Interview with Mark Teo: Every space a story

People tell stories. So do books. And if buildings could talk, they’d tell stories too. What’s that you say, Mark Teo? They can? Tell us more!


Mark Teo is an Assistant Professor at the Singapore Institute of Technology. He obtained his Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Melbourne and, later, attained a Master of Science in Environmental Management at the National University of Singapore. He has been involved in architecture and interior design projects in Singapore, Australia and Canada. In his ideal world, he would straddle both practice and academia where he gets to enjoy the challenges the real-world application and imaginative scenarios that academia affords.   


We managed to drag him into the spotlight just long enough to learn more about his story.


1. Every artist has their humble beginnings. What was yours? What got you into architecture and interior design?

(Laughs) My dad suggested that I should pursue architecture from a young age as I was always good with math and science, and I love to draw.


Oh? What kind of things would you draw?

(Laughs) I drew a lot on my textbooks in my younger days. Whatever was interesting. Largely robots and characters, whatever was the flavour of the month. Transformers. Mask. G.I. Joe. It was really getting excited about what I was seeing and then translating that into drawings.


Going back to your humble…

… beginnings, yes. When I was a little older, my dad began more serious conversations with me about what I might be interested to pursue as a career and suggested architecture because of my inclinations.


Inclinations? Tell me more!

There were five main occupations when I was growing up. I loved theatre but that didn’t quite fit into the traditional scheme. I definitely didn’t want to be an engineer or an accountant. Being a doctor or lawyer wasn’t impossible but, personally, I thought it was too much work. (Laughs). I saw the people around me (doctors and lawyers) and the amount of work they had to put in. I felt that Architecture, since I loved drawing and the arts, was a good fit for me. However, at the time, it was largely just a suggestion; it wasn’t until university that I fell in love with it.


I was always interested in people. In school, I loved human geography; understanding how societies and civilisations come together. Architecture gave me the avenue to connect those stories and express them in spaces.


Another thing that impacted me was my involvement in theatre since I was young. A large part of how I see the world was in stories and through narratives. Architecture and interior design allowed those stories to come together.


So what was the thing at architecture school that made you fall in love it?

No exams (laughs). I mean, initially it was the thrill of not having to sit for exams but you more than make up for it in projects and the late nights. However, it was people who saw the larger picture in architecture that got me excited. You learn to see architecture as a component of a larger fabric – the city and its society. It is reflective of culture. It’s very integrated. And that really excited me; it wasn’t a one size fits all kind of answer. There are so many different opportunities that are largely to do with expression, and that got me going.


2. Who is or was your inspiration in architecture and interior design?

I was fortunate have been introduced to Marcel Breuer at university. It was through his works that I fell in love with Modernism. My all-time heroes include Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn, and, more recently, Australian architects, Six Degrees, Vokes and Peters.


What made them stand out?

Marcel Breuer, Aalto, and Kahn were masters of modernism. That drew me because it was a very clean style and expression, with seemingly no baggage. Coming from Singapore, there’s a lot of Chinese expression and superstition – baggage. Modernism doesn’t have that baggage and there’s always a human element. It was exciting because they were exploring a lot of different things. Modernism was changing. For Aalto, it wasn’t just a building; it was the details and materiality. For Kahn, one building that particularly struck me was the Salk Institute, La Jolla, California. The way the building connected with the landscape, they were rooted with the surroundings. That got me excited because it wasn’t just a standalone building.


Six Degrees Architects in Melbourne did really interesting things that no one else was doing at that time. They were connecting the past with the future; connecting craft, how buildings were built, and materials that nobody else was doing in their generation. I was fortunate enough to have had one of the partners as my final year tutor. They were a hero firm that I wanted to work for.


After that was Vokes and Peters. Their work was new Tropical Modernism but very human centric in the way they created spaces and their use of materiality.


The common thread between all about them is people. Spaces aren’t just design for looks. It was really about understanding how lives unfold within those spaces they create. For Aalto, buildings had a larger role within society. If you look at Kahn’s Parliament for Bangladesh, he was trying to capture the spirit of the time and trying to inspire a new nation. The ethos for the architects and how that is revealed in their work – that’s what gets me going.


I mean it in the best when when I say your response is very academic.

(Laughs) I’m a purist but I’ve always wanted to straddle between academia and practice because they are two ends of the spectrum. It gives a good balance. Practice alone can get a bit dry after a while, dealing with clients’ nuances and demands, finances, time, and regulations, right? Academia allows you to imagine.


3. What would you say was your first real foray into architecture and interior design?

I would say building the stage sets for the drama productions that I was involved in as a teenager.


That’s surprising! Any one you were particularly proud of?

Well, I didn’t design the stage sets. It was more about exposure. My parents brought me to watch theatre productions all the time. In the early years, it was pretty standard. You get the backdrop, a painted one, and you get a few plants that you move in and out, right? If you needed to change the background, you just lifted one painted scene and drop in another. However, there were two particular productions that were seminal.


The first was Pinocchio, which I was involved in. The stage set was essentially a playground but it was designed so that it could function in multiple scenes. This was a big change in theatre for me. You get objects on stage and scene would revolve around them. I was fortunate that to be involved in both the acting AND helping out behind the scenes.


The second one was a production by The Theatre Practice but I don’t recall the name of the production. In traditional theatre, you face the stage and the actors face you – bi-directional. But in this one, the audience was on all four sides. The actors had to move around. The stage was there but there was no backdrop. That got me rethink about what space is.


How old were you when you got involved in theatre?

