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CUBES, 2010

Interviewed by Stella Koh

Back in 2004, CUBES magazine had an interview with you. A lot has changed in the world in 6 years, how do you think landscape architecture has changed or adapted since?

Since then i think landscape architecture has become so important that it has replaced architecture as the mother of the arts! (laugh)

But seriously i think architecture and landscape architecture are a lot more integrated today. Landscape is no longer for decorative purposes but are integrated into buildings to perform architectural functions like sun screening, facade treatment and local climate control.

The green sustainability movement has also gone a long way. Sustainability rating agencies are sprouting everywhere and every new building wants a credible rating. Landscape architecture is very much part of this movement.

How about your beliefs on landscape architecture, have they evolved?

Yes i hope so.

What are the new challenges that you face today?

As i grow older i wanted to do things simpler. Simpler both in the design process as well as the design itself.

It is a simple idea but it is very difficult to achieve. For the simple and subtle to work the layering needs to be more sophisticated and so are the technical details. These are very challenging.

My other challenge to myself is this little experiment that i have been working on for the last 6 years. To return architecture and landscape architecture to a craft based tradition instead of following the trend of it being a big global business. Like the days of michelangelo and da vinci! (laugh).

So since 2004 i have been pulling back our overseas commissions and concentrating all our works in kuala lumpur alone. I find that by working locally i can better understand the subtle idiosyncrasies of context, weather, culture, light quality, cost, workmanship , etc . We can get into a lot more depth. Our local clients who knows and trust us better allows us to take bigger risk on their projects.

Also i sleep better knowing that i talk about sustainability without having to burn massive amount of carbon by flying off to some faraway cities.

I honestly do not know how long this experiment is going to last as some of my newer partners are dying to get some overseas exposure.

About 20% of Seksan Design's works are experimental pursuits of your beliefs in what landscape and architecture should be. Can you share with us more on these pursuits? How do you balance them with the other commercial works?

Commercial works have some very serious and boring parameters. Budget, timeline, authority approvals, marketing departments, etc , etc. There is a limit on how far we can push the design envelope on these bread and butter projects.

It is easier to push design on the more temporary or voluntary projects such as art or garden festivals installations, theatre sets or projects funded by ourselves like sekeping tenggiri or sekeping serendah. The single most important aspect of these 'soul' projects is that i become my own client. It means i can take a lot more risks. It is like an experimental lab. The RnD are developed here. And they will inform the commercial works later. We just got to make sure that the bread and butter projects need to be beefy enough to subsidised some of these 'soul' projects.

In your presentation at the Archifest'10 "Happy Cities" Forum, you emphasise great importance on the nature that is the backdrop of your works. Nature and landscaping. How do you harmonise the two?

At archifest 2010 I put forward a proposition that the background sometimes is more important than the architectural object in the foreground. It is easier for us to imagine and emphasise the foreground and the object in it. That is the dominant paradigm.

I think the idea of putting emphasis on the background is philosophically linked to the idea of man and god. Sometimes it gets a bit myopic when we are building an object of beauty. We put it on a pedestal to be worshipped. We wanted it to be perfect. The architecture becomes all consuming and attract all attention to itself. That is when u get projects like the palm islands and the tallest building in a desert in dubai. That is the moment i think when man tries to become god and it becomes problematic.

I like the idea of taking a paradigm shift and looking beyond the object we are physically designing and putting it in its context. The god given background becomes as important as the object we are building on it. I hope that more honest and humble architecture will happen as a result.

How do you think landscape architecture can or attempt to re-connect Man and Nature?

i think this question of reconnecting man and nature is beyond landscape architecture. I usually do not like to give my profession so much credit. Otherwise i might fall into the trap of intellectually masturbating myself.

Reconnecting man and nature requires massive change. Especially in attitude and consciousness . This has a lot more to do with education than landscape architecture.

Instead of building concrete bollards, you put a series of metal cages on the ground and have creepers grow on them. You have also trained yourself to see beauty in the un-beautiful. There is great sensitivity in this very conscious act of rethinking how things are done and how things should be done. Is this the process of questioning things in Seksan Design?

