You’d expect an architect’s own home to be anything but ordinary, and indeed, Rene Tan’s 4,811sqft semi-detached house in Bukit Timah is so extraordinary that it won the Design Award for the Residential – Low-Density Housing category at the prestigious SIA Design Awards in 2020.
“I’m 57 and this might be the last chance I have to spoil my wife,” says Tan, who describes the three guiding principles of his work as “don’t think like an architect”, “use your counter intuition” and “don’t be afraid to put the right thing in the wrong place”. It’s an approach that has paid off handsomely at RT+Q, the architectural firm he co-founded with TK Quek in 2003, which has designed 140 houses so far (and counting), several of which have scooped up design awards.
Of course, it’s natural that Tan’s own home should incorporate these very guiding principles, as well as some far-out ideas that clients had requested him to leave on the drawing board. It has been dubbed the “House of Spice” by his wife Chuah Woei Woei (who works as a director in a bank) and teenage daughter Lara, but the affable Tan quips that it “should actually have been called the ‘House of Rejects’”. “Most people don’t like exposed columns; they find fair-face concrete crude and unfinished; they think sliding walls are weird and that it’s wasteful to make the wet kitchen the largest space of an already modest house,” he observes, “so these are the elements I included.”
For the garden, Tan looked to urban farming for inspiration: “I chose to go with edible greenery, such as the coconut trees in the front garden, and turned the gap that divides my neighbour’s house from mine into a terraced spice garden.” A built-in irrigation system is turned on twice daily to water the pandan, basil, chilli, lime and lemongrass plants there, so the gardener need only come once a fortnight. Then there’s the main gate that rejects “solidity and
privacy” for “softness and porosity” with a sliding hedge of Murraya plants.
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In addition, the house needed to be separated from the neighbouring house to provide more light, ventilation and privacy. “My client Woei Woei wanted it eco-friendly and with a lift, plus enough storage to cater to her passion for fashion,” Tan adds, “while my other client Lara, an aspiring opera singer who also plays the violin and viola, needed a music room—and a showcase for her soft toy collection.”
Tan himself, who had double majored in music and architecture at Yale (and worked at its library for four years) before pursuing his master’s degree in architecture at Princeton University, owns a grand piano and a massive collection of books on art, architecture, design, classic literature, pop culture and travel, as well as architectural models and a sizeable number of compact discs.
“What I’ve learned from many clients over the years is that they always regret not planning for more storage space,” he says. “Minimalism and decluttering may not be for everyone. As humans, we tend to accumulate a lot of stuff. Our possessions and collections bring us joy, showcase our interests, hold our memories, and signpost our journey and evolution through life. As such, this entire house is built around the concept of cabinetry—as a means to organise things so you can find, use and admire them. And as a way to divide, define and organise space.”
Step into his living area, and the first thing you see is a massive open-back plywood bookcase that soars three storeys upward and segregates the ground level from the staircase. A monolithic floor-to-ceiling ovoid column clad in wood laminate anchors the grand piano placed in front of it while concealing the lift shaft. A slim rectangular plywood “sculpture” near the front door turns out to be a swivelling catch-all for keys, wallets and other daily-use items. “It was inspired by a rotating coat cabinet at Bvlgari Hotel Milano,” Tan shares. Two side-by-side ceiling fans whir overhead. “You know how normal cars have only one exhaust pipe, but fancy sports cars have two? Well, two ceiling fans don’t cost much more than one, but they make a strong design statement,” he jokes.
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The living area is bright, airy and cool, thanks to double-height floor-to-ceiling glass walls, a concrete “shell” that protects the interiors from the heat and rain, and the slimline pool that wraps around one side of the house. Furnished elegantly with a Le Corbusier black leather and chrome armchair, a chocolate brown fabric sofa handed down from Chuah’s parents and a pair of fabric-upholstered Zanotta armchairs “bought years ago on sale from Space”, it segues to the dining area. “It’s my favourite part of the house,” Tan discloses, “because that’s where we come together as a family to chat and share about our day over dinner”, seated at the oval white-marble-topped dining table surrounded by Carl Hansen CH24 Wishbone chairs.
Beside it is the dry kitchen, which features an island counter topped in golden spider marble. A round recess serves as a handy receptacle for a champagne and wine bucket while the two round indents beside it can be used “for peanuts, olives, even cat food,” Tan points out cheekily.
Behind it, a wall of cabinetry houses storage, the fridge and the ovens. A blue service window links it to the wet kitchen that runs parallel to it, allowing food (and Debussy the cat) to pass effortlessly between the spaces.
The wet kitchen is an example of Tan’s penchant for counter-intuitive thinking and ideological miscarriage. Usually a utilitarian open-air space tucked out of sight in the backyard, it’s welcomed back indoors here, enclosed in glass and surrounded by greenery.
