Andrew identifies as a tea aficionado. Liang En identifies as a coffee enthusiast. Despite their differences in beverage preferences, the two National University of Singapore (NUS) architecture students have forged a strong friendship since beginning their course in 2020, taking a curious interest in each other’s respective hobbies, and openly sharing their craft and interest with each other over a drink (tea or coffee, it doesn’t really matter).
But this is not a story about beans or leaves. This is a story about how it is through such sharing, common goals, and mutual respect that the two friends came together to form multidisciplinary design collective Studio Archipelago, finding strength in their differences, and emerging as an A-team of architects and designers ready to take the world by storm with their youthful energy, fresh ideas, and can-do attitude.
Including both Andrew and Liang En, Studio Archipelago comprises six members, all students at NUS’ College of Design and Engineering (CDE) and fellow Tembusu College residents, each with their own individual specialisations and interests. “We’ve all been staying in close proximity to each other, in Tembusu for the past two years, and share similar ideas that came up in the many conversations we’ve had,” says Andrew, on the origins of Studio Archipelago. “We didn’t intend to form a company initially – it really was just us being friends.”
According to Andrew, the name Archipelago came about because of how the group wanted to express how each of them was an individual in their own right, yet, are somehow connected to or influenced by each other, reflecting the way they collaborate with one another, similar to how an archipelago of islands is considered a single cohesive unit. “We do have very distinct interests and directions as designers; after all, the field is itself very diverse, with so many different ways to approach it,” says Andrew. “Some of us are interested in fashion, some in construction, and that individuality is what we each bring to the table whenever we embark on collaborations.”
Studio Archipelago has recently come into the spotlight with their inaugural exhibition – Liminal Matters, curated by Andrew Lee Ruo Zun, Wang Liang En and Mitch Teh De Xiang, which is currently running till 6 February. The twist? It’s being presented at Parklane Mall carpark, which the team took over for the duration of the exhibition, and transformed into a viable space for the guerrilla-style project. “We dwelled on the name for a long time,” says Liang En. “We started off just wanting to present architectural models in an exhibition with a public education slant, where we were creating this platform of student-initiated, ground-up work, free from red tape and the politics of competing institutions. It was to show people what architecture was about, and introduce members of the public to the world of architecture, and how the space you interact with goes a lot deeper.”
Amidst the multiple draft titles the team attempted to come up with, one which stands out is ‘Dark Room’, referencing the development of a photo. “Architecture shouldn’t be taken as a holier than thou discipline. There is a lot of hard work and process, and rationality involved when pursuing architecture,” says Liang En. “Photographers develop photos in a dark room, where they put the film roll in, and photos come out. To those not in the know, it’s like magic. But those that do know the process understand the amount of experience and skill that goes into it, and in the same way, we wanted to show the public the process behind the architecture ‘dark room’, and show them the rigorous design work that goes into it.”
After running a survey on the students around them however, it turned out not many people understood the photographic connotation, or didn’t even know what a dark room was. Undeterred, that led to the team thinking on the idea of liminality, where they considered the carpark as a liminal space, and how architectural models are liminal, in that they simply serve the purpose of presentation before being put into storage and often, never see the light of day again. “Models are very utilitarian, and in school, we spend so much time, effort and money to build these models, but you use them once and then that’s that,” says Liang En. “What we try to put across here is that the models don’t just serve their role in the project, but are a key part of the design process. We’re here to celebrate what we can draw from the model itself and free it from the liminality, which then leads to a good variety of conversations surrounding this.”
While there was some debate within the team over whether the name would work, all it took was a few days for the name to grow on them, and the initial doubts slowly gave way to confidence. “You know, having six people working together, it’s always a learning process as to how we converse and work together, on how much to give and take and navigate the friction,” says Andrew. “But ultimately, it’s the clash of perspectives that develops our direction, and that can sometimes be so exciting.”
“Of course, it can be frustrating in the heat of the moment, with creative people being very opinionated, but I don’t blame them for it, it’s all part of the process,” says Liang En. “There’s always that degree of mutual trust that sees us through to the end; maybe they may not totally believe in the exhibition, and sometimes, the scepticism helps put things into perspective to help me see certain issues in the execution. But above it all, they trust me, and trust the group, and that we’re doing this together for a reason, something I’m so grateful for.”
