Save for a hyperactive squirrel leaping from branch to branch of a caesalpinia tree, it’s shaping up as a languid morning. David Liao’s two girls have been packed off to school. He’s done with pottering around the fruit and vegetable garden. All that’s left to do is sit by the pool with his coffee and ashtray, and enjoy the breeze. His off-Sixth Avenue retreat is seemingly so far removed from the bustle of city life that even his friends, who are visiting from abroad, have yet to emerge from the quaint single-storey guest house at the other end of the pool.
“Four years ago when Aamer [Taher] and I started working on this house, I was so busy flying here and there for work,” says the founding director of fashion purveyor Lianbee-Jeco, as his architect Taher and I sit nursing our cuppas. “But once the house was near completed, I semi-retired; and when we settled in, I completely retired. So believe me, being able to enjoy this house was all part of my plan.”
With its deep overhanging eaves, expansive verandas, whitewashed walls and striped bamboo blinds, Liao’s home bears all the hallmarks of a traditional black-and-white, except that his bungalow is completely brand new. Grounded in vernacular architectural principals, yet contemporary in expression, it boasts among other things an elevator, an underground karaoke room and an open-air bridge that crosses over the breadth of the 25-m swimming pool, joining the home’s foyer to its living spaces. Separating the main wing from the guest house is a turtle pond to the left and a fish pond to the right.
Without leaving his poolside seat, Taher points into the distance: “See how when you look that way, you only see the top of trees, like a forest? That’s why David likes it here. He loves being surrounded by greenery. When we started this project, he brought me to the [Singapore] Botanic Gardens to show me the type of landscaping he prefers.” That same visit, Liao, whose firm represents brands such as Braun Büffel and Renoma throughout the region, also had Taher look at EJH Corner House — a conservation status black-and-white, which used to house the Gardens’ assistant director until World War II — for inspiration.
A school kid when he first developed an appreciation for the colonial-era typology, Liao spent his vacation breaks repainting the striped blinds of black-and-white housing beside the former British Naval Base in Sembawang for $3.50 a day. “The Caucasians lived in such nice houses. To me, those homes were one of the icons of Singapore,” he says of the graceful old buildings.
“So coming from a Chinese-educated background and being exposed to the colonial environment, those two sides of me became the central themes of this house. The architectural style may be colonial, but the interiors are Chinese-inspired softened with contemporary touches,” says Liao, who together with wife Chen Li Qing, worked with Tay Hiang Liang of Design Basis on the home’s sophisticated yet unassuming decor, which allows his Asian art collection to share the spotlight.
In the open-concept living and dining areas, intricate Chinese woodcarving screens, lacquered in a chic muted grey, complement a selection of contemporary European furnishings chosen for their clean, simple lines. In the verandas, synthetic rattan chairs that hold up well in the tropical sun sit beneath faux vintage brass lamps sourced from the US. Upstairs, paintings by the likes of Wu Guanzhong, Henri Chen and Yu Lin are hung against stark white walls. And in the foyer, a large new embroidered work — based on a smaller Chinese shuimo painting of oxen by the mountainside commissioned by Liao 29 years ago — greets all who should walk in.
“This house is larger than the typical conservation black-and-white. You wouldn’t be able to find one with this much space. Even then, most are owned by the government and if you do manage to buy one, it’s on a 99-year or 60-year lease,” he says of his decision to build rather than wait for the right original to come along. Building from scratch also meant that Taher — an architect whose signature is in blurring the line between interior and exterior living spaces, be it by designing wall-less lavatories or putting gardens on rooftops — could flex his creative muscles in giving every room, including the basement entertainment room, its own private veranda or pocket of green.
“We tend to do very original projects,” says Taher who is currently working on a hilltop superhero-worthy lair at nearby Swettenham, a mixed high-rise development in Kuala Lumpur and master-planning work in Shenzhen. “So when David came to us, we did a lot of research…this is my only black-and-white project.”
“We have an agreement. He’s not to take on more black-and-white projects,” quips Liao, with a laugh.
“Well, we never do the same building twice.”
“You heard it. You’ll have to be our witness!” Liao turns to say to me.
Photographer / Edward Hendricks from CI&A Photography
This story was first published on 6 June 2014