When I first started going for classes and performing, I was probably about 10. I got more serious when I was 13. Between 13 and 15, a lot of my time was spent in theatre.


Did you notice all that about spaces when you were a teen?

To be honest, all that was subconscious. It wasn’t exactly like a lightbulb moment but something I have looked back on in my later years. Good memories.


photo credit : Smithdesign and Vincent Lee of Vapourtrail Design 

4.  Every artist has their proudest work. What would you say yours is?

It would be the first house that I was able to take from conception to completion at the start of my career. It’s somewhere in the Koven area. It wasn’t the first house I was involved in and not the most glamourous when compared to my previous works. But this one was special. The clients were very different in terms of the family make up. We hit it off from the get-go and they gave me the opportunity to help craft spaces to enable the family to live the way the do.


photo credit : Smithdesign and Vincent Lee of Vapourtrail Design 

Could you describe how they lived?

What was really interesting was that the family gets together often on a daily basis. Even children who were married would come home for dinner. Very much a matriarchal household.


Recently, I had the chance to revisit the house and spoke with the client’s family who were still living there. We spoke fondly of when the house was first completed. I am proud to say that it has kept well and has welcomed the fourth generation of the family.


5. What guides your work? What would you say your design philosophy is?

My design is largely driven by the narratives of the users, who might simply be the occupants of a house or members of the community. My responsibility is to create an environment that allows the users to live out their stories.


Are stories a big part of your life? Where does it come from?

Yes. I do a lot of design innovation now. A large part of what we teach our students is being able to create a narrative to understand and explain to others what they’re doing. Stories are a natural tool to give context; it is a good tool to connect with people.


When I go through the work with my clients, we go through the process of working out what the house will look like in five, ten, fifteen, and twenty years. Perhaps more for architecture than interior design, we expect things to last for generations. We go through this to work out how the clients’ lives, individually and as a family, will unfold. I had a client who was only a year younger than myself. We went through an envisioning exercise where I walked through with him different possible moments in the house; from 5-year-olds running about during Lunar New Year; close friends visiting; quiet moments in the evening before retiring for the day. So, we designed the house according to different moments. The way I see it, these will be part of their stories and the spaces shape their memories. The kids who grow up will remember how they lived their lives as children. That’s why we try to design a house to accommodate different stages of their lives for them to make memories.


6. It is said that no idea ever comes from a vacuum. What inspires your work? Where do your ideas come from?

People and the environment.


That’s a lot of inspiration then. Any particular place that you draw it from? Do you record all your inspirations down?

I think I’m fortunate to have had an awareness from my younger days. Over time, it just builds up. You end up with a bank of memories and the awareness grows. You connect the dots between new things you see with the things you’re interested in. When I notice things, it’s not necessarily intentional but when you see it happening, you go, “Hey, that’s really cool.” We try to create enough bandwidth in our design for incidental moments like that.


7. As an advocate for sustainable design, how do you think being an architect and interior designer can help in saving the earth?

As designers, may it be for architecture or interior design, we are creators of solutions to make our environments better. We are bridge builders, bringing an imagined future into reality. Bringing the conversation back to reality, we are also a large part of the built environment ecosystem which is a major contributor to green-house gases and consumer of natural resources.


Have you always been an advocate for the environment? If not, what made you change?

Not always. Before going overseas, if you had asked me to go outside, I would’ve said no. In the army, the shocking moment was my first ever field camp. There was a torrential downpour so we’re ended up sitting on the muddy ground with our ponchos on. There was a dozen other places I wish I could’ve been in. However, there was a moment when it clicked and I thought, “This is how it is.” In Singapore, you can enjoy the rain but only when removed from it. I grew up in a house with a corrugated iron roof so rain was really nice because I could hear it. I’m dry and warm, and I could still enjoy the sounds of the rain. Suddenly, when you don’t have the distance, it can be uncomfortable. When I started architecture school at the University of Tasmania, there was a large environmental sustainability slant in the school’s ethos. It was an eye-opener for me. In Singapore, there’s very little hinterland. It’s tropical so it’s warm and humid with lots of insects. Growing up, I didn’t want to get my hands dirty. That was how I was brought up. Going to Australia was a paradigm shift. Everyone was connected to the landscape. Not just in terms of getting your hands dirty, but there was a real connection between people’s identity and the landscape. So, throughout university, that awareness grew.


When I came back to Singapore to practise, I was excited to bring that enthusiasm. I was excited by green walls and integrated landscapes but, in many ways, this ‘green’ wasn’t always practical. It doesn’t really work because it requires a lot of human intervention. It’s not natural. There’s a constant development on how to best reconnect our built environment to nature. How do we have less intervention in the built environment. How do we better live with nature? In many ways, Singapore has grown with the Green Plan. Singapore even changed its tagline. We used to call ourselves a Garden City, but in the last ten years, it’s changed to “City of the Garden”. That was pivotal in how we view our place. Rather than a manmade place with a garden, we are part of the garden.


Are there any examples of something with minimal human intervention?

I like Bishan Park. There are a lot of nature-based solutions there. It used to be a concrete canal which they renaturalised it into a waterway. It was also designed for flooding which made it a paradigm shift for the Singapore.


8. What is one advice you’d like to give up and coming interior designers?

We only have one planet and this is home to all of us. Expand your imagination and dare to dream bigger. We are all part of the solution no matter how big or small. What we do can serve as an inspiration to others.

Posted on 15th April 2022


Kenny Tan,

SiXiDES Writer


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