Architect Chan Soo Khian, the Prestige Titan Award 2020 winner, adds another feather to his cap with his latest philanthropic project to revolutionise green accommodation. Mavis Teo gets under the skin of the entrepreneur.
The 25th anniversary of SCDA Architects is more than just a significant milestone; it comes as the culmination of its past two decades of achievements, innovation and global expansion. If the measure of success is in how it is widely recognised and admired by many even outside of the world of architecture and property development both locally and globally, then indeed, this home-grown firm has hit the home run.
The man behind it is none other than the founder and principal architect Chan Soo Khian, who is better known as Soo Chan. He won the inaugural President’s Design Award’s Designer of the Year honour in 2006. Under his leadership, SCDA (Soo Chan Design Associates) snagged the Design of the Year accolade for the National Design Centre in 2016. The firm is also known for spearheading some of our nation’s most beautiful ultra-luxury developments, such as The Marq and Leedon Residence.
More recently, Soo Khian was thrust into the limelight again when SCDA was awarded the revamp of Singapore Art Museum. Needless to say, international accolades have been aplenty – some of these bestowed by the American Institute of Architects and the Royal Institute of British Architects.
Today, SCDA’s projects in Singapore only account for 10 per cent of its portfolio. Ninety per cent of it is in another 79 cities across six continents. In New York, Soo Khian is hailed as Singapore’s hottest export. Out of SCDA’s three projects in the metropolis, press the likes of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal headlined the launch of uber-luxe Soori High Line through in-depth interviews with Soo Khian.
Through Soori High Line’s design, SCDA stretched the imagination of homebuyers in the Big Apple by conjuring the image of a lavish mansion in an urban apartment block – with a stunning design that incorporates a terrace, high ceilings, natural light and a private pool (at 16 of the 31 units).
Another reason for the media buzz is that SCDA is also the developer for Soori High Line. This earned Soo Khian the label of a developer in New York, although he is quick to dismiss that. “First and foremost, I am an architect and designer,” states the trim and dapper 58-year-old at SCDA’s four-storey office in a Chinatown conservation shophouse. We beg to differ. Chan Soo Khian is clearly a lot more than these labels. SCDA has, under Soo Khian’s direction, grown to become known as one of the few multidisciplinary firms in Singapore to provide clients a holistic experience for architecture, interiors, landscaping, and furniture and product design. In addition to serving as a professor at the National University of Singapore Department of Architecture where he sits on the curriculum advisory board, the Penang-born Soo Khian also runs a mentorship programme for undergraduates from Washington University in St Louis where he earned his bachelor’s degree (his master’s is from Yale University). And did we mention he’s also a hotelier?
Together with his wife Ling Fu, Soo Khian owns and runs the Soori Bali resort, which is an hour’s drive from the airport away from the usual tourist spots of Seminyak and Ubud. Soo Khian is the developer, designer for the landscape (and even graphics for the hotel’s collateral), and it seems, marketing lead as well. So involved is he that he threw himself into the recent Virtuoso Travel Week, a high-level international symposium for the luxury travel trade industry, staying up until the wee hours of the morning for virtual meetings with member travel agencies and buyers.
Also a Leading Hotels of the World member, the 48-key resort was under the Alila management and branding for several years before Soo Khian felt it was time, in 2017, to reclaim his passion project and give it its unique identity with a stunning relaunch. His love for it is palpable as he shares how Ling and him chose the beachfront site near the Tanah Lot temple, built on it and their work to promote cultural sustainability, improve the lives of the people from the surrounding village of Kelating (who make up 85 per cent of the workforce), and provide for them during the pandemic when tourism is at a standstill.
Rewriting the future
Meanwhile, the entrepreneur has embarked on plans to build more hotels. One is Soori Niseko in Hokkaido, while a new hotel is being developed on some of the unused space on the 10.4ha estate of Soori Bali. Soo Khian’s not-for-profit project called The Tenda (Bahasa Indonesia for tent) will form the basis for this hotel’s accommodation. The Tenda turns shipping containers into lodgings that run completely off the grid while being powered by solar roofs. “Therefore, it has zero carbon footprint.”
Soo Khian is currently working on the prototype in Singapore and hopes to have the first pilot run in Bali next year. “It will be a counterpoint to Soori Bali in terms of pricing and not having the frills but is still elegant design-wise,” he says of the “rooms”.
“I have a goal to put together low-key, sustainable accommodation, and I feel the time is act on it now,” says Soo Khian when asked why he’d be interested in designing The Tenda when he has always been associated with luxury. “The Tenda at 2.4m by 2.4m by 6m is so elemental; it is the opposite of what I have been doing all my career,” adds Soo Khian, who confesses he is drawn to the idea of taking all the things he has been doing and simplifies them into a small volume of space without compromising the minimum requirements of comfort, such as air conditioning, so he can stay in it as well.
There are altruistic objectives too: to inspire travellers into thinking of new ways of caring for the planet and supporting the local community. If successful, The Tenda will travel beyond Singapore and Bali. Right now, SCDA is speaking with charitable organisations about using it at their outreach locations. “The Tenda is easily replicable as the interiors can be fitted out according to different needs.” So committed is Soo Khian to these causes that he formed an offshoot company under SCDA called the SCDA Lab that devotes time to thinking of sustainable building and design ideas.
Coming up with ways to make the world a better place for all is not just something that will be nice to think about for Soo Khian. While SCDA is designing Parley for the Oceans’ research centre in the Maldives, Soo Khian is also a board member of the environmental organisation that raises awareness for the protection of the oceans. “I believe there are always new solutions to sustainability so I joined Parley to discuss and to develop ideas.”
“Dream, discuss and develop” seems to be the process behind many of Soo Khian’s endeavours. Except that he turns the dreams into reality and the endeavours into phenomenal successes. He calls his tendency to do everything (as with Soori Bali) a wish to connect the seemingly disparate
dots. Or one can simply say Soo Khian is the architect who goes beyond designing the floors and the walls, to include the experiences as well. His calm and measured demeanour probably belies a fierce determination and strict discipline that enables him to stay on track while juggling concurrent projects.
Despite the pandemic, SCDA still has its elbows deep in overseas projects though these days discussions and meetings are done via Zoom. “The projects commissioned this year are from China, which I believe will continue to be the source of new work as it recovers faster from the pandemic than other countries,” he says.
A few weeks after the interview, I catch up with Soo Khian again at his home during the photo shoot. I meet Ling, who is the designer for Llora, the uber-luxe handbag label she founded and for which Soo Khian provides a sounding board (and contributes to the look book). Soo Khian seems more at ease while being interviewed this time. As he defers to Ling on all styling matters (he clearly values her opinions on aesthetics) and smiles easily for the camera at her cajoling, I see a softer, private side to the focused and driven visionary.
(Images of Soo Chan: Photography: Joel Low | Art Direction: Aaron Lee | Hair: Michael Lim/kim Robinson | Make-up: Zoel Tee | Photography Assistance: Alfie Pang; all other images courtesy of Soo Chan/CDA Architects)