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Art4d Magazine Interview, February 2010

Interviewed by Simon Soon

Returning to his home country after spending twelve years in New Zealand, Ng Seksan went on to found Seksan Design in 1994, a landscape architecture practice that has successfully balance its commercial ventures with artistic play. Known primarily as an avid collector and arts activist in the local art world, Ng Seksan is also the initiator of many ephemeral earth art projects created during his travels. His practice, both work and play, demonstrates critical insights on landscape architecture as a creative pursuit that places primary importance in articulating a respectful approach to nature.

Landscaping is a process of authoring or shaping nature according to the ideology that underpins the work of a particular landscape architect. In this area, venerable traditions exist both in the West and East. How do you respond or react to these traditions?

Let me begin by giving you a short history of landscape architecture. As a modern discipline, it is only about a hundred years old. Modern landscape architecture got its datum from the creation of New York City's Central Park. Federick Law Olmstead, who designed it, is today considered as the father of modern landscape architecture. From then on, landscape architecture is recognised as a profession. My practice is located within this modern discipline. In Asia, the modern profession developed with landscape architects coming over from the West to design resort hotels in our region. One of the most significant project being Shangri-La hotel, built in Singapore. Although it is a city hotel, it included a lot of gardens within its compound. This signified a major departure from city hotels in the past where it used to be just rooms for people to stay over night. Because it was such a major success, other developers began simulating the idea of landscape as integral to resorts and hotels. In the early days, most landscape architects working in the Southeast Asia region are from America and England.

Within the development of Malaysian landscape architecture, the pioneers who appeared in the scene in the late Seventies and early Eighties were all foreign trained. As a professional practice, it is only about thirty years old. I probably belong to the second or third generation.

In relation to your question, when I first came back to Malaysia, we were looking at what is the tradition of landscape in this country or how landscape can be imagined. In Japan or in Bali, for example, one can see a strong aesthetic sensibility rooted in their cultural worldview that is translated into their garden or landscape design. After our initial research, we came to the conclusion that Malaysia, being a relatively new country, is too young to have a tradition. As such, our main thrust was towards experimentation. Because there wasn't really precedence to follow, the next thing to do was to experiment, to try to pump in new ideas into the landscape scene, in the process, hopefully initiate something that can be distilled and developed over the next fifty or hundred years into something worth thinking and refining. Seeing a Malaysian vernacular, which is tied into what can be described as a Malaysian sensibility, realised probably won't happen within my lifetime. What is important is to kick-start this. Because we are constantly experimenting, there are a lot less hang-ups. Therefore we can afford to be eclectic in our approach, drawing references from both East and West. That is from a philosophical and historical point of view.

From a material point of view, we were quite clear we wanted to use local material to compose our landscape, to give it the local context which we felt is important, especially in this age of globalisation, local identity is muddled. Landscape architecture needs to be inspired by local arts and culture as well as understand its local climate and vegetation.

A landscape that is inspired by local arts, material and culture often means that the research process is a collaborative one. How integral is collaboration to your practice? What kind of working relationship must one foster?

We did a lot of collaboration when we first stated. One of my first projects in Malaysia, a condominium project called Kampung Warisan, was a collaboration with Malaysia's best known cartoonist ' Lat. Lat is celebrated for his ability to capture the quintessence of the Malaysian experience through his illustrative depictions of rural life in Malaysia. We wanted to draw upon his experience and translate some of the values and ideas associated with village life into an urban context. At that stage of my career, we romanticised the kampung (village), which is about neighbourliness, taking bath by the river together, communal feasts and festivals, etc. It was the romantic part of our development. We wanted to see if we can induce some of these lost neighbourly values in a condominium environment.

Another example of a collaborative project we did was with Kiwi sculptor Neil Dawson. We worked together on an urban project where there was very little ground surface for us to work on. We decided therefore to take the landscape element up into the air. Neil was making a lot of suspension sculpture. Neil was probably our last resort, we went to look for Malaysian and Singaporean artists to see if we can come up with something that is quite difficult to suspend in the air. Unfortunately, none of our local artists felt confident about it. Having spent twelve years in New Zealand, I am familiar with Neil's work. In this collaboration, Neil made a suspension sculpture in the shape of a sphere, composed with leaves found in Malaysia, for us at Jalan P Ramlee in Kuala Lumpur. There was a subversive element to the work that most people did not realise. Within the composition, we included marijuana leaves. I often like to introduce some of these subversive elements into my designs.

Collaboration is not an easy process. It involves a lot of negotiation and includes a lot of opinionated parties in the designing process. In the last few years, I have grown a little lazy. We do most things inhouse these days. Collaboration sometimes brings out a lot more creativity. However, because it involves so many parties, sometimes ideas and creavity are compromised in order to achieve a common denominator. My recent belief is that good design needs to be single minded. I keep everybody out of the design process, as an experimentation to see how far we can push design to a level that is acceptable to us.

If a singular vision is increasingly important to your design practice, who do you look to for inspiration? Do you have any architects or landscape architects you admire particularly?