In taking the project off the ground, Studio Archipelago received support from local architecture studio Zarch Collaboratives, where founder Randy Chan offered them the opportunity to use the carpark, as well as financing the project before taking a step back and allowing Studio Archipelago free rein to do as they will. “From the beginning, it was always a Studio Archipelago project, supported by Zarch,” says Andrew. “Randy made it clear about what our respective responsibilities were; from the beginning he already told us this – we are the voice and direction of the exhibition,with him providing financial support, logistics, and pooling resources. Otherwise, this was Liang En and Mitch’s project, while I was here to oversee it. It was up to us to generate interest and drive to push out this project and get it off the ground, and to that end, I think we did a good job.”
On their part, Studio Archipelago ensured that everything that went into the exhibition set-up was done properly and thoroughly, starting with the collection of architectural models that would be exhibited. “We sent out a Google form in our call for submissions, and requested that submitters answer the question – ‘what does this model mean to you’, and at what point it was meaningful or important to them,” says Andrew. “We weren’t going to use any artist labels to explain each model, so when visitors walked through, they would understand that there’s no right or wrong way to think about each model, and that they would hear each modelmaker’s voice. Most were more than happy to share their models for the exhibition.”
“We do share a personal relationship with some of the contributors, so on our end, we also did our due diligence to set up a CCTV and have gallery sitters, to ensure that the models aren’t damaged,” says Liang En. “People do tend to keep models they’re proud of, as if it’s their baby, and we were upfront that it was going to be in a carpark. Different contributors are here for different reasons; some aren’t interested in the discourse, and see it as an opportunity for exposure, or simply the passion for what they’re doing.”
If one visits the exhibition itself, one will find that the models occupy a small segment of the carpark, and are not spread out or arranged in any particularly artistic manner. The reason behind that, as Liang En explains, ties back to the aim of the exhibition, where the models are the highlight, and should be seen and appreciated in as non-disruptive a manner as possible. “The owners of the carpark were very generous and told us that if we wanted to use multiple levels, we were free to do so,” says Liang En. “But ultimately, we really wanted to do the models justice. At one point, we did consider going full guerrilla, like leaving them on the floor, but ergonomically, putting them on tables made the most sense, so people could just focus on the model without having to say squat down or climb up somewhere to look at them, where the experience would distract from the model itself.”
“We never had the intention to use the full carpark anyway, and we didn’t want to fill the space for the sake of filling it up,” he adds. “Yes, we did consider many grand plans for it, especially with how site conditions were so much more generous than what we were used to, but this really was an exercise in restraint, and setting boundaries. It was clean, minimalist and straight to the point, and by giving the models their own space, there was a kind of balance between that and leaving the space alone to let it speak for itself.”
At Liminal Matters’ opening night, the space exuded precisely the kind of underground, guerrilla vibe described; by virtue of its location, Parklane Mall is already in the less frequented part of Orchard, and its carpark a space that’s otherwise unremarkable. But take a lift up to the 8th storey, and you’ll find the models exhibited in a cosy, dedicated space, the kind of space that you encounter almost by chance. Its spatial curation forces you to get up close, and get to know each model displayed, as we read each description and check out the additional photos accompanying them, appreciating how the exhibition presented the process of trial and error in design, and how ideas underwent constant change and improvement from their infancy to final product.
The selected models weren’t necessarily things of beauty – student Darren Teo, for example, was experimenting with concepts of order and chaos, and dissolved foam blocks with chloroform to simulate architectural erosion. While unconventional in method, the results left the blocks in unique shapes, and proved useful for generating design ideas and new potential notions of what architecture could be.
