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The Architect Who Designs Some of Singapore’s Most Intriguing Homes

By Renée Batchelor

In the lush estate of Swettenham Road is one of Singaporean architect Aamer Taher’s inventive designs. On a steep sloping site surrounded by hundred-years-old trees, the five-storey house meanders up the hill.
 
Courtesy of Aamer Architects
In the lush estate of Swettenham Road is one of Singaporean architect Aamer Taher’s inventive designs. On a steep sloping site surrounded by hundred-years-old trees, the five-storey house meanders up the hill.

For Aamer Taher, the founder of the boutique architectural firm Aamer Architects, deciding to enter the field of architecture was not necessarily a childhood dream. Up until in the point that he was doing his national service (military conscription in Singapore), he was unsure of the career that he wanted to pursue. It was his platoon mates who suggested that Taher apply for the School of Architecture in the National University of Singapore because of his drawing skills. Still, he tells T Singapore that due to his grades he almost did not make it there. “I ended up in an interview — for [what was called] ‘on the fence’ cases. The interviewers, who were senior tutors of the school, were willing to give me a try, probably due to my lively personality and nice drawings,” says Taher.

It didn’t take long for Taher to fall completely in love with designing and he fondly remembers his time in university as among his happiest. When he struck out on his own, one of the first projects he did was a group of three houses — two semi-detached houses and a bungalow — for a family friend located in the eastern part of Singapore. “I went totally bonkers on the design. The bungalow house has a water slide that curved around the exterior of the house and landed in the pool at the rear garden, while the semi-detached houses had inverted curved roofs for collecting rainwater. That was in the early ’90s. It received so much attention from the media that jobs started pouring in,” says Taher.

Courtesy of Aamer ArchitectsAnother one of Taher’s completed projects in Singapore is a residential house that occupies a tight bungalow plot in the east of Singapore, where the areas are more prone to floods. Its first storey has been raised a full floor above the ground entrance.
Another one of Taher’s completed projects in Singapore is a residential house that occupies a tight bungalow plot in the east of Singapore, where the areas are more prone to floods. Its first storey has been raised a full floor above the ground entrance.

Taher continued to design houses with his signature flair and appreciation for curves. “Many years later, for a house on Siglap Hill, I dabbled on what I call tropical futurism, where the floors, walls and roof connect in a continuous flowing curve, with wide verandahs and deep overhangs. Interestingly, we have discovered copies of that house replicated in as far as Russia,” says Taher.  Even today Taher is keen on taking on challenges and surprising clients with his innovative designs. “More recently, in Frankel Road, also in the East, we did an interesting house where every room had a planter and balcony created with multiple oddly-angled protrusions culminating in a very unique form. I guess, the most memorable projects are those where the clients gave me total freedom of expression and are delighted with the unexpected results.”

Taher is not keen to replicate the designs (and successes) of his past projects, but rather to push himself to create new things. “For me, the challenge is to always reinvent myself, to never repeat our designs but keep the creative part alive. Hence projects where clients give us a clean slate, where they wish to have a unique design not guided by trends or style, are the most exciting and challenging,” says Taher. The challenge of sustainability has also posed new parameters for architects, as they have in other fields as varied as fashion and food. “The current push towards environmental sustainability in design is challenging the profession towards creating comfortable dwellings that consume less of everything. We have to redefine comfort and luxury away from extravagance and towards interesting, emotive spaces that delight without being excessive, like the Japanese concept of wabi sabi or the beauty of imperfection,” says Taher. 

Courtesy of Aamer ArchitectsAt Siglap Plain, Taher reconstructed a small bugnalow house, which sits right by a bus stop at a junction of a minor road and a busy main road, using an unusual mix of raw off-form concrete and solid Balinese teak screens to protect the house from its harsh urban environment.
At Siglap Plain, Taher reconstructed a small bugnalow house, which sits right by a bus stop at a junction of a minor road and a busy main road, using an unusual mix of raw off-form concrete and solid Balinese teak screens to protect the house from its harsh urban environment.

The future for architecture in Singapore is promising, though Taher sometimes sees a disincentive to innovate, as well as limitations due to the lack of good craftsmen on this small island. “Now the scene is more diverse and interesting. Young architects are well-travelled, more exposed and fearless in their pursuits. Knowledge is at their fingertips and they have more ‘room’ to try new stuff. That is a positive development. The negative side is the lack of drive to push for innovative ideas as these are usually more costly and takes more time, especially since Singapore is lacking in resources, materials and good craftsmanship,” says Taher.

