Remembering Kerry Hill
By Felicia Toh
I met Kerry Hill at his Cantonment office in January to discuss Amanemu, a resort he had recently completed in Ise-shima, Japan. He spoke slowly, pausing over carefully chosen photographs and quotes, describing the spirit of Amanemu not merely in words, but embodying its quietude. I remember us talking about the outdoor onsen pools terracing down the wintry landscape. “I like the steam- rising from the surface of the waters.” He said simply, pausing to gaze at the photograph with the faintest hint of a smile.
He reached over the large wooden table and passed me prints of the articles and talks he had given over the years, dating back to 2006. “Have you come across these? It may help with the article.” It did. It gave me a glimpse of the person he was- thorough, conscientious, kind.
At the end, I asked when his next book would be published? His eponymous monograph was notoriously difficult to procure- sold out and out of print. He generously offered, “I’ll give you one.” He got up and climbed the steps to his back office, as I sat and tried not to look silly with glee.
As a renowned architect, Hill was invited to guest judge on numerous critique panels over the years, including the President’s Design Award. Each time, he had one rule prior to accepting the role: that the judges would physically visit the buildings instead of deciding based on photographs. In an image-saturated era, Hill taught me that the only way to tell if a building was good was to experience it.
“Within our search for authenticity, we allow each project to clearly identify itself through place, purpose and material, in the hope that, in Asia at least, our modernist approach might be enriched by accommodating the traditions of the East.”
He believed that buildings should relate to its sense of place, in recognition of the histories and cultures of its context. “I got into trouble by saying I don’t believe in plonk architecture- a Gehry here, a Gehry there,” he shared wryly. But what he really meant was to recognize architecture’s purpose in place-making. By creating buildings that imbibe their context, the cities we live in may gradually be filled with spaces that share the essence of place. Architecture forms a city’s physical memory.
Finally, in his A.S. Hook address in 2006, Hill remarked, “I think we all know that practising architecture can be euphoric and at times it can be desperate and dark. Tonight, I would rather dwell on the bright side, the pleasure of architecture.”
Through his architecture scattered throughout the world in places as far-flung as Bhutan, India, Australia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Japan, amongst others, Hill unveils the delight that makes the tedium of architectural practice worthwhile. An architect’s best parting gift would certainly be his buildings. Especially so for an architect who believed so dearly that architecture can and should be spoken about, written about and photographed- but the only way to truly know it, is to experience it.
A building speaks. And should one have questions to unearth about his architecture now that their strongest voice is missed, Hill’s words may come in handy: “It’s somewhere inside, you’ll have to find it.”