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CUBES #007, 2004

Interviewed by ABDUL AZIZ DRAIM

When you get a landscaping project, what are your immediate concerns with regards to the site? Can you generally explain to us how you approach any one project?

The site usually informs us on the design. It is not really that complicated. It is about listening very carefully to what the site tells us and some creative problem solving. Usually it is about killing a few birds with one stone: solve some practical problems and at the same time makes it look absolutely gorgeous and also do it cheaply. These few combinations always "land knockouts". In more abstract term, it is about finding the genius loci of the site, the spirit of the place. However every time I talk like this people think that I am superstitious, which I am not, quite the opposite. What this essentially means is that the work is situated within a context. It will have a sense of place, a bit of soul thus a better chance of giving the work a timeless quality, which is our ultimate goal.

What are the biggest obstacles of undertaking a project involving landscape architecture? Which project of yours has posed the greatest challenge?

In my experience the greatest obstacle is usually the mental barrier of those involved including approving authorities, planners, engineers, clients, marketing people, and contractors. The obsessive respect for authority and status quo amongst the industry players is overwhelming. Our system in the building industry is still very feudal in nature. There is a lot of self censorship going around. Corrupt practices does not help. This impacts the building industry and our work directly and has compromised a lot of things. We did some of the early works in Putrajaya before the turn of the century. We nearly gave up landscape architecture as a result.

What is your philosophy when it comes to landscape architecture?

We are still working on this:

Architecture, interior design and industrial design have managed to secure a place in the realm of the art world, finding their way into museums and exhibitions for the appreciation of the public. However, the same cannot be said about your field. Why isn't it getting as much attention as other popular design related fields? Can landscape architecture be considered an art? If so, how does one appreciate it?

Landscape architecture is actually a very very new profession, even the ancient gardens of Versailles by Le Notre in Paris was only done in the 16th century, still relatively very new. Landscape architecture does not have as long a tradition as the arts or architecture which has gone thru umpteen movements and development through the centuries. Modern landscape architecture has its datum with the creation of the central park in New York by Frederick Law Olmstead that was only 100 years ago. Landscape architecture in Malaysia only surfaced about 30 years ago with foreign landscape architects working on our resorts. The Shangrila hotel in Singapore is one of the early modern landscape gardens in this region. That was build the the 1970s. Our local universities have only been teaching landscape architecture in the last 10 years. However there are a lot of visual artists that deals with landscape and landscape architecture. I am thinking Richard Long, Andy Goldsworthy, Cristo. My favorite is still Jeff Koons wonderful 3 storey high puppy dog which is made of 200,000 impatient plants which is now sitting outside the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. You should also check out Martha Schwartz and the Dutch West 8 works, some of which have gone into museums.

You have also dabbled in installation art just for the fun of it - how much of your work is really about art and how much is about function? Is there an underlying message that you try to convey in your work and art? Our works are 98% commercial. So there are some very serious and boring commercial parameters, constraints and considerations. The challenge then is how we negotiate some fun and folly back into it. The process is almost subversive, a skill I picked up in my student activist days. Some of the works have stronger messages than others and they are all different anyway. My favorite one is the logs installation which has metaphors of the wanton destruction of the Borneo rainforest. This was installed in Sarawak with much fanfare and appreciation by the politicians!!!

I have never considered our work as art. That's too tall an order. However we do at times dabble with less commercial work like set design for theatre and other voluntary cum sanity work. Because of the temporary nature of such work it gets a lot more experimental. This in turn informs our subsequent commercial work. Functionality is very big for us. However it should not be just functional but beautifully functional. Forms follow function and function follows form. It is a complete loop, chasing 'its own' tail like a dog playing.

Your firm has lasted ten years in the industry - care to share with us the secrets to Seksan Design's success and longevity?

What success????? We are still struggling. That struggle will continues, the struggle of Theory and Practice. Any success I attribute to my people and our irreverent attitude for conventions and man made rules. We try to break and subvert them all the time.

What is the most valuable lesson you've learned in those ten years? What would you say is the biggest sacrifice you've ever made for the love of your chosen vocation?

Try to break every single rule in the rule book. We operated on the fringe for the last 10 years. When you are on that edge you have to do that. It is about being irreverent to rules, conventions and authority. Everything goes back to basic principles and common sense. We sacrificed a lot of money. We have walk away from some very juicy jobs because it did not feel right.

Now that we have to pay more for every square feet of land, the notion of landscape architecture sounds like too much of a indulgence. Comment.

