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Interview

Maria Warner Wong

Andrew Manns catches up with the co-founder of WOW Architects to get her views on the relationship between nature, wellness and ‘extraordinary sensory experiences’


Maria Warner Wong is the design director and co-founder of WOW Architects – a Singapore-based architecture firm whose most famous projects include the St Regis Maldives and the Anantara Resort in Malaysia.

Established as Warner Wong Design in 2000 by Maria Warner Wong and Wong Chiu Man, WOW’s clients include St Regis, Sheraton, Shangri La Hotels and Resorts, and Club Med.

WOW Architects were recently chosen to create a 338-room resort with biophilic elements in Singapore. The getaway, situated on a 4.6-hectare peninsula near Singapore’s Central Catchment Reserve, will feature 24 treehouses that “blur the boundaries between nature and living spaces”.

Here we speak to Maria Warner Wong about her Mexican childhood, her passion for the environment and her mission to create beautiful spaces that educate their users.

Can you sum up WOW Architects’ philosophy?
Our goal is to create extraordinary sensory experiences that are rooted in culture, memory and place. We design for all the senses and try to create an awareness in the people who use our spaces of their surroundings.
The people who inhabit our buildings are very aware of nature; they are very connected to their environment. We like to try and create specific moments of connection with nature in the rituals of daily life; if you’re staying in a resort hotel it could be that moment when you walk from your room to the lobby or to the public areas or the beach.

We want the users of our spaces to be more aware of the natural world, more of the time – we feel that sense of awareness can actually heal people. When you feel connected to nature you feel calmer, you can better manage your anxieties and you are more likely to work to protect the planet.

How did that philosophy come about? What are your inspirations?
I think it’s just very much my nature. From the time when I was very young, I was interested in the minute details of the natural world. I’ve always been fascinated by flowers and little creatures – the small details of my environment. The desire to cultivate and care for it is at the core of what grew into a real passion for the environment. In my education I learned things about how terrible our industry is for the world, and I wanted to do something to change that.

I think that the best way to change attitudes is to make everyone notice their world, notice its vulnerability and realise that they can change their behaviour so that their impact on the planet is a more positive one.

You grew up in Mexico. Did that play an important role in shaping your ideas?
My link to Mexico is very, very important and very strong. The culture I grew up in has completely formed who I am.
It has to do with the lifestyle – it’s a way of living and interacting with people. No matter how long I’m away from Mexico, those aspects of me will never change. Once you have that in your heart it never goes away.

The St Regis Maldives resorts is one of your best known projects. How did you approach it?
In the beginning, we were really inspired by everything we saw: crabs, whale sharks, shells from the reefs, the corals, all these trees and their unique root systems. We wanted to delight the senses and raise awareness in guests of the importance of sustainability.

We took the island’s four different ecologies as a starting point: the lagoon, the beach, the coastline and the jungle. Our aim was to bring about an awareness of each one in the resort’s guests.

In the lagoon you have the reef. On the coastline you have the corals and the rocks. In the jungle you have the huge variety of plants. It’s fascinating how each of these ecologies coexists in one tiny little atoll.

There’s so much one can learn from any natural setting. Just sit there long enough and pay attention and observe it. Take the rain for example; it never rains the same way in two places. In developed cities, rain is something you need to protect yourself from and get away from, because it’s cold and uncomfortable. It’s different in Bali, the Maldives, Singapore. You can feel the rain on your skin. You have these different winds, different seasons, different conditions with the ocean and the tides, and the smells of the sea – everything is different!

That’s what I mean when I talk about extraordinary sensory experiences – our aim at WOW Architecture is to design buildings that help awaken the sensation of being connected with our environment.

WOW selected to design Singapore eco resort
Wong Chiu Man

WOW Architects were selected in May to design a new 338 room ‘conscious stay’ resort in Mandai, Singapore.

The 4.6-hectare site for the resort is on a peninsula near Singapore’s Central Catchment Reserve, and currently houses Singapore Zoo’s back-of-house facilities. The resort will be carefully integrated into the site, which will be enriched through the planting of native tree species, and will feature 24 treehouses, designed in the shape of seed pods, as well as elevated walkways through the forest.

"The architecture and interior design will showcase Mandai’s biodiversity to educate guests" - Wong Chiu Man

Speaking on the project, WOW’s co-founder, Wong Chiu Man, said: “Our building and its systems adopt a biophilic attitude by blending with and becoming a part of nature, all the while creating an engaging and comfortable environment for guests.”

He added: “Native flora and fauna served as inspirations for the resort’s design, and the architecture and interior design will showcase the biodiversity of Mandai to educate guests.

“When completed, the building and the landscape will become a holistic, immersive experience.”

According to Mike Barclay, Group CEO of developer Mandai Park Holdings – the scheme’s developer – the resort will also encourage guests to take an active role in wildlife conservation.

“Through carefully crafted design features and programmed activities the resort experience will encourage guests to be conscious of the plants and animals in the rainforest,” he said.

The retreat is expected to be completed by 2023.

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