Singapore’s Studio Sabana crafts a gallery-inspired home caught between the sea and sky
The commission to renovate this 185-square-meter condominium unit in the upper reaches of Daniel Libeskind’s Reflections at Keppel Bay is a plum project designers would die for. The seaside location and resulting 270-degree sea views are obvious plusses; and, the asymmetrical floor plan and slanted windows—a given with the angular geometries design maverick Libeskind is known for—allows the designer to showcase his space-planning chops. The owners’ profile is intriguing, too: a retired couple with a penchant for traveling and design and a beguiling collection of art, furniture, and travel keepsakes. The budget was also a non-issue.
The recipient of this prized commission was already decided from the day the homeowners were handed the keys to their new home. In the owners’ minds, who better to enlist than the designer they’ve worked with frequently and whose intimate knowledge of their wants and needs goes back to 1997? This long-time collaboration began when Studio Sabana co-founder Michael Cu Fua was then an architect for a renowned Singapore practice. Fast-forward to twenty-three years later, the Filipino-Singaporean architect-artist finds himself, along with co-partners Eric Ong and Shi Mari Moreno, at the beck and call of a familiar collaborator.
Reflections at Keppel Bay is located in historic Keppel Harbor, once the breeding ground of pirates but now a busy nautical highway for ships and ferries plying the stretch of sea between Pulau Brani and the resort island of Sentosa. The only marauding happening now is the fight to nab a cut out of this prime piece of real estate, one Cu Fua was glad his clients were able to secure. “It was a beautiful experience walking around the development, and I am happy my clients picked such an inspiring location for their new home. Designing within the iconic, undulating towers of Libeskind was also a treat!”
Of the unit’s virtues, Cu Fua was enamored with the sea views most. “I fell in love with the breathtaking Sentosa and Mt. Faber views. Imagine having breakfast or dinner with such sights. It is the first thing about the unit that reels you in.” Unique to the development’s units and a product of Mr. Libeskind’s architectural acrobatics are the asymmetrical floor plans, with flooring finished in milky-white marble from the living area to the bathrooms. Warm wood flooring anchors the more private spaces. The panoramic windows slant in at an angle, a boon or a bane depending on who you speak to. Corner pillars are at the mercy of the tower’s claw-like shape, its slant dependent on how high up your space is at the six-tower development.
The owner’s brief for the 36th-floor unit was pretty straightforward: for the designer to enhance and not undermine the sea views, first and foremost, while orchestrating order between the space and the owners’ prized collections. The next, a non-negotiable item in the brief, is to reuse and upcycle several key pieces from the owners’ much-beloved old home into their new one, which entails reusing and extending their favorite dining table, reintegrating the marble top of a previous study table, and reupholstering a two-decade-old B&B Italia sofa that used to lord over their living area. With these key instructions in mind, Studio Sabana quickly got to work.
At home in the gallery
Studio Sabana’s Cu Fua and his crew penned a clean, gallery-like space for the unit’s open-plan living and dining area, whose predominantly white surfaces are offset by natural timber hues from several anchor pieces within the space. “I used lighter shades of wood for them to blend in into the space and not stick out too much,” Cu Fua adds. This led to one of the showcase pieces, the suspended dining table top from the owners’ old apartment, being stripped and naturally stained to blend with the other wood tones.
The furniture pieces and artworks are arranged into neat little ‘islands’ across the area, lending it that curated gallery feel. However, unlike your usual white box gallery, you have a 270-degree outdoor view to contend with, which, for some, can be a little overwhelming to take in. Is the view the focal point? Is it the backdrop? Studio Sabana answers that it’s both—depending on which vignette island you are within the space, the view shifts in character from major to minor role depending on the activities one can do in a specific nook and cranny. One can lounge in the reupholstered sofa with a good book and coffee in hand while allowing the morning sun to light the pages. One can host about ten good friends for dinner at the 3.78-meter long dining table and Mattiazzi dining chairs while the city lights provide a dazzling backdrop to an evening of chatter and playful banter. Or, one can simply soak in the city views through the telescope situated near the corner of the living area. When the view (and the heat) does get a little too much, a state-of-the-art motorized roller blinds system, following the slanted angle of the window, can be deployed to blur the views and keep out the sun.
In terms of artistic bounty, the living space is not lacking in attractions and has both fine art and travel memorabilia to astound even the most traveled guests. Large, surrealistic portraits by Jin Shi and Indonesian artist Liddy hang framed beside a living room wall and near the MisuraEmme floating bookshelf, presaging the artistic showcase the space hosts. Antique chests and meditation chairs from China are styled together with pottery from renowned Singaporean potter, Iskandar Jalil, alongside other memorable keepsakes from Bali, Turkey, and Tibet. The artistic piece-de-resistance of the living area however has got to be the 1.5 by 1.5-meter portrait of Mao Tse Tung by Ren Zhenyu looking uncharacteristically jovial and upbeat. Further amplifying the space’s gallery feel is the integration of a state-of-the-art lighting system, which can be controlled by a smartphone, helping dim and focus lighting fixtures on specific objects and corners.