No, it is exactly the opposite. We pay so much for the land nowadays that we should work every square inch of it. In our projects we try to utilise every square inch of the garden and even borrow views of our neighbours garden to maximise on its premium. Ambiguous non performing spaces have got no place in expensive real estate. Our houses nowadays are too big, 22 000 square feet house is getting typical. The nouveau rich are building them. Now that is indulgence, it is not a house anymore. They are building clubhouses to stay in!!! You need walkie talkies to communicate in a house like that. Building like that is extremely unintelligent and inefficient, a waste of precious resources. On the other hand a small house set in a wonderful garden. I think that is more elegant and cool. Remember the small Farnworth house that Mies van der Rohe built in the 1940s. It is as much context and garden as it is architecture. It is time tested and is a treasure now. We should build more like that- lah.

You seem to have a great love for nature. What should we do in order to convince more people to respect the earth and its gifts?

Geezzz....... do I give that impression? I love a lot of other things too you know... most time with more intensity too!!!! On your other question, I wanted to say believing more in your God but somehow that does not translate. We are religiously whacking the environment. Somehow I think there are a lot of good intentions going around but the executions are horrible. I just go about doing my own little things and hopefully make little changes.

How did the Sekeping Serendah come about? Tell us generally what the brief for the project was. Do you think it's something urbanites will latch on to, to be sleeping and dining under the stars in the jungle amid mosquitoes?

Sekeping Serendah is a response to the slash-and-burn-cut-and-fill way of building in this part of the world. It is a personal demonstration that we can build on the land in a bit more sensitive manner. It is about respecting the land while building on it's steep slopes with its abundant vegetation. Sekeping Serendah is about celebrating the things that God has given us so generously.....the sky, the trees, the water, the birds, the snakes, and the insects. Such context is bigger than the architecture. The architecture is really incidental. It is there only to provide some shelter and comfort for that celebration. Of course we hope that more people will take on this direction. It will give our grand children less to gripe about!!!

With reference to the Sekeping Serendah, in your opinion, is the desire to live as one with nature the way of the future or is it the new luxury?

Waaaaa..........first time I hear "new luxury"....... However living as one with nature is old luxury- lah!!!! The orang asli has it and then we went in to screw it in the name of progress. That fallacy is still happening now. The recent trend amongst the developers circle on eco-living, eco city, ecofriendly environment, rainforest community are sadly bandwagon shit. Half the time it is churned up by the McDonald chomping marketing department. Wonderful intentions until you see their development plans. It is the same cut and fill shit. The rhetoric is only meant to sell more units, a marketing ploy. Good intentions are not good enough. It is only 20% of a good project. Good and honest execution makes up the other 80%, otherwise it is only empty promises and under-delivery. Sekeping Serendah attempts to merge the intentions and the execution. It's our little experiment in walking the talk.

What is your idea of paradise on earth?

Paradise is solely on earth and nowhere else. Too many people believe that it is afterlife and somewhere else. That's part of the reason why things get so screwed up. Paradise is within us and around us; in our own garden, in our own community, in our own patch of forest or riverbank or street. The problem is that we often look somewhere else for it. We screw our own backyards and then go to Bali to flavour that bit of paradise on earth.

Describe to us what a typical day in the life of Ng Sek San is like.

I do have difficulty following predictable patterns. My colleagues have found me sleeping on the office floor; hanging upside down on the inversion table; sniffing on my organic heap; analysing frog eggs; shouting down the crow shooters in Lucky Garden; sabotaging the neighbourhood bonsai trees.

Who or what do you look to for inspiration? Do you have any designers that you admire?

Ya of course.....but I have been more influenced by non-architects like Charles Saatchi and Che Guervara. Martha Schwartz has made a tremendous impact on my early works. She threw half the things I learn in school out of the window and taught me how to stand on my own head. She is fine artist turn landscape architect and her works in the late 90's were mind boggling to me. She uses things like varnished bagels (yes, those kind that you can eat!) ...smarties and plastic frogs in her landscapes......that was a major paradigm shift for me.

You have used various materials in your projects - from stone to canvas, concrete to perforated steel - but what material to you most enjoy working with?

I do not have any specific preference. I believe that every material has it own inherent character and has its place in a piece of work. I see my job to make them sing. Sometimes it is about how u put a few materials together to get a band and a party going. It's a bit like organic farming; the carrots love tomatoes thing. It's about symbiosis; bricks love stones, steel beams love bottles, cactuses love cages, rubble love concrete vent blocks. The compositing really gets the flavour going, it is delicious. Recently, I am in favour of the more common local material. It is more egalitarian and less elitist; the concrete, construction chippings, brick powder, asphalt, laterite mud, chicken wires and old roof tiles compared to the chi-chi imported marbles, granites and sandstones. It is more about how we put these materials together than the material itself. I kinda believe that the spirit of the material gets lost after transportation over great distances.