Man at His Best

Leong Hon Kit: Why HDB Flats Look Dreadful

Is the denser urban jungle in Singapore starting to be suffocating? The co-founder of WYNK Collaborative talks about the relationship between humans and spaces.

BY Guan Lin | Dec 9, 2016 | Design

Photograph by Ronald Leong

“As much as things are getting digitised these days, we can’t escape from the physical environment,” asserts Leong Hon Kit, co-founder of WYNK Collaborative, of the inevitable relationship between humans and the immediate space that surrounds them. Conversely, physical space can replace digitised communication. In an attempt to displace email culture, for example, he substitutes commonplace office cubicles for café booths. “You have two persons sitting facing each other… like In the Mood for Love,” he says, describing his approach for the offices of online grocery start-up, honestbee.

To Leong, the heart of spatial design is social interaction. While space can be manipulated to force people into collaboration, proximity is necessary between partners who are working closely on a project. His social acumen naturally draws him to convivial projects: cafés, restaurants and the resurrection of derelict cinemas. “We always try to design spaces that are communal,” he notes before pulling a pause and correcting himself. “Communal isn’t exactly the right word,” he adds, for it denotes a manifold concept.

The term “communal” transcends the elementary notion of sharing. So, what a designer does is to not plonk a long table into a restaurant, but deftly negotiate the right proximity between tables. Turning to the couple next to us, Leong continues, “How do you make people share these two tables? Just pull them slightly apart.”

That is what Leong calls symbolic separation. “Singaporeans like their space lah. You might just be 5cm away from your neighbour, but you [immediately] feel more private,” he says of the formula for Singaporeans. Ironically, people want to be part of the atmosphere that they’re in, yet remain simultaneously separated.

This intangible complexity is the magic of commercial projects, which Leong enjoys doing because “more people can enjoy the space, as opposed to a very nice home—how many people can enjoy that?”

Spatial designers cannot bring adequate value to residential projects. Citing the high costs that Singaporean homeowners already have to bear, Leong doesn’t think it makes sense to splurge another ten thousand dollars on design consultancy. “Just go to the design and build contractor. They will give you better value,” he quips. Nonetheless, Leong stresses that good design can “help a business do better. It can help a person live better, [and] use a space better.” Which brings us to the question: what is good design?

The concept of good is found on varied barometers of design. Citing the example of the much-maligned HDB flat, Leong justifies, “You can’t say that the HDB block is not design, but it is designed according to a very different matrix.” The first HDB was constructed in 1927 in a bid to solve the housing shortage brought about by a population boom. It drew life from the Bauhaus building, a prototype for urban living. The average height of citizens and the diameters of quotidian activities were calculated, and translated into the modular rooms that we now live in. These spaces can only be appreciated by those who live within their four walls.

Why, then, do HDB buildings look so dreadful? Leong laughs. “Design is not necessarily about aesthetics,” he states simply. Leong gestures as if calling to mind everything that he’s elucidated so far about commercial and residential design before cutting it loose: “Design is solution.”

First published in Esquire Singapore's December 2016 issue.