Practical Poetics: A Brick and Mortar Shop

by Lua Jin Wei

In this review of L Architects’ award-winning “A Brick and Mortar Shop” which won the 2022 SIA Design of the Year award, TSA’s Lua Jin Wei explores how the project combines material textures, hapticity and intuitive design sensitivity to create a special showroom experience. 

A Different Kind of Showroom  

We are zipping down Kian Teck Crescent, eyes sharp for our destination when the Grab driver finally caved to his curiosity: “Actually, what are you doing here?”

His innocent question encapsulated one of the key challenges Ar. Lim Shing Hui, founder and principal of L Architects, had to contend with their debut commercial project. The client, Casa Holdings Limited, had approached Lim to renovate their existing multi-label kitchen showroom for their new aspiration: to shift away from their existing business-to-business model and towards direct customer service. Yet this simple desire was made complicated two-folds.

Besides its remote location, its programme is one of constant flux. With each new product release, showrooms are always evolving – sometimes necessitating minor refurbishments where built-in appliances are involved. It became apparent that strong brand identity and experience alone would not suffice; the design needed to endure these perpetual changes as well.

The response to this is a showroom with an astute sensitivity to materiality and details, reflecting an understanding of prevailing systems within the constraints of economy. Blending practicalities and poetics, it is an artful resolution of an ethereal retail experience within. And captivating from afar too, as echoed by the Grab driver’s awe when we arrived.

Materials as Solution

Aptly named ‘A Brick and Mortar Shop’, its conceptual beginnings was inspired by the very same words. Hollow-core blocks, one of the cheapest bricks in the market, were reimagined as a textural foundation of the showroom. Stacked together into walls and furniture, they organise products into categorical clarity while guiding movement and conduct. In some sections, these blocks are sliced in half, revealing their fluted cores that appear like undulated grottoes – gritty in both tactility and allegory. It is a tale of perseverance: halving the blocks had been a difficult task with countless failed experiments. The breakthrough was only possible thanks to the perceptive client who intuitively pointed the right direction and the tenacity of the masonry team.

Years of experience with residential projects sharpened Lim’s familiarity with standard appliance dimensions, informing the carpentry’s sensitive design. It is a clever system generated through thoughtful detailing and material selection that does a lot of operational heavy-lifting. With tiny L-brackets, hoods can now be slotted and removed with minimal damage to the carcass, solving one of the biggest pain points for the client. Bare plywood was carefully chosen as a canvas for appliances to be laid onto. Using such a commonplace material meant that the showroom’s identity and spirit could be assured in the long run when the inevitable wear-and-tear sets in.

Resonant Personal Expressions

Meandering between passageways, Juhani Pallasmaa’s ‘Hapticity and Time’ comes alive. Here, the space speaks to your body, inviting your hands to touch. The textures seem to whisper stories of time and care: from their natural origins to the transformative human effort that shaped them into what they are today. Despite the sober ruggedness of greys, the atmosphere feels surprisingly warm.

Perhaps part of this sensation is contributed by Lim herself. There is a lot of affection when she shares the lineage of her ideas. Much of her inspirations, like her appreciation for nature, are attributed to her childhood. Facets of her identity – and by extension her family, who has been influential in her architectural pursuits – are very much imbued into her growing oeuvre of works. 

In this humble showroom, it is about cherishing the most of the ordinary. Every object has a place to be. Showerheads shine proud against soft woody grains. A nest of refrigerators housed together, gleaming under a cosy frame. Sheen against matte is how the space gives way to the items on display. Even as a visitor, it feels like home. Interludes of respite, from generous seatings to quaint benches, invites pause amidst the shopping. There is always a view to the outside to rest the mind, even in the deepest end of the lane. Care can be felt for both people and products. 

I know I am not alone in this feeling. In 2022, one of the Architours participants had their heart stolen: the terrazzo floor had reminded them of their grandmother’s home, and they wanted to peel their shoes off just to feel this art under their soles.

It is not grand gestures but personal expressions and values that resonates most with people. Put a bit of yourself and the right people will connect with it – even in the most modest and unromantic of places like a commercial showroom. Spontaneous intuition may be seen as fragile, especially when pitted against rationality and logic. But it is just as powerful, if not, much more evocative. 


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