As for the programme, Liminal Matters featured an impressive line-up of events, including sharing sessions about digital modelmaking by Joseph Lim, structural models by Shin Yokoo, and the use of models in architectural practice by Zarch. The programme even featured a performance art piece titled ‘Death of the Model’, where performer Ong Chan Hao invited those present to literally destroy Chan Hao’s own thesis models and take them to their grave, leaving behind only the faint memories and records, without having the thing itself. We’ll admit – there’s a certain joy in watching these seemingly random acts of destruction, but behind the violence, there seems to be a message: sometimes, we cannot be too precious about what we build, and we have to be willing to let go of the past to serendipitously birth something even better in future.
The night ended where the past met the present, and former and current architecture students held a dialogue session, clearly showing that the networks and communities have been laid out for the architecture scene. Starting on a clean slate is never an easy task, but Liminal Matters stays true to Studio Archipelago’s values of wanting to create work that means something to them, completely of their own accord, and running with the idea until it becomes a reality. In so doing, they have taken a small but significant step, proof that such projects can be done, and sparking belief in their own capabilities, perhaps inspiring even more of such work for future batches of students.
“Liminal Matters feels like a starting point for us, a seed that germinates into important conversation and discourse beyond the exhibition alone, and to make architecture more approachable to the general public” says Andrew. “It brings to the table a form of discourse and learning school may not be able to provide, the ability to contemplate and relook at our own work in comparison to others, and for Liminal Matters especially, to have an open and frank conversation with people around you.”
“In terms of success, I don’t think we have any specific metrics we can use to judge that,” says Liang En. “For me, it goes beyond the number of visitors, and even having seen opening night alone, it’s been a great success already, not just for people who come down and experience the exhibition, but for us, it’s been a fantastic opportunity, where we learnt a lot from it. That being said, I really hope people go to the exhibition and take away something for themselves. I believe in this for art education and outreach, and getting this done is a huge achievement, and it sets the tone of what can come next, to get the ball rolling, in terms of exploration and learning, and our own experience beyond school.”
The team did intend for the exhibition to go even bigger than it already was, but plans fell through when they realised it was not feasible. “Initially we had the idea of sustaining the exhibition with weekly panels and talks, but it’s not going to get any easier for us as the exhibition coincides with the current semester,” says Liang En. “The complexity of the topics we’re trying to discuss here, there just wasn’t sufficient time to explore more, but at least, we focused our efforts on opening night, and hope that it generates interest to explore further. I do believe that it’s beneficial not just to the architectural community but the Singaporean community at large.”
“We’ve had a few discussions on whether we want future editions, especially since this is an area we feel school exhibitions haven’t really covered, and is unique in that it has an underground and unpolished voice,” adds Andrew. “But it’s more important that the exhibition has something to say, rather than carrying it on year after year for the sake of it, which would then cause it to lose its spirit. And even if we’re not the ones to carry on with it, we would like to continue to support whatever the next version of this exhibition comes from, perhaps from a new group who does have something meaningful to add to the conversation.”
Bringing the conversation back to Studio Archipelago itself, the team’s work extends beyond Liminal Matters, such as interior work, and has in fact, received several accolades, including being one of the four finalists in the URA-REDAS spark challenge where they are currently in the midst of constructing their design which will then be displayed in the heart of Paya Lebar. “What drives us has always been that original energy we had as friends before formally becoming a company, where collaborations are very fast-paced, very energetic and the enthusiasm each of us brings drives us forward to a collective ambition,” says Andrew. “Some of our success really comes from members wanting to experiment with space or short term, temporary installations, driven by wanting to pursue our own innovation, craft and narrative that keeps our motivation going.”
Studio Archipelago does encounter occasional questions from clients when they realise that the team comprises students. “We’re not practising architects yet, and it can be a bit of a hindrance when talking to clients, even if some of the studios outside may not have as much proficiency as us, or we might already have more design experience than some studios,” says Andrew. “We do try to be sensitive, and understand why they’d be sceptical, but I believe that the projects with the most success are the ones where clients see how we provide a freedom to our design, and we bring more sensitivity and nuance to home. I believe that the clients who remained open to us pitching ideas to them are the ones that will be proud of their homes when they eventually move in.”
