Call his houses “crazy”, and Aamer Taher would not take offence. In fact, he might be secretly pleased as that is exactly how he would describe them himself.
When the architect struck out on his own in 1994, the first house he designed was for his father’s boss. The bungalow at Telok Kurau has an upside down curved concrete roof to collect rainwater for the gardens. It seems nutty, but Mr Taher was of the opinion that if he designed a slide that could curve around the house, his client could wake up in the morning, slide down from his bedroom on the second floor right into the pool on the first. ”It’s such a great way to wake up, don’t you think,” he says with a straight face.
The client loved it and the house also caught the attention of design publications around the world. ”I received many calls and jobs after that,” he says. Not bad for someone who started his eponymous firm because he was frustrated working in a corporate office and walked out of his job in a temper.
More recently, a good class bungalow he designed at Swettenham Road is not quite what one would expect of a three-generational home. The client had taken him to see the site, once a forest, before deciding to buy the land.
Built on a steep, odd-shaped hill, the 10,980 sq ft house has five floors with a meandering facade designed to divert around the mature trees on the site. The massing reduces as it goes higher, and the house stands out without sticking out like a sore thumb among its neighbours.
From the street level, one enters into basement two, which features a carpark, guest room, family room, and foyer which looks out onto a pond with a cascading waterfall. Basement one houses a two-bedroom suite with its own living room and pantry for the client’s two adult sons and a bedroom for grandma. On the first floor is the swimming pool with vantage views of the neighbourhood, as well as the living, dining and kitchen. Level two comprises the master suite, the daughter’s bedroom, a family area and study, and finally on the top floor is a suite for the youngest son.
Each family member has their own private space, which also connects easily to the common areas. For natural light and ventilation to all the rooms, including the family room in basement two, Mr Taher strategically carved out voids in the building.
”It was a tough site because it was so steep, but I saw a problem as an opportunity,” he says. His proposed design was immediately accepted by the client, who was impressed that Mr Taher could fit so much space into the 15,750 sq ft plot of land.
Unlike some other architects who come up with several designs for a project, Mr Taher says ”my first design proposal is more often than not, the best one.”
He gets it spot on because he takes the time to fully understand the site, visiting it several times during the course of a day to see how the sun’s rays fall or to feel where the breeze is blowing from. ”I digest it all and then come up with what I think is the best solution and then I fit everything else into this overall form,” he says.
Sometimes he may get difficult clients who want to change his designs, but eventually, they see his point of view. He convinces them by explaining his design with reason. ”It helps a lot when I draw the client into my thinking process,” he says. ”If you can share your thoughts and sense of design with the clients and their family, then you have achieved more than just a house. You have shared what you think their life could be. Often you hope to give them more than what they expect. You try to give them a good life beyond what a house can do.”
Asked why he thinks clients go to him, he jokes that it’s because of the double A in his company name. ”If you search alphabetically, Aamer Architects pops up early.” His clients, having seen his works on his website, often approach him with the observation that he has no distinct style.
”I have no style because it all depends on what the client wants and what the site can provide,” he says. Having no style means that ”I am asking for the right of a blank canvas and that’s quite cool. Clients often have an idea of their dream house and I try to guide them away from their typical expectations because we are not a typical firm. I would lose the joy of creating if I’m just typical, especially if I’m repetitive.”
If there is a need to describe his approach to architecture, it would be ”sculpting spaces in the tropics. The form should be unique – almost like an art sculpture,” he says.
He sees himself as an artist, creating something that speaks about him and his creativity. ”I never repeat myself,” says Mr Taher. He is not one to run out of ideas. ”Having practised for so long, the standard approach to any project is the same. But with that same approach, you should be able to have different outcomes.”
A look through his portfolio shows not only homes with a futuristic theme, but houses that are more discreet and elegant. Each is designed with the site, context and brief in mind, but perhaps a running commonality among them is his sensitive approach to design. The firm also does skyrise buildings and mass developments.
”With a light touch to the land, I hope not to lose a tree or be too insensitive to the neighbouring house. You hope to extract the best of the site without being too aggressive,” he says. ”I always educate my clients not to overbuild. It is important to be nice to your surroundings, as they are also living houses.” But in land scarce Singapore, sometimes it can’t be helped when there’s a monstrous house next door. Mr Taher’s solution? ”I plant tall, straight trees to block them,” he laughs.
While he was good at drawing as a child, Mr Taher didn’t plan to become an architect. It was only at the suggestion of his army mate, Sim Boon Yang, founder of eco.id architecture firm, that he considered architecture. He studied at the then School of Architecture, National University of Singapore, before heading to the prestigious Architectural Association in London. Starting his own firm was also unplanned.
Mr Taher says that he lives his life pretty much that way. ”I don’t set goals, I don’t plan for what to happen,” he says. ”I’m almost 60 but I’m still searching for my identity. And sometimes it may sound like a negative thing that you do not know who you are at this age. But that’s fine, because my adventure in life never stops and that’s cool.”
This article was originally published in The Business Times.