Tropical Towers

When WOHA recently took first place in the housing category at the World Architecture Festival for the Met, its 69-story domino-shaped Bangkok condominium tower, it was overdue recognition for the Singapore architecture firm. In the decade and a half since its founding, WOHA has been coming up with progressively interesting answers to one of the most pressing questions in architecture: how to build dense, green, and culturally and climate-specific housing for the increasingly wealthy cities of the Global South.

Central to the Met’s design are its “perforations,” holes cut clean through the building that let breezes blow freely over sky gardens. These cutouts cool and ventilate the building while the sky gardens place the outdoor common areas on high floors, where the heat and humidity are significantly lower than at ground level. “Instead of a big massive building that is all joined up together, we simply pulled it apart,” explains Mun Summ Wong, a Singaporean architect who founded WOHA in 1994 with Richard Hassell, an Australian.

The Met is an implicit rebuke to most of the region’s tall buildings, which, Wong says, “are still based on Western models that are quite inappropriate for tropical living. They’re built like what you’d see in Chicago, where you’re basically trying to seal a block, where the building is trying to minimize the surface area.” To adapt the high-rise to Bangkok’s steamy climate, the architects decentralized the elevator shafts, slimming the Met’s profile. “We have more surface area to allow the building to breathe,” Wong says. “It’s just like our clothes. In the tropics, we wear very light clothing so there’s no buildup of heat.” The scheme struck the right note with the World Architecture Festival jurors. “The idea of constructing a building around a set of vertical open spaces seems to me to be very sustainable,” says Roger Zogolovitch, a London architect and residential real estate developer who served on the housing panel.

WOHA has also drawn lessons from the regional building traditions that pre-vailed before the advent of air-conditioning. In One Moulmein Rise, a Singapore apartment building completed in 2003, WOHA took a cue from the Borneo longhouse, a structure designed to let in wind but keep out rain. The result was WOHA’s “monsoon window,” a variation on the bay window with a perforated ledge on the underside. The “window” of the Borneo longhouse, however, is opaque. “It’s a window in the sense that it’s an opening for the wind to come in,” Wong explains. “We’re using modern materials to allow you to see through it as well.”

The monsoon window was the kind of innovation a foreign architect would never have conceived. As a lifelong Singaporean, Wong, now 47 years old, understands that the equatorial city-state’s “oppressive” climate is actually quite pleasant during monsoon season—except for the intense, unpredictable rains. At that time of year, people keep their windows closed as a precaution against a sudden storm, not because of the heat.

Newton Suites, which opened in 2007 in Singapore, tackles the problem of expansive vertical surfaces’ soaking up the equatorial sun. Newton Suites uses a metal-mesh skin for shade, and green walls planted with creeping vines as the architectural equivalent of sunblock. When one of the residents complained that his son got stung by a bee, Wong took it as a compliment: his building was green enough to support its own ecosystem.

Despite the innovations, every unit in all three projects is equipped with an air-conditioner. “The idea is to provide options for people,” Wong says. Still, he knows that at least one tenant of One Moulmein Rise is forgoing air-conditioning. “I live in the building,” Wong says, “and during the monsoon season, we keep the apartment naturally ventilated all the time.”

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