In contrast to the wonderfully eclectic living and dining spaces, the study is a bit more sedate and business-like: a glass-topped wooden table anchors the 18.34-square meter wood-floored space with a Chinese cabinet fronting it. Framed artworks hang on the wall while a single floor-to-ceiling window provides both natural light and views. One dissenting element within the space comes in the form of a wedge-shaped cantilevered table, projecting from the slanted column behind the office desk and tapering to a point as it touched the opposite wall, bisecting one’s view of the windows. The original setup as planned by Cu Fua had the study table fronting the window but the owner decided that he wanted to keep his city views. While not as loud and monumental in size as the vividly-colored artworks in the living area, the study houses a prized set of paintings of monks by renowned Southeast Asian watercolorists: Malaysia’s Chang Fee Ming and Burmese artist Min Wae Aung.
For the more private spaces like the master and guest bedrooms, the owners were a little more specific about their needs, especially with regards to their beds. Having worked with the couple in two previous projects where they requested a similar setup: a simple shikifuton atop a recessed timber platform, Cu Fua got to work on this third iteration; however, there was more of a challenge this time around. The owners, ardent admirers of Japanese culture, wanted to integrate tatami mats on the recessed platform housing the bed in the master’s suite. “Our bedroom is our favorite space! we were a little nervous in ordering the tatami mats; what we have are customized sizes. Normally they come in standard sizes and very few makers in Tokyo can customize and accommodate our specific measurements. It’d have been a problem because our rooms are never sized based on the number of tatami mats (as is the case in Japan), and if the platform was not detailed and built perfectly, the mats could have been wasted,” the owners recounted.
The bedrooms are spartan and sparingly decorated just as the owner wanted it, with a few choice artworks and only the most essential of furniture; the only gestures of extravagance within the space come in the form of windows; one offering views into the outside world and the second one peering into the master’s bathroom.
Every commission is not without its challenges. For Cu Fua and his partners at Studio Sabana, it was mostly a matter of timeline and coordination. For starters, the contractor was only allowed to work from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm, on Mondays to Fridays, with no work on weekends to avoid disturbing the neighbors. And then there was Cu Fua’s itinerant setup.
“Oh, this project wouldn’t have been completed on time without the wonders of modern technology!” Cu Fua says with a laugh. “Coordination was mostly done via WhatsApp, countless emails, and numerous Facetime sessions. I was in Manila most of the time during the project’s construction and could only go onsite in Singapore during weekends. It doesn’t help that our contractor’s carpentry workshop is based in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, but against all odds, we managed to do a timely hand-over with no major hiccups! Imagine if the project was delayed up to February and our project got caught in the March lockdown? My goodness!”
The existing rapport between designer and client surely helped as the project was able to abide by its projected timeline with relative ease. The final design was approved in December 2019. Renovation work lasted a month, with handover to clients taking place early February 2020, just in the nick of time before the March 2020 COVID-19 lockdown.
Space to feel
For people who were used to arrivals and departures and journeying into the unknown, the couple behind this unit finds their arrival at Reflections at Keppel Bay a bittersweet moment; they loved their previous apartment space, also designed by Cu Fua, but had to give it up unwillingly after the development it was in had a successful en-bloc sale (collective sale of property by its residents to a developer for redevelopment) and they were outnumbered. Singapore has had recent controversial en-bloc sales, one of which lead to the demise of an important architectural landmark, architect Tan Cheng Siong’s Pearlbank Apartments. Just last year, the infamous Golden Mile Complex, a brutalist landmark, was up for a second en-bloc bid; a recent development thankfully had this revolutionary structure in consideration for conservation. En bloc sales are simply inevitable events especially in a land-stricken nation like Singapore, but it also brings to the table the ability of architecture to impact lives beyond mere sheltering. Are walls the only things being demolished when a structure meets the wrecking ball?
Studio Sabana, for all the previous connections and existing rapport with the homeowners, actually had a more urgent and difficult task ahead when they took on the project in that they had to create, beyond a mere place to stay, a home. When I asked the homeowners what they thought of the space after nearly a year in, they responded: “After we moved in, we were made aware of the broader impact design has on a given space; it becomes important to see design as not just about usability, but also about feelings. We don’t just want a space that works, we want to feel happy while using them.” Cu Fua describes a moment after project completion when the homeowners invited him and his wife for dinner, “They (the couple) were so happy and grateful! My wife and I were their first guests over for dinner. They cooked and baked the whole afternoon and we ate and talked and laughed. It was honestly the best ‘thank you’ I’ve received for a project.”
One way to gauge a project’s success is when its designer can find nothing more to change after its completion. “I wouldn’t change a thing, promise!” Studio Sabana’s Michael Cu Fua offers with certainty. It appears his clients wouldn’t want to either.