Tay Yanling of ta.le Architects talks about how her lifelong love for art has shaped her architectural designs

SINGAPORE (Mar 25): Frank Gehry, the virtuoso behind groundbreaking constructs such as Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, likes to point out that some of the greatest architects in history were artists first. Among the most eminent is Michelangelo, the prodigious painter of the Renaissance era, who was also a sculptor and an architect. It was common centuries ago for artists to be architects and architects to be artists. Gehry himself studied fine art at university before switching his focus to building design.

In our current times, greater specialisation has pushed the disciplines of art and architecture more and more into their own separate spheres. Artists have the luxury of producing works with free creative rein while architects design structures for clients, guided by timelines, regulations and numbers. For some in the profession, however, art and architecture are not entirely mutually exclusive. Architecture can be as imaginative a pursuit as art, and art can play a material role in shaping the design of a building.

In the view of Tay Yanling, founder of ta.le Architects (pronounced tale), there are parallels between creating art and creating architecture. Take, for example, a work by Claude Monet, a founder of French Impressionist painting. “When you look close up, you see a lot of brushstrokes and different colours mixed together,” she says. “But when you step back, you see the whole picture,” she adds. Likewise, in architecture, you drill down to the details, selecting bricks, tiles, colour palettes and conceptualising spatial layouts and lighting effects. “When the whole building is completed, you see a different picture,” she notes.

Tay, 38, is both an artist and architect. She and her architect husband run an eight-strong practice out of a shophouse on Club Street. Her days are filled with client requests, budgets, deadlines or meetings with building professionals. At night, when her infant children are asleep, and on weekends, she puts acrylic paint to canvas, recreating images from her travels such as the cliff-hugging villages of Italy’s Cinque Terre (below) or portraits of her family.

For as long as she can remember, Tay has loved to draw. Her childhood memories are of her painting and drawing for children’s art competitions virtually every school holiday. In primary school, her art works were singled out for accolades. More notably, she had begun associating numbers with colours, a neuorological phenomenon known as grapheme-colour synesthesia. “I remember very vividly when I was learning mathematics in primary school, feeling that 4 + 3 = 7 works perfectly in summation as well as with colours because yellow (4) and blue (3) make green (7),” she says.

Colour synesthetes are born associating letters or numbers with specific colours. This very rare condition was not something Tay was aware of until age 21 when she read an article on the author Vladimir Nabokov, who had grapheme-colour synesthesia. “I guess, subconsciously, I have been seeing the world in colours at many levels and that is perhaps why painting comes naturally to me,” she says.

At 13, she gained entry to the Arts Elective programme at Nanyang Girls’ High School, a fine arts curriculum that continued until she graduated from National Junior College. At 17, she spent a summer at the Atlanta College of Art in the US on a Ministry of Education scholarship. Alone and in a foreign land, she had more time to channel her emotions and thoughts into her painting, adding depth and finesse to her technique and style. 

When it came to studying for a degree, however, she opted for architecture. “Architecture was a natural progression, as I discovered I also liked to do things in 3D, not just in 2D, such as sculpture,” she explains. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the National University of Singapore, she took a trip to the Netherlands with some course mates. She very quickly forged a deep connection with the small European country, which has had an outsized impact on the world of art and architecture, producing luminaries such as Vermeer, Rembrandt and Rem Koolhaas. 

“The architecture scene is very vibrant and different from Singapore,” Tay says of the Netherlands. She decided to extend her architectural training there and went on to complete a Master of Science (Architecture) at Delft University of Technology in 2006. She also had a brief stint working at Powerhouse Company Architecture in Rotterdam.

Storied buildings

On her return to Singapore, she joined DP Architects, Singapore’s leading architectural firm and currently the world’s 10th largest. In her eight years with DP, she discovered a passion for conserving heritage buildings and a holistic approach to building design, including interiors, where she could weave in her skills in the fine arts.

The landmark project of her career at DP was the restoration of Clifford Pier (below) and Customs House and the design and construction of the Fullerton Bay Hotel next to these legacy buildings. Clifford Pier was built in 1933 as a landing point for immigrants and other sea passengers while Customs House, with its distinctive control tower, was the maritime base of the Singapore Customs Police.

