The House as Social Sculpture

Mark Wee of ONG&ONG offers a glimpse of how life is led and a sense of family forged among residents staying in a unique multi-tenanted dwelling in Singapore. Yvonne Xu writes

17 Dec 2015

Photography by Jaume Albert Marti

The Crane Houses are composed of six self-contained, apartment-style units set inside two joined shophouses in the east of Singapore. Designed to be multi-tenanted, with additional communal spaces and shared amenities available within the conservation shophouse building type, they offer a unique residential experience in Singapore.


The project, a thoughtful outcome by Mark Wee (lead architect) and Ken Yuktasevi (lead interior designer) of the Experience Design team at OX:D, ONG&ONG, understands the home as the embodiment of interiority; that is, as the private, inward retreat; but also of its exteriority as a part of an ensemble that is the neighbourhood.

Their designers see the houses as a ‘social sculpture’, where no less than the anthropological intricacies of daily living – personal routines and chance social encounters, self-sufficiency and neighborliness, privacy and vigilance, local customs and international cultures – have been closely considered in the design process.


The initial design intention was to find an reinterpretation of the multi-generation family shophouse residence for the client. This expanded into a design exploration for a multi-tenanted residential experience when the owner decided to rent out the space first and have his family move in in the future. In addition to it being flexible enough to first function as a unique rental offering and then be returned to the family as their home, the owner and the designers wanted the house to present a sense of social and emotional engagement for its residents and guests. The client also subsequently acquired a second shophouse next door, which was developed as an extension of the first shophouse, with the addition of another three apartment units.


Central to the experience of The Crane Houses are their ‘third spaces’ – attractively designed shared amenity and communal spaces (such as kitchens and the high-ceilinged, airy laundry spaces) that draw the residents out from their private units. In these spaces, residents have forged close bonds of friendship. As a result, a kampung (village) spirit has been established with doors often left unlocked and wide open.


Wee says that such a level of trust is built on the sense of community that the residents developed from getting to know each other.



“I believe that the trigger is in the way the spaces have been laid out, and the numerous shared spaces in the development from the quiet open dining room in the middle of the house where everyone gathers, works, eats, reads, to the more private dining room downstairs where they can host their friends for a more rowdy meal spilling out into the street, to the breezy laundry area on the third floor where you can have a chat while doing your ironing or waiting for laundry to dry,” says Wee.



“The central courtyard is also a powerful focal point for the community of residents in that they can really see each other (with the exception of the top studio units) come through daily. It is an intimate scale that is not threatening, and I believe allows a sense of safety and trust to be built over time from seeing each other daily that eventually allows them all to leave their doors open. The sense of openness and transparency of views across to each of the units make people depend on each other.”


Wee has also observed how the houses have influenced the residents’ way of life. He shares, “The most interesting I thought was that some of them quit their jobs! Manola [a resident] joked that there is something about this house that does that. I think it is the sense of slowness [offered by] the architecture that makes you change your pace, through the forced interactions and engagements that people must have to really use the house. That allows people to think, engage, and even gain personal perspectives on life. The scale of the project and spaces such as the courtyard does that, too.”

The Crane Houses was a finalist at World Architecture Festival 2015. This video was first presented during the recent live crit session back in November.

* The owner has also since acquired the adjacent unit, and has plans to redevelop it as part of The Crane Houses. The new unit is not a shophouse but a semi-detached residential plot which will present the opportunity to introduce modern architecture to the corner of this short block of beautiful shophouses.