Located on Dempsey Hill near downtown Singapore, the OMA-designed AIR Circular Campus and Cooking Club is a restaurant and dining destination (owned by low-waste hospitality brand Potato Head) that centers conversations on circularity, food, and the environment. The 40,000-square-foot campus consists of a renovated 1970s Modernist building surrounded by green lawns, edible gardens, and outdoor event spaces.

OMA-designed AIR Circular Campus and Cooking Club Has Opened in Singapore

For its design of a dining hub in an upmarket part of Singapore, OMA and David Gianotten focused on circular flows of food, people, and materials. 

IT CAN SOMETIMES FEEL as if going out for food or drinks is the easiest route to a place’s local history and built legacy. In Singapore’s Dempsey Hill, the recent repurposing of a nondescript Modernist building as a food-centered “circular campus” has allowed visitors to glimpse more than a few local vignettes—depending on how hard they look. 

Dempsey Hill, a grassy knoll northwest of Singapore’s downtown core, was originally developed as an army barracks  in the 19th-century British colonial era. In 1971, in the postindependence period, the young city-state added a humble, two-story rectilinear volume whose flat white roof set it apart from the complex’s pitched red roofs. Catering less to military needs and more to a rapidly growing multicultural society in search of a new national identity, the Modernist building contained the Dempsey Clubhouse, where state civil service workers could socialize and play sports. 

AIR’s architecture sits within a lineage of regional Modernist structures whose aesthetically incongruous elements were actually quite climate dependent: The hunkered-down volume hides within the shade of the tree canopy, and ribbon windows and operable facades maximize the cooling of a slow breeze. At the rear of the building, OMA installed a cylindrical steel frame to support new staircases that serve the building’s updated program of open kitchens, research spaces, a fermentation lab, and cooking-school rooms.
AIR advocates for a “new approach to hospitality,” where luxury meets sustainability and where production and education are prioritized over consumption. Ronald Akili, cofounder of Potato Head, explains in a press release: “AIR is more than just a place to dine, it’s a platform for change. Whether through a delicious meal, cooking classes, farming or ongoing research, this food campus embodies a passion to create awareness and make an impact through the power of food.”

That use lasted just a few years, however, and in 1975 the clubhouse relocated. The building was only intermittently occupied, with extended spells of disuse, until Jakarta, Indonesia–born hospitality entrepreneur Ronald Akili and global architecture firm OMA decided to reimagine it. (OMA and Akili’s lifestyle brand, Potato Head, have nurtured a decadelong, ongoing collaboration, working on projects that advance a more conscious, contextual form of luxury.) 

AIR Circular Campus and Cooking Club, as the 40,000-square-foot complex is called, gathers an array of food-centric functions in the matlike building—restaurant, open kitchen, open-air bar, cooking club, and fermentation lab—that looks out onto a well-tended lawn and small agricultural space with a compost shed. By uniting and making legible the intertwined processes of food production, consumption, and waste, AIR aims to educate visitors about how principles like circularity can help create what ends up on their dinner plates. 

The project was, in essence, one of gentle refurbishment and reorientation, with a handful of small yet consequential design moves that serve to embed AIR within its surroundings—climatically, spatially, and even experientially. “The biggest architectural move we’ve done is to turn the front and the back around,” says David Gianotten, partner at OMA, who, with associate in charge Shinji Takagi, led the design. Now the building faces the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, while in the rear OMA introduced an orange-framed, glassed-in staircase that connects the two levels and opens out toward Dempsey Hill. 

The fixtures and furniture used inside the building were designed by Andreu Carulla using recycled timber and plastic bottles (HDPE) sourced from a former OMA art exhibition, adding another layer of circular thinking when it comes to materials.

The intervention’s other parti was the creation of a winding 328-foot path that brings visitors from the downhill parking lot across the lawn to the building, offering an escalating approach. “It also cuts through the building,” Gianotten notes, where it links up with the back stairs, helping cohere AIR’s functions and create a relaxed seamlessness. 

Through decades of sporadic use and disuse, the building buckled under Singapore’s tropical climate—and its full glazing and a lack of air-conditioning exacerbated the problem, sealing humidity in and keeping fresh air out. “When we found it, the interior was completely deteriorated,” Gianotten recalls. Singapore allowed a full-scale demolition, but “that would have obviously been against the sustainability approach of Potato Head,” he added. So the design team decided to preserve most of the structural elements and just allow the space to be opened up a bit instead, to take advantage of what Gianotten calls “the preferred winds” of Dempsey Hill—among the breeziest in Singapore. The entire ground-floor dining area can be opened up, and the second floor, home to the cooking club and more formal dining area, has a balcony along the east elevation, with a full-length ribbon window that faces the lawn. 

While the rehabbed campus certainly reflects bits of Singapore’s and Dempsey Hill’s transformations from military outpost to upscale global destination, it also distills aspects of contemporary dining culture, where circularity, sustainability, and education are increasingly the watchwords. At AIR, after fresh ingredients are picked on-site, they may be prepared in the open kitchen, jarred up at the fermentation lab, used in a demo for the cooking club, or included in a basket for picnickers. “It’s related to bringing the conscious mind onto society,” Gianotten says, “but also allowing people to have a good time.” 

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