As the team leader for this undertaking, Tay endeavoured to retain as much of the history of these waterfront buildings. The concrete arches of the Art Deco-inspired Clifford Pier were retained and illuminated, as was the multi-hued glass fanlight at its entrance. The terrazzo benches inside its finger piers were also restored, as were the cast-iron red oil lanterns that sailors used to look out for. When it came time to refresh the façade, Tay and her team peeled the paint off the granolithic finish (a mixture of cement and granite) to discover a layer of Shanghai plaster beneath that. The team had lengthy discussions with URA on whether to restore the façade to the original Shanghai plaster or to the granolithic finish that more recent generations of Singaporeans were familiar with. They opted for the latter.

She says, “With heritage buildings, you never understand the building until you unravel it fully. There are stories hidden in these buildings. What was the original colour or material behind these walls? You can trace the evolution of a building and, when you know its history, you can then decide whether to restore it to the original or create something different.” With the Fullerton Bay project, she juxtaposed the legacy buildings with a modern, six-storey hotel as well as floating pods (which the hotel uses for events and weddings) and a glass dome on Marina Bay, which now houses a restaurant.

Old and new

“DP gave me a lot of opportunity to do design, which is my forte,” she says. In 2014, however, she decided it was time to craft something of her own. Along with her husband Lionel Leow, whom she met at university, she set up ta.le Architects. Their very first project was a Good Class Bungalow on Ridout Road (below) in the Dempsey area. “It was a dream come true for us,” she says. “We got to do everything, from conservation to interior design for both a colonial space and a modern building.”

The client had bought an old bungalow that sat on a long stretch of land totalling 2,700 sq m. The house was almost 100 years old and used to be the dwelling of a priest. The old brick house was restored and a much larger bungalow comprising stepped terraces with green roofs was built behind it. To cater to the tropical weather, the perimeter of each floor has deep overhanging eaves. On its façade are motorised copper panels designed to provide shade from the sun. Tay likes to use natural materials as much as possible. “Copper changes colour as it ages; that’s the beauty of natural materials,” she says.

Aside from private homes, ta.le Architects has done several conservation shophouse projects in the Amoy (below), Telok Ayer, Tanjong Pagar and Craig Road areas. “We try to stay true to the traditional shophouse spirit,” she says, pointing out the use of local materials such as Peranakan tiles on a staircase and clay tile blocks — widely employed in the days before air-conditioning for natural ventilation — which are now part of a design wall.

The firm has also worked on commercial spaces and recently completed a renovation of the Nordic European Centre in Jurong. To spruce up the tired-looking building, ta.le chose a dynamic, contemporary industrial vibe. To make it more environmentally sustainable, it installed aluminium cut-outs on the western-facing front of the building as a sun-shading device. And to cater to millennials and start-ups, they designed pavilions and nooks where people could gather informally for spontaneous discussions, breaking away from old-style meeting rooms. “We have to be very creative when designing office space nowadays,” notes Tay.

For inspiration, she looks to the work and design philosophy of British designer Thomas Heatherwick. The award-winning designer is the creative force behind the Hive at National Technological University, a cluster of towers resembling dim sum baskets stacked on top of each other. These circular tutorial rooms, arranged around an expansive atrium, upend the conventional layout of classrooms and do away with miles of corridors. Heatherwick’s aim was to foster collaborative learning and to encourage staff and student interactions. “He made us re-think the concept of the classroom,” Tay says of Heatherwick, who is currently working on the new Google headquarters in California.

When it comes to painting, she favours the Impressionist masters, including Joaquín Sorolla, a Spanish painter whose variant of Impressionism is marked by plenty of light, brilliant colours and fluid brushstrokes. Among local names, she likes Georgette Chen, who is known for her post-Impressionistic style at the turn of the 20th century. Chen contributed to the birth of the Nanyang art style in Singapore and was also the first woman to teach at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

Despite a busy practice and having to raise two young children aged two and four months, Tay still carves time out to put brush to canvas. “I still like to paint, as it gives me satisfaction faster,” she says, noting that the timelines in building design are much longer. In all, she has completed a few hundred pieces of art, mostly acrylic paintings, since she started on her painting journey — a journey that has seen her embracing not just the realm of the fine arts but also that of architecture and design, just like architects of the past.

Sunita Sue Leng, formerly an associate editor at The Edge Singapore, likes looking at beautiful buildings