Multidisciplinary design firm Ong & Ong needs no introduction. Founded in 1972 by Singapore’s former president Ong Teng Cheong and his wife Ling Siew May, the firm has been transforming Singapore’s city skyline for nearly five decades. Today, Group Executive Chairman Ong Tze Boon is spearheading the future of his company– but not in the ways you’d expect.
Ong & Ong turns 50 in 2022; looking back, how would you describe the firm’s journey?
Fifty years is a long way to come, and in that time, we’ve done almost every single kind of project; the only two things we have not [designed] are airports and prisons.
As you reach your 50-year milestone, there are only two ways to [celebrate] this. First, is to hold an exhibition; [you say] in 50 years, look how beautiful the buildings are that we’ve designed, not just in Singapore but in nine countries. Not that we should hide those milestones, but I’ve thought long and hard about it and the way I see it, in fifty years surely you’d have done plenty of projects [to be seen].
So allow me to dovetail a little. About 20 years ago, I struggled perhaps to ask, is architecture seen in isolation? At a macro level you say, it impacts the neighbourhood, it impacts the traffic; and it also impacts the city, country and social fabric. But inside the building, surely you will have interior design, and outside the building, landscaping.
So back then, we were first to go multi-disciplinary; and at the time we were called the oddballs. The industry called us a ‘hawker centre’– we had everything in one space while everyone else had one thing. I had no end of it when I started, but I take comfort now that 20 years later, multidisciplinary firms are the norm.
What is Ong & Ong’s design philosophy?
Ten years ago, we initiated something we call ‘designing experiences’. Say when you put a bench in a park, it’s not just about putting a bench for the comfort of a park-goer to sit. Allow me to explain. If you make a bench out of plastic, you are suggesting– aside from maintenance– that you can pick up the chair and put it anywhere you want to sit.
But if I make a bench out of bolted, cast concrete, then my message is, “this is where you shall sit.” More importantly, my message is: “this is what you shall see around you”. And that bench– it’s position, its surrounding– now has become curatorial.
So in a blasé way, you can say, you’ve designed a nice bench. But you’d be missing the point. On one cerebral level, it is intangible: I’ve told you where to sit, what you’ll see, and what to absorb. We are deliberate in designing the experience you’ll have in a space; and this drives us till today. So fast forward to today, and we’ve done something quietly on the side, that perhaps many would not understand.
Tell me more.
So now we’re almost to the end of our 50-year journey; and this is going to be our third act. Our first act was integration– going multidisciplinary. The second act is ‘designing experiences’. And today, we’re still integrated and we’re still designing experiences, but we’re becoming more aware of our third act: we can design, we can engineer, and I think it’s time to figure out how we can create an impact on society. I know impact is very trendy now, but it began some years ago from my personal interest– I design indoor spaces but I love being outdoors.
One question I asked was, how do I bring clean water to the world, in a way that doesn’t need power? All filters work by pulling dirty water from one end and pushing it through a membrane to produce clean water on the other end. One way is to rely on gravity to do the filtering for you, and the other is to use pressure, and pressure requires power.
What we’ve come up with is called GoFlow. It is a water filter which can be mounted to the rear axle of a bicycle, and the ‘on button’ to the system is as simple as pedaling. Driven solely on rotational motion, an in-built motor helps channel the inflow of water through the filtration cylinder, ensuring no external power or electrical source is required.
It is lightweight [weighing only 9kg], mobile, compact and easily set up, and it can filter up to 50,000 gallons of water in a single use of the filters. It is very exciting and we’ve got working products already ready to go; the patent was granted to us in 2017, but there’s been challenges of course.
Filters need to be replaced even after 50,000 gallons, and the question is distribution– you don’t need a product like this in a city, you need it in the rural areas. Our issues are how to distribute replacement parts, and we’re working with a large Thai oil and gas company called Susco to distribute the filters at their gas stations in rural Thailand.
I am also working on several other projects, including self-sustaining, off-grid container accommodation, and electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. The latter is Charge+, a ‘smart’, alternating current (AC) EV charger we aim to be the slimmest in the world (measuring only 15cm wide).
Why is this important to you, and how does this play in to Ong & Ong’s long-term vision?
It’s going to be a long journey, because it requires a lot of buy-in. We’re trying to solve a multi-disciplinary and multi-ministry problem. And if there are no problems in the world, there will be no business, right? Business is all about problem solving. They are all coming from different disciplines, but only when you have one singular mindedness can you come up with solutions. That’s why we look at our tagline: It’s not 360 Design, it is 360 Solutions.
I’m not here to provide design services, or interior design services. I’m here to provide an integrated solution, which includes a great user experience. That’s what we’ve been trying to do for 20 years.
I’m talking about our purpose, how do we change the world? If you have another 10, 15 years [left], what is your purpose? What can an integrated design firm take all that, and [leave an] impact on everyone else?