Updated: Jul 4, 2022
The “SILAFlex: The Fellows” series shares the stories of individuals who have engaged significantly in Singapore’s landscape design profession since its beginnings. We begin the series with Tay Bee Choo, a landscape architect who headed the landscape implementation unit and is currently an Executive Associate as an advisor with the Housing Development Board.
As a landscape architect, Bee Choo began as a student of horticulture. The School of Ornamental Horticulture was housed in a two-storey building in the Botanic Gardens. Part of the fifth cohort of students, she fondly recalls learning about a variety of subjects, from soil science, ecology, entomology (the study of insects), to pathology. For lunch, along with her classmates, she would buy and pack food from Taman Serasi Hawker Centre (closed in 2001), and then enjoy eating together on the school's verandah.
After studying horticulture, she pursued further studies in the United States of America. In her four years at Iowa State University, she was motivated to learn as much as possible. She studied Art, Architecture, Bee Keeping, Planning and Turf Management. At that time, Singapore had pioneered the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system in order to manage traffic congestion. Her curiosity in this infrastructure advancement spurred her to also attend courses on civil engineering.
Bee Choo received the SILA Fellow appointment at the SILA Awards Ceremony in 2017.
The Early Years
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in landscape architecture, Bee Choo returned to Singapore and joined Garden and Landscape Centre studio, helmed by Richard Tan. One of her first landscape projects was Ocean Plaza, present-day Ocean Building. The site was a paved plaza, void of vegetation, at the building’s front. A key challenge was to create a design where vegetation could be placed above the existing plaza’s pebble wash.
In response, Bee Choo designed and detailed large wooden tree-planter boxes. To avoid damage to the existing hardscape, she specified three layers of fiberglass as lining onto the Chengal framework. She considered the management of water flow by incorporating drainage on one side of the planter box. Working closely with the contractor, she was advised to use a wax application in order to prevent the fiberglass from adhering to the pebble wash. This also allowed the client to remove the planter boxes after ten years, aligned with future development plans.
“What I’ve always felt, as a landscape architect, especially for your first project….you should visit and observe from a distance. See how people use it. If you don’t observe how people use it, you aren’t going to learn from your mistakes. Even when I say mistake, it does not really mean mistake because you were not really aware of them.”
Transforming Singapore’s neighbourhoods
After ten years of working in landscape consultancy, Bee Choo joined the Housing Development Board (HDB). She describes two reasons. Firstly, when working as a landscape architect in the private sector, design plans are routinely submitted for approval from the authorities. Working in HDB, she embraced that these submissions were no longer necessary.
Scaled model of the country at the Singapore City Gallery.
Secondly, she was motivated to improve the landscape character of HDB estates. She shared that she would regularly dine with friends at Chomp Chomp Food Centre. After dinner, she would drive her friends back to their homes across the island, from Ang Mo Kio to Jurong. During these drop-off drives, she noticed that the roads in the various HDB estates were designed in an almost identical way. Each estate was defined by a similar combination of turfing, earth mounds, and almost flat topography. As a result of this landscape design, she observed that it was difficult to discern place and distinguish between estates.
When she first joined HDB, she was one of the few landscape architects in an office filled with hundreds of architects. With a free-hand to design, she began planning the sites, one by one, together with the support of in-house horticulturists. In a day, she would plan and design a handful of sites. The horticulturists would queue in a line to review their respective drafts with her. She described it as "like seeing the doctor."
After a while, she began piecing the sites together. She noticed that the footpaths between individual sites did not connect. The circulation was designed so that when users exited from the building’s lift lobby, they walked along the perimeter apron before finally reaching a linear footpath which connected to the street-side paths.
Seeking to improve the user experience between interior and exterior, Bee Choo was deliberate to consider the landscape holistically. From the void deck, she considered views as she wanted users to visually experience lush greenery, instead of looking at vehicular streets. To create this green screen, she employed a layered approach, gradually varying the height, type and planting row of the vegetation.
Layered planting around the water body at Punggol Park
At HDB, Bee Choo was involved in the landscape design of estates such as Choa Chu Kang, Woodlands, Pasir Ris, Sengkang, and Punggol. The landscape designer's scope for such projects is extensive, ranging from overall planning of circulation to playground theming to planting design. She shared that the design process takes about nine months to a year. The construction process takes about minimum three years, depending on the size of the development. So, the physical landscape is actualized maybe about four to five years after the final design.
“Landscape architecture is like an ugly duckling. It becomes more beautiful as the landscape matures, as long as you know how to maintain it. It is important to understand that when you design, you must think not in terms of now but in terms of years later.”
In 2003 when HDB's Building & Development Division corporatized to form HDBCorp (later rebranded as Surbana Corporation), Bee Choo chose to remain to pursue policymaking, a natural progression after years of practice. In ensuring continued greenery in HDB estates amidst subsequent upgrading works, Bee Choo introduced the tree replacement policy for all housing developments. After attending an inspiring conference in Germany, she initiated the introduction of extensive green roofs in Singapore. Together with Dr. Tan Puay Yok, she developed the first HDB skyrise garden which received funding totalling one million dollars from the Ministry of National Development (MND).
Bee Choo celebrating with newly accredited landscape architects in 2018.
For Bee Choo, landscape architecture is a learning experience. To young landscape architects beginning their careers, she imparts the following words of encouragement: “Don’t leave the profession. If you are not doing design at the office, you can design your home garden. If you are not designing your home garden, you can help the community. There are so many changes in the field of landscape architecture - it is so much fun.”
A drilled-log nest hotel for bees hanging like a swing on a Samanea saman branch at SkyParc@Dawson
Words by Ruen Qing Wong
Edited by Anna Yap & Juit Lian Heng