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The late, great auteur Le Corbusier believed architecture to be the synergistic intersection between high art and vaulted mathematics. “Architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light,” he famously opined. Both Rene Tan and Tse Kwang (TK) Quek were heavily influenced by Le Corbusier when they founded their award-winning architectural practice back in 2003. In the 19 years since, they’ve realised their shared vision in spectacular ways – from designed private domiciles, to gravity-defying towers and luxury resorts.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, RT+Q’s reputation for both uncompromising quality and beauty in architecture has won the company global plaudits and a mantelpiece bristling with dozens of gold trophies. Most recently, its stunning condominium project The Capers in Kuala Lumpur won over judges at the prestigious Chicago Athenaeum International Architecture Awards. The firm was also singled out in Singapore’s 2016 President’s Design Awards, when Rene Tan was named Designer of the Year.
It’s funny to think it was a fortuitous meeting in Syracuse, New York, more than two decades ago, that first saw the two architects find such easy rapport. “Our partnership came very naturally; instinctively,” Rene recollects. “I think we recognised each other’s attributes. Architecture is such a complicated profession that one person cannot do all things – you need someone you trust.”
“Architecture is such a complicated profession that one person cannot do all things – you need someone you trust.”
- Rene Tan
“It’s true,” TK confirms. “I often joke, ‘If I write a US$50,000 cheque, Rene just signs it. He never asks me who or what for.’ The basis of any good partnership is trust. And by relying on each other to do what’s best, we found a really viable partnership.”
Rene admits the company had very humble beginnings. “We started with nothing. We didn’t have any budget to fly, so we drove everywhere in TK’s small Honda CR-V. Nothing fancy, no hotel stays,” he smiles. “And in order to make a 9am meeting in Kuala Lumpur, we’d leave Singapore at 5am. I remember coming home very pale and exhausted.”
The pair’s compatibility is more unusual given the 20-year age gap. “TK is 77, yet we’re still of like minds,” Rene says. “And he still comes into the office on time every day. His leadership is so important for the culture of our office.”
Mentoring their young architects and helping them realise their creative vision is vital, Rene points out. “We’re no more talented than any of our architects. We’ve just got more experience, more exposure, and been through more ups and downs,” he smiles. “Besides, both TK and I recognise we’ll have our own expiry date, so the challenge is to mentor our people to do better than us.”
It’s little wonder that RT+Q continues to attract the best and brightest to its busy practice. “We’re lucky to have attracted some very talented people, all with the same burning ambition to build beautiful things,” TK agrees. “It’s like high jump. No self-respecting high jumper will be happy with the same personal best. They’ll always want to break the world record. That’s RT+Q.”
Like any passionate architect, Rene sees his vocation as art. “Architecture is not just visual or verbal. It’s tactile and tectonic,” he says, yet his partner also grounds him. “TK always reminds me, ‘Even the Mona Lisa was finished at some point, so don’t overdo it.’ This became our mantra. Yes, make our work the best it can be, but don’t get lost along the way.”
Rene reveals the secret to RT+Q’s success is thinking outside the box. “The first rule to staying creative is to never think like an architect, because if you do, the window will always look like a window or the door will always look like a door,” he shares. “Sometimes, a younger architect might ask me, ‘How does this look? Do you like it?’ And I’ll say, ‘Hmm, it’s nice, but it looks like it was designed by an architect.’”
“Architecture is about surprises. Don’t be afraid to put the right thing in the wrong place.”
- Rene Tan
“In other words, don’t be afraid to use your counterintuition. Architecture is about surprises. Don’t be afraid to put the right thing in the wrong place,” he suggests.
“And it’s true. It’s how we challenge ourselves to think differently all the time. I always tell the office, ‘We need some kind of ideological miscarriage here.’ You can quote me on that. Our architecture is about that.”
The way both architects burst into laughter suggests that fostering a positive culture at RT+Q is one thing they’ll never have to try too hard to achieve. “Look, TK always reminds us to do good work, make some money and then have fun,” Rene explains. “Yes, we’re creative and we love new technology, and yes, the pandemic has led us to evolve as a practice. But I’ll be the first to admit we love having fun. We’re old school like that.”
“Yes,” TK winks. “And I’m even older school.”