Because I went to a school that is horticulurally driven, landscape architecture is a branch off from horticulture. Most early schools of landscape architecture begins from the horticulture department, not architecture. I studied at Lincoln university at Christchurch. I was trained in two very boring disciplines ' engineering and landscape architecture, from a horticultural tradition. My prime influence was Martha Schwartz, who is based in Boston. She was trained in fine art before she took up landscape architecture. As her entry point was from a fine art point of view, she treated the landscape as a canvas, to paint and build objects on. I found her ideas very refreshing. She was constructing stuff like varnished bagels as landscape elements. For her husband's birthday, she created a temporary garden where we reconfigured her front yard with bagels strewn on the floor. That was both a cultural and intellectual shock for me. She was also using smarties and car tyres or millions of plastic frogs as garden elements.

I find her ideas very rereshing and we started to emulate her works. Early works of mine are quite colourful, lots of fluorescent colours and primary colours in it, using very mundane ordinary objects such as flower pots in a very repetitive and big scale fashion to compose our landscape. However, after my eight or ten years, we being to reflect back on some of influences, we find that it only has a short term appeal. We begin to depart from that philosophy, because we feel that landscape and architecture should have more of a timeless quality to it ' an idea that a successful piece of work is one that is still relevant ten or twenty years later.

Other gurus include Geoffrey Bawa from Sri Lanka, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies Van de Rohe, etc.

The scale of the projects must vary a lot in landscape architecture. One can be approached to design a private garden and on a larger scale, a public park. Are there differences in terms of approaches? What considerations do you bring into these different projects? And what do you prefer to train your practice on?

I look at my body of work through a number of categories. One of them is whether a project has multi users or single users. I do not enjoy working with single users at all. I stop taking on commissions of that nature because ultimately involves imposing certain design ideas on this particular user. If there is a meeting of minds, that's fine. However, ninety nine percent of the time, our minds do not meet. Often, it is some guy who wants to build a garden that encapsulates his lifestyle and perception of security. I have done a number of jobs earlier on in my career, thinking I can persuade people to lead the kind of lifestyle that I lead. I have since given up on that because it's a process of either imposing my idea on them or the idea is totally butchered because the owner could not appreciate my ideas. For multi-users, I can take contextual considerations to the extreme and work within a multi-spectrum context.

Another catergorisation is whether it is a bread and butter project or an award winning project. Bread and butter projects keep the office going, pay the bills and subsidise the cutting edge, experimental and award winning projects that gets us excited. What we've been trying to do is to find a balance over the past 15 years, to create possibilities to push design and to seek that crystallisation of a Malaysian vernacular for landscape design.

In terms of designing a space for multi-users, how can landscape architecture shape the way we use public spaces as well as interact with each other in it?

We are quite mindful that in designing a landscape, we are not creating an object or an art piece. It is more about people and creating a situation. An example would be the Sibu streetscape project, where we collaborated with traffic engineers to realign the traffic flow and give priority to the pedestrian because Sibu is a very pedestrian-friendly town.

In managing the traffic flow, we were also able to turn a four-lane stretch of road back into a park right in the heart of the city. In terms of design, we were drawing on some of inspiration from Borneo. The park is called the Mist Garden, the mist referencing the local context of the Borneo rainforest. If one has ever been to Borneo, you will notice that in the morning, the mist comes down to the jungle floor and only dissipate in the late morning. We wanted to create a misty environment right in the middle of town. We also look at traditional art forms for inspiration, planting totem poles in our garden. A second layer of metaphor emerges in this sense, as the garden now suggests a deforested landscape in the middle of a city with all these sprawling deadwood. The totem poles had a lot of texts on it. Back then we were influenced by visual artist Wong Hoy Cheong that the text can become an aesthetic bridge for the common layman who are not used to the abstraction in visual language. This is another example of subversion in my practice. The politicians were sidetracked by the mist garden while we were more interested in the social commentary of the park.

At the end of the day, these are just objects. What is most rewarding for landscape architecture when revisiting some of our projects is to see how it is utilised. The people are a critical component in landscape design. That is the most rewarding thing to photograph at the end of our project. These things can't be designed, because it is almost transient. We measure the success in the ways people use it and how people use it in ways we didn't anticipate it.

Similar project would be the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac) in Sentul West. Again, it is not about posturing the landscape as an object. The idea behind KLPac is not what we put in but what we use to highlight what is already in existence - the trees, the wetland, the terrain, etc. The foreground is not as important as the background. That is why the building and structures are made to look as transparent and minimal as possible. Some of the landscape follies allow people to be inside the park even during rainy weathers or hot afternoons to provide shelter.