“It’s challenging putting yourself out there – your tutors already judge your work, and now clients, so it’s about being frank about what we’re providing,” says Liang En. We’re not architects or interior designers just yet, but we’re designers who are here to help realise certain dreams and ambitions, to help you create a nice home at competitive pricing.”
Of course, as students, Studio Archipelago is also constantly juggling their responsibilities to their clients and their schoolwork. “I do believe my first responsibility is to myself and family as a student, but while schoolwork is important, it’s not everything,” says Liang En. Doing this adds a lot more value in addition to what I am doing in school, like how on the job, we’re learning how to navigate client relationships and stakeholder management.”
“The grades do open doors for you, and there’s still a lot of importance for school,” adds Andrew. “But whatever the case, it’s an opportunity to explore and design, and to learn from tutors with far more experience than us – that’s when you learn. Schools shouldn’t be the defining moment for you, and doing outside work gives us a very different eye compared to when we do projects, like contemplating bigger design issues. All of this has helped shape my own philosophy, given me my own personal opinion and voice, and allowed me to learn to be true to myself.”
Both Andrew and Liang En do sincerely believe in the importance of school as a foundation, and in particular, see the tutors as their greatest assets, as students. “I do think we’re taken seriously as designers, and some of our tutors are our biggest supporters,” says Andrew. “Some of them will even help by giving their own suggestions and contacts; Liang En himself got to know Randy through school, and you really get to see this confluence of networks of people. When our professors came down to support us on Liminal Matters’ opening night, they were able to appreciate the work we put in, and they remain open to us exploring and experiencing all this to help in our learning process and growth.”
As for their own design philosophy, over the last two years, Andrew and Liang En have certainly been thinking about it. “We need to do away with the myth that the architect is descended from heaven, and that brilliant ideas come to him in his sleep,” says Liang En. “My personal take is that design is something that’s trained. It’s not just about talent, but it’s about having a critical, questioning eye that will naturally make you a good designer. That’s something that can be picked up.”
Liang En thinks back to the origins of Studio Archipelago, and in some strange way, is thankful for the pandemic for providing the circumstances with which they came together as a group, and the opportunity to literally knock on each other’s doors to look at each other’s work, and establish that casual interaction and friendship that led to their strong bonds. “I can honestly say that this is one of the best things to come out of the pandemic,” says Liang En. “During the lockdown in 2020, NUS introduced zoning, so only people within specific facilities would be allowed to interact with each other and mingle. We were clustered together at Tembusu, and all the architecture students were essentially working in very close proximity, forcing us to make friends with each other. And that has turned out for the best, because we’re so much tighter as a batch. The collective builds off each other’s enthusiasm and ideas and insight that have made this happen.”
But what of the future of Studio Archipelago? It seems that for now, the team will continue on the same trajectory, as they focus on school, take on projects, and carry on with their late night talks over coffee and tea, engaging in creative discourse and discussion. “Archipelago isn’t limited to the six of us, but also includes the much larger community of people we have ties with outside of the studio. While we form the core, we connect to a much larger network of ‘islands’, and provide the opportunity for collaboration,” says Andrew. “I’m not sure what our final direction is at the moment; we do anything that excites us, so whether or not it’s an issue later when we’re more established, that’s something to think about in the long term. All we’re doing for now is try to establish ourselves as designers, on top of our education, without pressure of making it our whole rice bowl.
“We do dream big and optimistically, and sometimes bring up the idea of how somewhere down the road, we might become an established studio, with a shophouse office and a cafe downstairs, where we can afford proper chairs and sit together,” he concludes. “What we have with Archipelago really is very special, and shows that it is entirely possible to run a design studio comprising friends. A group of friends that you can count on not just for moral support, but to also banter about our design work, and as an ‘archipelago’, to have this system of relationships with one another, this collaboration with one another that incites our greater ambition. Some ideas can only come about from a very close and nuanced collaboration that only friends can have, and it’s only when you explore a topic together that you get a deeper understanding of one another, and come together to create a meaningful project.”
Liminal Matters runs from 15th January to 6th February 2022 at Parklane Shopping Mall Level 8 Carpark. More information available here
Follow Studio Archipelago here, and get in touch with them at email@example.com