A current project is rebuilding the St. John’s Home for the Elderly, and Taher thought of a novel way to help the home raise the funds which they are short of. “It’s a private home and they are short of funds, hence I thought of creating a series of paintings based on iconic objects from our cultural history to put up for a charity auction drive to help raise money. The intention is that paintings will be put up along the common corridors as visual markers of their locations, especially for residents with dementia or memory problems. Donor names will be added to the paintings, so contributors have a sense of belonging to the home,” says Taher. (He encourages T Singapore readers to donate).

Courtesy of Aamer ArchitectsThe architect Aamer Taher.
The architect Aamer Taher.

In addition to designing houses, restaurants and even hotels, Taher also dabbles in art. He paints on oil, canvas and even on the walls of client’s houses if they so desire. He has also created many pottery works in the past. He began learning the craft shortly after graduating from the Architectural Association in the London School of Architecture, while he was on a one year break after completing the programme. “After an intense and rather mind-blowing three years there, I needed to clear my head and find my own calling. Pottery gave me a sense of peace and sensuous materiality. Seeing form coming out of a wet lump of mud shaped by your bare hands is incredible. I’ve stopped doing pottery, and most of my works are given away to friends but it was a good hobby while it lasted, and maybe I’ll get back to it someday,” says Taher.

What is your day like? How much do you sleep, and what’s your work schedule?

These days with Covid-19  in the air, my week is split between alternate days in the office and working from home. I get the usual eight hours of sleep every day, only a cup of coffee for breakfast and usually no lunch. I try to take in a healthy dinner after an hour of working out which is either on the stationary bike, in the squash court or in the swimming pool in my condo. 

How many hours of creative work do you think you do in a day?

Creative ideas are unpredictable. They may come at odd times and they may last the whole day and sometimes the night. When I have a good idea, I tend to get so immersed in it that I may forget to eat or sleep.

What’s the worst studio you ever had?

My very first project was done in the confines of the little bedroom of my old flat with noisy neighbours and no air conditioning. But good food was easily available from the coffee shop downstairs. 

How do you know when you’re finished with a work?

For architecture, it’s easier to know when it’s done. The plans are working well in meeting the client’s brief and lifestyle, the form looks good in terms of shape and proportion, and it feels like it could be achieved within the budget. In art, however, you are never done. You really have to force yourself to stop. This becomes a conundrum when you see architecture as art, as I do. 

Courtesy of Aamer Architects“Bullfight”, a painting by Taher.
“Bullfight”, a painting by Taher.

How many assistants do you have?

We are a small boutique office of about ten to twelve consisting of people with multiple roles, as architects and managers. My main role is to come up with the concept designs which then gets vetted for planning and building compliance by our team before going into presentation drawings which includes renderings and 3D modelling. We are a close-knit team, and usually everyone pitches in. 

Is there a meal you eat on repeat while you’re working?

I often skip meals during work. 

What is the weirdest object in your studio?

On display in the lobby of our studio office, is an antique baby cannon from Dutch colonial times which I found in an old shop in the famous Jonker Street in Malacca, Malaysia. It is only 2 feet long. It’s weird that this little thing could actually fire a cannonball. 

What music do you play when you’re working?

Usually I don’t play music while working. It can detract from the concentration needed. 

Are you binge-watching any shows right now?

None right now, but I was bingeing on Netflix a Korean series called “Itaewon Class” recently and loved it for the interesting characters and storyline. I liked the insight into Korean youth culture. 

If you have windows, what do they look out on?

At home, all my windows have views to greenery. I find it extremely calming to occasionally just stare at plants and trees. All our past offices had little gardens. In the current office, I missed having greenery, so I installed a bunch of fake plants, crowed together to form a vertical garden. I pretend they are real. 

Courtesy of Aamer ArchitectsOne of the many pots Taher has crafted from his pottery pastime.
One of the many pots Taher has crafted from his pottery pastime.

What do you bulk buy with most frequency?

I like to bulk up on fruits in the refrigerator and make smoothie drinks by blending several fruits together, sometimes with yoghurt, but mostly with orange juice. They are my only dessert after dinner. 

What’s your worst habit?

Smoking. Got to quit! 

What embarrasses you the most?

I sometimes embarrass myself with my silly spontaneity. I’ve grown to realise that one has to think carefully before spilling out words, but then such self-control is meant for politicians, not artists. 

Do you exercise?

Yes. Swim, squash and cycle. 

What are you reading?

“Why the Dutch are Different” by Ben Coates. I co-own an apartment in Holland and often spend my summers there. I hope the book will make me understand the Dutch better in spite of their weird food and language. 

What’s your favourite artwork (by someone else)?

Vincent Van Gogh has to be my favourite artist. I must have visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam a dozen times but I still cannot fully apprehend the source of his amazing creativity. To come face to face with an original Van Gogh is like entering his complex, disturbed mind. You may see the same painting many times, and many times, you see something else, like another bit of the painting that jumps out at you. It’s utterly amazing. My favourite is his painting of blue irises.