I was trying to protect the short grass from cars driving on it with longer grasses growing in chicken wire cages. Avoiding those over designed typical landscape architects bollards.

I think it is about being a bit more gentle to the land in the way we construct. I find a lot of overdesign and overarchitecture nowadays. I prefer to operate at the other end of the design spectrum. To unarchitecture and under design things.

The underlying philosophy behind this i guess is about the role of design n architecture in our society. There is a sea of humanity in asia where i operate. Majority of them are still poor and have very little access to modern design. This was not the case before. Our traditional architecture and space planning were very sophisticated. This is every evident everytime i travelled into the villages of Indonesia, china,Thailand, laos, Malaysia etc. Somewhere along the line design and architecture have been hijacked by the elites.

We have been seduced to see beautiful in the flashy polished and expensive. Similarly we have been trained to see beautiful in the skinny anorexic girls. There is very little depth. Everything is on the surface.

I am attempting to re-educate myself on this. Seeing beauty in the unbeautiful. Getting into a bit more depth. Designing in a way that give some dignity back to the sea of humanity in asia. It is also about sustainability. If we all aspire to build in the way of those elite and expensive houses often showcased in fancy design magazines and coffee table architecture books we will be in trouble. The world does not have enough resources for that.

I think the solution is within us. We just need to see the beauty in the simple and the honest. Designers like me can play our little role by showcasing such alternative aesthetics and coming up with products that can be mass replicated in a cheaper way in order for them to be accessible to the common people.

What is Seksan Design working on at the moment and how do you see Seksan Design in the future?

I am trying to make Seksan design disappear in the future. It is a bit like nirvana. Aspiring to achieving nothingness. So hopefully you will see less and less of me and more and more of other people doing intelligent and appropriate works.

From transplanting flowers in Sri Lanka to surprise Geoffrey Bawa to making a window display art piece in Haji Lane, you have devoted significant time and effort to creating art and playing with landscapes. How active is this element of play in your practice?

The idea of play is very important in my practice. It help keep us fresh and current. Playing also suggest fun and having a sense of humour. These are rather lacking in the construction industry which is rather serious and boring. A good sense of humour is usually not something one would associate with architecture but it is critical in the well being of a city. A happy city is a funny city.

Playing also allows us to make mistakes and experiment. The consequences of any screwups is less serious than if they happen in our hardcore projects. The thought process helps to inform us on our real projects. Whether it is the use of material, extending our sense of alternative aesthetics or the techniques of instilling a longer memory to a place.

You have been extensively exposed to Western and Eastern landscapes, what are your thoughts on this dichotomy in cultures and landscape. Where do you see yourself?

I am pretty mixed up in this sense. I was educated in the west. But after living and travelling in asia for the last 20 years i think that there is a distinct character in asia that we can distil out and highlight in our design.

Specifically i am toying with this idea i coined as the third world aesthetic. It started off as a self depreciating tongue in cheek take of trying to see beauty in the context of urban squalor and rural villages that is 85 percent of asia. To counterbalance the slick and glossy global architecture which are hogging the current architectural limelight.

But recently i realised that it is not really about beauty. I think it is more about appropriateness. And retraining our eyes to seek beauty in such appropriateness.

Technically the philosophy of the third world aesthetics manifest itself in allowing a much bigger margin of tolerance, adapting mistakes into the design development and appreciating imperfection, slowing down the design process, minimising cladding and appreciating the raw and unfinished, less reliance on high tech western technology and seek for appropriate local technology , allowing natural weathering to become the final finishing layer, paying more for labour and less for material, leveraging on the freebies like light quality and shadows etc.

Do you have any words of advice for aspiring landscape architects in Singapore and Malaysia?

Take your time. Slow down. Don't try to get anywhere in a hurry. It is an old mans business. Time yourself only to peak when you are 60 years old. If you are in for a quick buck go and become an investment banker.