Properties / Architecture

Interview: Chris Law, Founding Director of The Oval Partnership and The Man Behind Singapore’s New Architectural Frontier

The head of the architectural collective discusses the future of urban planning, sustainability and the upcoming “Kampong” exhibition

Jul 21, 2023 | By Florence Sutton

Chris Law has a long-standing relationship with sustainability. Alongside his role as the Founding Director of The Oval Partnership (which he co-founded in 1992), Law is also a director of INTEGER Intelligent and Green Ltd, where he promotes intelligent and sustainable initiatives. With an academic background in architecture, Chris Law’s design projects have received awards from institutions across the globe including the Royal Academy of Arts, the Hong Kong Institute of Architects, the Hong Kong Institute of Planners, and the American Institute of Architects.  

Today, Law is acknowledged as a leading expert and practitioner on sustainable urbanism and  neighbourhood development. His ardent support of community participation has led him to create the upcoming Kampong Port Cities and the Pre-colonial Era Exhibition which highlights the sustainable conservation of Singapore’s Kampong heritage. The exhibit is part of the Singapore Night Festival (taking place from 18 August to 1 October) whereby The Oval Partnership has teamed up with the Intersection Art Gallery and a number of talented university students for a unique display that showcases the pre-colonial urbanism in Asia from a sustainability perspective. A dedicated exhibition zone has been allocated to showcase the work of three incredible artists Gilles Massot; a multidisciplinary artist and academic, Marc Nair; a poet and multidisciplinary artist and Zen Teh; an individual artist and educatior. The exhibit allows visitors to immerse themselves in the rich culture of Kampong.

Chris Law sits down with LUXUO to discuss the future of sustainable infrastructure and the revitalisation of Singapore’s treasured Kampongs.

As the Founding Director of the Oval Partnership, could you tell us about the team of architects and urban planners you are leading?

The Oval Partnership is a group of architects, urbanists and designers, working from offices in six cities in different continents. We focus on expanding the public realm, in both its spatial and social sense, physically and digitally. 

Oval Partnership Kampong Heritage Visit

You are planning an exhibition in Singapore this August 2023 to celebrate the “Kampong” lifestyle and community interaction within Kampongs. Could you provide more details about this exhibition and its purpose?

We want to tell the story of the Kampong port cities in South East (SE) Asia, in the 14 century, before the  arrival of the Portuguese and the Dutch. These free trade cities are  sophisticated, have a higher degree of gender equality than many present days societies, and is largely zero carbon. 

Kampongs, traditionally seen as belonging to the past, can still have an influence on modern architecture and contemporary urban planning. Can you elaborate on this seemingly nostalgic influence?

Climate change is the major challenge of our age. Everyone is trying to design green buildings that reduce carbon emission. The current paradigm sees climate as a problem to be solved. The Kampongs do not try to solve the climate problem. The Kampong IS the climate. Kampong points to a radically different way to move forward in our climate predicament. 

There will be several workshops organized during the exhibition. Could you provide more information about these workshops?

We have workshops to tell the stories of Kampong through photography, art installation and writings.

Oval Partnership Kampong Heritage Visit

Who were the key partners of the Oval Partnership who took charge in setting up this exhibition?

Partnership is the keyword. There are numerous partners in the initiative. We partnered with the Singapore National Heritage Board, our non profit group Urban Diary that specialises on urban narratives, the INTEGER Foundation that focuses on sustainable development. We also partnered with many artists who created artwork inspired by the Kampongs. We partnered up with many prominent academics in Asia and Europe, including Dr Widodo at the NUS, who is an expert in traditional SE Asian architecture, and Dr Barnabas Calder at Liverpool University, whose book Architecture From Prehistory to Climate Emergency, transforms the way one understand architectural history.    

What are the most significant trends that you have noticed in architecture and urban planning over the last five years?

Social and environmental challenges are the most significant drivers of everything we do today. A lot of exciting work that addresses these issues are being done. 

 The Oval Partnership key project: Sino-Ocean Taikoo Li Chengdu

Singapore is often considered to be at the forefront of architectural and urban planning trends. Could you discuss this in more detail?

Singapore sets the bar in integrative urban planning and quality architecture. Its ability to seamlessly integrate transport infrastructure, greenery and high density urban form is un-parallel. It is now aiming to transform the city into a paragon of sustainability. 

When asked about the concept of “smart cities,” how do you typically respond?

Smart cities are cities that facilitate and enable innovation and digital transformation to happen. Empowerment should therefore be at the heart of smart cities. 

You often mention the concept of “livable cities”. How is the Oval Partnership addressing the many issues cities currently face, such as climate change, pollution, density, and the need for leisure spaces?

It is easy to get very technical on these issues. But it would defeat the purpose and alienate members of the community. A useful proxy for sustainable urbanism would how walkable the neighbourhood is. Is walking through the neighbourhood comfortable, interesting and socially stimulating?

Oval Partnership Kampong Heritage Visit

Is (re)creating social bonding one of the primary goals of the Oval Partnership?

Building social capital is very important. Many of the challenges in the city can only be resolved by people working together. 

What is your favourite capital city in Asia?

Difficult to choose. The old capital city of Kyoto comes close. 

Oval Partnership Kampong Heritage Visit

Looking ahead five years, where do you see the Oval Partnership? Which departments or key functions do you anticipate adding to your organization?

We hope that we can play an instrumental role in delivering a more diverse and inclusive kind of urbanism that is more at one with the environment. 

Could you share with our readers the name of the mentor who has inspired you the most in your career and life?

Terence Conran. I worked for him as a young graduate and became a director of his company. He made me realise that good design is life changing.  

To find out more about The Oval Partnership, click here.

Kampong Port Cities and the Pre-colonial Era Exhibition will take place at Fort Canning Centre Singapore. Click here to find out more.

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