Measuring 3m by 8.5m, it’s the largest room in the house and given a vaulted ceiling associated with churches “because why should certain design features be reserved just for the past, or for popes? And what’s the point of travelling for inspiration if you don’t put any of it to use?” Tan asks rhetorically.
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A 6.5m-long custom-built stainless steel table serves as a worktop; a row of concealed drawers provides storage. It’s also used for hosting large gatherings. A sculptural tangerine cone protruding from the ceiling turns out to be a laundry chute where clothes can be dropped from the master bedroom’s boudoir straight into the wet kitchen.
The family’s live-in helper’s jewel of a bathroom serves dual function as a guest powder room and has been given the luxe treatment: There’s a custom sink carved out of a single block of Carrara marble that Tan travelled to Italy to source for, the WC is set within a gilded alcove, and the shower is concealed behind frosted glass doors. The ground floor conceals another surprise near the lift: Chuah’s Shoe Sacristy, a room outfitted with arc-shaped shelves for her collection of high heels.
In line with Tan’s idea of elevating the mundane, the trudge up the stairs is a delight as one is accompanied by the greenery of the terraced garden on the left, and by books and artwork on the right. The second floor is home to the master suite and Lara’s suite.
Another example of counter-intuitive thinking that Tan employed was to situate the bathroom at the entry of the master suite. “It makes perfect sense,” he asserts, “since the bathroom is usually the first stop before you head into the bedroom and the last stop before you head out”. The shower area, with its house-shaped outline, extends Tan’s idea of a house within a house. It’s also a clever design solution to conceal the slant of the staircase that leads to the third floor.
Recessed double sinks within a wide marble counter and a mirror designed by Chuah, featuring two intersecting circles, create a pleasing sense of symmetry and mark this space as being built for two. There’s also a peephole in the intersecting space that allows for conversation or stolen glances into the boudoir behind it, a space carved out of cabinetry to separate the bathroom from the bedroom.
Beside it, a secret door opens into a two-storey-high Bag Baptistry, which, like the Shoe Sacristy, features arc-shaped shelves. The master bedroom is a salon-like oasis of calm and elegance, with oversize picture frame windows, wall panels that slide to block out light when needed, and ample space for a love seat in a soft dove grey and a Fendi Casa armchair in black-and-white fabric, perched atop a monochrome striped rug.
A row of built-in wardrobes conceals a hidden doorway that leads to Chuah’s Clothes Chapel, a plush, carpeted walk-in wardrobe that’s two storeys high. Another secret door on the other end allows Lara to step in from her bedroom to borrow her mother’s clothes, as they’re both about the same size (though Lara prefers a more casual and comfortable style, as teenagers tend to). An inset glass panel on the floor allows the lady of the house to check if guests have arrived, while the lift (it opens on both sides on the second floor) awaits to whisk her downstairs in a jiffy.
Tan describes his wife’s sense of style as “a fruit orchard: colourful, healthy and diverse”; Chuah takes a break from her work to elaborate a little, adding: “With so many young designers and so much movement among fashion houses, I don’t follow trends obsessively and prefer clothes that suit my personality and style. I love Coco Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld, and always reach for dresses because they make it so easy to look pulled together, especially for work.”
As for Tan’s fashion sense, Chuah notes: “He used to wear black all the time because he was so focused on his work, he didn’t want to have to think about fashion. Now, he wears almost anything but black, but it has to be comfortable.”
Over in Lara’s suite, a large wood shelf at the end of the bedroom displays her collection of stuffed toys—and swivels open to reveal a music room. On the left is her study area, which leads to her bathroom. A peephole in her bathroom mirror allows her to see who’s coming up and down the stairs, while a small glass panel embedded in her bedroom floor allows her to see if the family has guests over, giving her a choice between staying put or heading down to socialise. “You know, teenagers,” Tan jokes conspiratorially. “This could also have been called ‘House of Voyeurs’ because there are so many ways to peek into different parts of the house.”
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The third floor houses an expansive guest suite and two smaller bedrooms. One of them has been repurposed as Tan’s art studio—he took up painting as a pandemic hobby and is working on 140 cubist artworks, which he plans to gift his
clients. “Each piece is different, incorporating special architectural details of their homes,” he says. The last bedroom has been turned into a massage and workout room.
Along the corridor is an internal balcony that allows Chuah access to the upper reaches of her Bag Baptistry. Likewise, one of the guest bedroom’s wardrobes opens inwards to allow access to the highest rungs of her Clothes Chapel.
Rooted in functionality, executed with rigour and precision, and built out of love, this detail-oriented and surprise-driven family home brims with intelligence, sophistication, wit, warmth, humour, and loads of drama and nuance—thanks to its plethora of practical solutions and hidden quirks.
On my way out, I spot an interesting detail I had previously missed: A circular wall-mounted sculpture, with an ovoid cutout on its surface, near the front door. It turns out to be a creative and whimsical storage solution for shoes, inspired by a roulette wheel, designed by Tan. “I was thinking like a gambler, not an architect,” he explains.