Where is the local element in this project? This is often asked when we use a lot of steel and glass in our work since these are modern materials. Traditionally, we think of timber or attap roofs or classical motifs as signifier of the local. In this instance, we wanted to use neutral material because we wanted to create transparent structures. We didn't want to use traditional motifs because these will detract attention to the natural surrounding we want to highlight. Very often as architects and designers, we make man second fiddle to God. John Lennon said, 'We see things with our eyes closed, misunderstanding everything we see'. We're looking at the wrong thing all the time. An example, we go into a site that is so beautiful with mature trees and beautiful land formations. In many instances, what we do with it is that we bring in our bulldozers, cut down all the trees and flatten the land to build our houses on. And it's happening everywhere.

Sekeping Serendah, I think, is my most important project. It embodies the idea of God giving us a beautiful piece of land and how we can engage with that landscape by building and building on it lightly. It is a small demonstration we can build on it without cutting the trees. I've been talking to developers for the past 10-15 years about this, but they are not listening. Sekeping Serendah is something of a demonstration that this is possible.

You play a lot too. On your website, there's a special catergory dedicated to some of the ephemeral land art projects of yours. Can you tell us a bit more about this?

Why I do it? I think element of play is important for any creative design studio. Because when you play, you are at your most creative. It is this creative spirit that we are constantly trying to maintain in the midst of all the heavy expectation and demand from our commercial work. Play is crucial. Playing suggests a state of engagement that is not serious, it is not supposed to be permanent and our clients' money is not involved. It is a process allowing the possibility of experimentation. By play I would include designing theatre sets, which we did in our early career. An example would be our set design and installations for a Five Arts Centre production, Family (1998), which was staged in Malaysia and Berlin. When we play, we are testing out ideas and also testing out materials in certain ways for our larger projects.

Example, on a family vacation in Sipadan, we started playing with the sand. We filled them into plastic bags and hang them on the trees. We then punched holes into them so that when the sand fell, it resembled a waterfall. The project is called 'Sandfall of Sipadan'. The image stayed with us and a few years later, this became an inspiration for some of our commercial projects in shopping centres. Instead of creating waterfalls, we play with the idea of 'sandfall'. It became most relevant when we worked in places like Abu Dhabi, where sand is such a defining feature of its landscape.

Often playing includes journeying and travel, going out there, exposing yourself to new environment and possibly encountering new ideas. How important is travel to your work? Where have you been?

When I first left New Zealand in 1990, I took one year off to travel. That time, after receiving a Western education, I was inclined towards the West. I wanted to see all the references in the textbook, so I went to America and Western Europe. That was my early thirties. Since I have grown older, I have been more rooted in Asian traditions, I have more recently traveled around Asia - to Cambodia, Tibet, Nepal, Indonesia Yunnan, etc. You can say the idea of travel has a more spiritual element to it now.

Regarding the ephemeral earth art I crate during my travels, I am interested in how to make a piece of landscape a bit more memorable. There are certain places we have vivid memories of. To create objects or installations in these landscapes is an attempt for myself to remember that place deeper. Because I intervene in it, I have also personalised a big landscape.

What I want to do is also to leave something for others to look at, enjoy and take something away from it. For Trash Vortex, the idea was to make rubbish more than rubbish. It is part of the core philosophy of our landscape design ' to make something out of nothing. Or rather, to take something mundane and turn it into something else. With our trained eyes we are also to transform waste and excess into an aesthetic form since we are able to understand the intrinsic quality of the material and use them to compose our landscape. All these are informed by the element of play.

You are also an avid collector of contemporary art from Southeast Asia. Your collection boast some of the most exciting emerging and mid-career artists practicing in Southeast Asia today. What prompted you to collect?

When we started the collection, it was from an era or a period of time where I was drawing inspiration from artwork, the Martha Schwartz period. We were looking at a lot of installations, performance art, and generally anything related to the arts. With that deep connection to the artworld, it was quite natural for us to collect some of these works. The collection started from the premise of wanting to use artwork as inspiration for our landscape work. Allowing the painting or sculpture to inspire us.

In terms of how painting is inspirational, it is mostly from a philosophical standpoint. For example, pioneer modernist painter Latiff Mohidin's exploration of a shared Southeast identity and aesthetic through his Pago-pago series, exemplifies an approach to thinking that I very much admire. What I derive from paintings are not so much the actual physical manifestation but the underlying philosophy that drives it. It is ultimately about allowing minimal gesture to create maximum impact.

Other examples include Balinese or Thai dances. Because it is such a disciplined and slow-paced performance, the flicker of the eyelid or finger connote a great range of meanings. An instrument in the gamelan for example, probably has only about six notes. It is all about small movement, about details. When you slow things down, you get into every single twitch. I think that is what Asian landscape architecture is about. How it is going to manifest itself in ten or twenty years, I don't know. But, for me at least, it is taking its cue from all these things. We want to create a living environment, spaces that articulate some of the values that are part of our identity, of relationship, extended family, caring, communal life.

Unfortunately, a lot of our physical developments are Americanised. Our gated communities are one example. It designs a false sense of security by responding to the paranoia of a consumer class through segregation rather than collective agency. Our agenda has been hi-jacked by politicians and bureaucrats as well as the architectural profession. I do all the things I do as a means of critiquing my own profession as a way of making a statement about the different ways we can live.