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Interview with Melvin Keng: Making the common uncommon


 

What do you do when you’re trying to have a fresh new take on life but you’re too comfortable with the familiar? You call in the cavalry who can remake the familiar into something exciting. You call Melvin Keng.


Founding principal architect at Kaizen Architecture, Melvin’s been leading this young practice of four folks since 2019 (yes, just prior to Covid-19 lockdowns). He’s got 11 years of architecting under his belt, amongst which he has worked for such illustrious companies such as RT+Q Architects Pte Ltd, residential home specialists, under Rene Tan. Kaizen Architecture does everything from Architecture to Interiors to Furniture.

Melvin’s a busy individual, but we managed to ambush him for this interrogation interview.

 

Every artist has their humble beginnings. What was yours? What got you into architecture?

Myself. My parents didn’t encourage architecture (laughs). At the time when we were deciding on courses at university, we had a neighbour who was one. Life was hard for him. He worked long hours and didn’t get to see much of family. My mom said that shouldn’t be the trajectory I should be heading for. My parents wanted me to take up biomedicine or bioscience instead. Most parents did at the time.

That said, I applied for architecture as my first choice anyway, against their wishes (laughs), and biomedical/bioscience as my second. I didn’t get my first choice, to my parents’ delight. However, I finally got in after I secretly reapplied for architecture the following year. I don’t know if that’s considered humble (laughs).

 

What did your parents think?

At the end of the day, I think most parents would respect what their children have decided on. But, obviously, mine weren’t too pleased. If I had continued on with biosciences, I would probably be in pharmaceutical research by now. And earning more too (laughs). However, I’ve always imagined myself to be in design in some way. When I was young, I would draw burning buildings and firemen saving them. I also studied art. I was from Victoria School and took the art elective. When it came to university, there wasn’t really a specific design course, but there were two design-related courses; architecture and industrial design.

 

So it all started with drawing buildings on fire?

(Laughs) Followed by pursuing art at school.

 

Photo credit : Khoo Guo Jie (Ally Singapore)


Where did you end up studying at?

The majority of my education was at the National University of Singapore – the Architecture School. Then I did a short stint at Melbourne University in an exchange programme. The university has an amazing campus. Super beautiful. At the time, around 2006, I felt that Melbourne was the design capital of the region. It was eye-opening. Every shop there had a concept. There was this brand, Crumpler, and they had shops everywhere but each one was different. One which I stepped into had a carpet of grass throughout the shop. For me, Australia was really cool.

 

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

In school, I was still figuring things out, so I didn’t really have anyone that I looked up to. Not even historical figures. However, I was very fascinated by Japanese modern contemporary architecture, but that was about it.

It was only after I graduated that I got a mentor that I really look up to – Rene Tan. He was a huge inspiration. We’re still friends now even after moving on. I’m a big believer in a “master and student” relationship, especially in architecture, to help build up your skills, mentality, and exposure. He was my historical basis reference point on how architecture can be perceived. It was then that I was inspired by the modern greats like Mies van der Rohe and Richard Meier – people who gave birth to modernism.

 

Speaking of inspiration, what’s the inspiration behind your Instagram layout?

We’re very fortunate enough to have had someone who’s very good at social media. Instagram can be a medium to show nice photos, but it should be a way to tell stories. In our practice, it’s not just about good work or design. Can it be expanded beyond the physical space into the digital space? It has to tell a story.

 

Photo credit : Khoo Guo Jie (Kernel Furniture Showroom)


What would you say was your first real foray into architecture?

People would naturally say that their first build is their proudest or most important because it’s the first one they did. However, to me, the first one I was truly proud of was one I completed in 2016. I had been in the company since 2010, so it took me six years before I found a project that I could really say I was most happy with. It was a bungalow off Holland Road. It was called the House with Shadows.

 

Sounds ominous.

It’s actually quite poetic. It’s a house that’s really brought to life when light streams in. You won’t miss this house if you Google it up. At the time, the company principal didn’t micromanage projects, especially when you’re matured enough, so you could express yourself. The House with Shadows project was an expression of who I am as a person and how I approach architecture and materials.

Photo credit : Kaizen Architecture (Good Chance Popiah)

 

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


As a practice, Kaizen looks at three aspects. 


First, we are precedent researchers. We go back and focus on the fundamentals of architecture and design. Scale, proportion, and composition are things that you can’t mess with. They are what we fall back on which makes for good use of space and design. 

Second, with the fundamentals in place, we consider how we can create a different perspective on the common. For example, when we were designing a popiah place, we didn’t just create a place that sold popiah. We asked ourselves, “Could we make this like a ramen stall in Kyoto?” That’s not the usual association but it presents interesting alternative results. It’s not to say that we’re trying to break the norm, but we always thinking about alternatives to familiar things.

 

Lastly, by extension of the previous two points, like our namesake, we practice “kaizen”: that we’re always improving. The word came from Toyota when they were trying to rethink the way their business would run. We adopted the word to mean that we improve how people perceive how they live and see spaces.

For any project, we keep these three ideas in mind.


Photo credit : Fabian Ong (Ribbon Apartment)

 

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

Anywhere. However, my most interesting ideas come when I’m in the shower. Sometimes we get stuck looking at a problem. That’s when I tell my staff that we’ll all go back and think about it. For days, we might not get an answer and then oddly, a spark happens when I’m showering. That’s when something always appears and usually it’s the day before a presentation. My poor team, I have to thank them for bearing with my idiosyncrasies because we’d be toiling over a project and it’d be my last-minute shower-idea that gets selected.

 

Personally, I’m very into the culture around us. When I say that, it’s not the pretentious thing where you go to museums to enjoy art. I’m talking about pop culture. What’s happening around us? Can we get inspired by the latest TV show, like Squid Game? People don’t think about it that way. Sometimes, when you see things, it gets digested and comes out in a different way, so I don’t limit myself to where I get my inspiration from. Just by living, you’ll experience many things. They may seem very superficial, but they can turn out to mean something.

 

Photo credit : Khoo Guo Jie (Terrace Flat)


Is Kaizen an advocate for sustainable design?

That's a very broad question, to be honest! As part of our design process, we consider issues that help to feed the larger picture of Singapore’s Green Plan. When we interview our clients, we also intentionally ask questions that get them to think about sustainable choices. In that sense, we are advocates for sustainable design and materials, but it's not necessarily our starting point. An example of that would be the design of my own home – Terrace Flat. We stripped away as much of the final finishings as possible as a means to reduce the carbon footprint and emissions within a single project. So while we won't label ourselves a sustainable design practice, we always consider sustainability.

 

What is one advice you’d like to give to up and coming architects?

Be very intentional about your life and choices in design. That doesn’t mean micromanaging. Whatever you do, if there’s an intention behind it, it has to be expressed. It should be apparent in the design you do.


Posted on 27th May 2022


Kenny Tan,

SiXiDES Writer

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