serene Tng
URA & Goh Jin Chuan
03 November 2020