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D+A DESIGN AND ARCHITECTURE ASIA #021, 2004

Interviewed by Chu Lik Ren

I find it fascinating you took up landscape architecture after a degree in civil engineering. What prompted this? The natural beauty of New Zealand?

No-lah... that will be so romantic man! NZ was the only place I could afford then....school fees was an affordable NZ$250 per annum...

No kidding? This figure correct?

Ya, damn cheap, right? That's why I got stuck there for 12 freezing years. Wanted to do building architecture but cannot because NZ architecture schools do not take in foreign students then. Instead I became student political activist. So landscape architecture after engineering was due to circumstances...I wanted to stay back in NZ to organized students to change the world- lah... choices then was to purposely failed final engineering year, master in engineering or post-grad something else.. applied post-grad fine arts in sculpture but can't get in- lah.... I'm so happy it worked out...

But I think the training in engineering has helped you a lot in present work. Was the house in Serendah designed by you without the help of an architect? How did you come up with the idea for this weekend house?

Engineering has definitely help in my structural detailing and my understanding of how different material behaves... Sekeping Serendah was conceptualized by me but brought to fruition by many,,, it was inspired by that small Peter Stuchbury designed Israel house in Paradise Beach, NSW. It was a design collaboration of a whole bunch of people including my welder Chew Poh Fook, architect Tam Mei Sim, landscape architect Carolyn Lau, landscape contractor Lau Jian Pyng. Mostly done on back of envelopes, scrap papers and scratching on the ground. Sekeping Serendah: was really a personal experiment to demonstrate that we can build on steep slope with heavy vegetation without destroying too much. it is about some deep reverence for the land... I've been promoting that to a lot of developers in town without much success for the last 10 years! Every time we would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs... it's heartbreaking. so sad. It is also Inspired by the orang asli houses nearby,,, essentially their house is seen as a temporary dwelling to shelter one during the inclement weather and at night. Otherwise it is about enjoying the great outdoors. The Sekeping Serendah sheds aspired to be this. I don't like houses today which aspire to be monumental and looks like a mausoleum.

Some of the structural members I see in your works are taut and spartan. You had a large say in this, I'm sure?

Living dangerously is part of life... otherwise it will be unacceptably boring! The member sizes and also their numbers are kept to its absolute minimum. As a matter of fact the buildings were initially designed to rest on nine posts; it was finally constructed with 5 posts only. The sizes are 100 x 100 I-sections.don't think my learned structural engineer friends would dare go near it! But it has withstood some major storms, ok? One day it will fall down and we will have fun rebuilding it again! Just like the orang asli.

You continue to be a great patron of the arts, having collected many sculptures and paintings by local artists and opening your studio up for them to exhibit their works. How much of your landscaping works find inspiration from other mediums?

A lot of our works are informed by art works especially installation works... the ideas we find are usually more edgy and refreshing.We sometimes attempt to translate some of these temporary works into larger scale permanent outdoor works... but more often just allowing them to tickle our subconscious. A lot of landscape architects in this region take a very horticultural approach to landscape design... we try not to. we find the visual arts more exciting... The 'collection' is just a small way of paying back and getting a two-way thing going with the local artists...We are constantly deriving inspiration from their works and thoughts...

Are you concerned that some modern landscaping designs are rather like graphic designs? Is there a clear school of thought here?

Too pretty, huh? Like the dumb blondes? I like graphic-design landscape if they are done well. just like I like good-looking dumb blondes!

You have something against brunettes?

No! I love good-looking brunettes too, man. Seriously... the problem I think is that we are relying more on gimmicks to sell a scheme nowadays... The soul and the subtle genus loci stuff have been replaced by the gimmicky and theme park shit. The common denominator is getting lower as more and more get interested in the landscape. Developers, marketing people and rich housewives especially... this apply to building architecture as well I guess... I suspect that the profession is getting less craft based... you know the old-man profession thing... and more big-business commercial shit... We build landscape to shout and sell in order to please our paymasters and less for ordinary people to enjoy. There is very little clarity nowadays in our profession- lah... Everything is like a puddle; muddy like hell, just like mel I am unashamedly commercial, just that occasionally I try to do it differently and repent a little when I think of death.

Speaking of death, one of your new projects is a memorial (Wen Memorial). Is that for someone close to you and how did you design for something as personal as that?

No- lah... it's for a rich client. I am the commercial guy, remember? After a few dozen boring condominiums you would jump at something like this. This particular memorial acknowledges the surrounding mountains and the sky above, and attempts to make connection with them. There is very little building... Memorial is never easy... I want to do a memorial for my own father who passed away four years ago... I have not pick up enough energy and courage to do it yet.

By the way, I think memorials are to landscape architects what museums are to architects - a dream commission!

The budget and fees are very different! Give me a museum any time, man. But no, you are right, the metaphors and poetry of this kind of commission are a lot more intense. Sure beats some of the bungalow commissions that I did for my living clients... and their fussy husbands!

You did a house for your father in Bangsar (Tempinis Kiri) and he was able to enjoy it in his last days. Both this house and your own house nearby are wonderful to experience but devilishly hard to photograph.

Ya, because they have very little visible elevations. I like to experience a house from the inside out, Nice elevation is really an added bonus, -that is why I love some of those Ernesto Bedmar houses where he layered the house between courtyards. You keep looking at your own house facades in your own living areas! Unfortunately my father stayed in that small house for only two months. He did a video documentary on it within that time. I only got to know it after he passed away... love the way he reinterpreted his house.

The Pulai tree you planted in front of your house has matured into a giant. These are your most personal houses where the only fussy client was yourself. How did you go about designing them?

That tree is just beside another one that sits right in front of the entrance. The feng shui people will hate the house, I don't believe in those feng shui shit- lah... especially those propounded by that rich businesswoman. It's too superstitious and commercial. Worst of all it results in horrible architecture and spaces, and that's not what the core principles of feng shui are about. I am not fussy at all you know. I have been trying to make it fun for everyone, including the Indonesian workers. Building a house should be a joyful thing. In the not too distant past, it is a community celebration, a joyous event, I don't see anything has changed. except the neighbours now are a bit suspicious of my construction methods and materials. Some of my clients have so much stress building their dream house... one couple even divorced after that! That is not celebration.

How many landscape architects are there in Malaysia? Is there a society?

There are about 200 registered landscape architects here (under the Institute of Landscape Architects Malaysia, ILAM), in private practice only about 80 I think. The rest are civil servants and university lecturers. In comparison there are about 10,000 building architects in Malaysia!... aren't we lucky?

Really? I thought the number of qualified architects in Malaysia is only 1,500 or so...

You're probably right. Sometimes I exaggerate things a bit to dramatize, bad habit I picked up from the marketing people!

You teach part time as well, surely there's an evolving sense of appreciation for landscape architecture from the younger generation?

You are right, man. I think the younger ones are a lot more appreciative of the integration of landscape and architecture and also other discipline like lighting and graphic etc in order to create wonderful works. Some of the best architects have deep appreciation of the garden and the larger landscape. I am thinking Geoffrey Bawa or Frank Lloyd Wright, and some of my best architectural colleagues here. Conversely, I try to inculcate a very deep appreciation of architecture amongst the younger landscape architects...

How does your firm operate?

By chaos really. There are hardly any organizing structures, I trust all my guys unconditionally and let them run. We have intentionally kept the office small. Only eight of us for the last seven years, in order for us to maintain some consistency, have some fun and keep our options not to sell our souls. Small and subversive. Trying to keep it 90% design and 10% management, I have worked in office which operates the other way round! It was horrible.

You're completing a new house for yourself at Jalan Tempinis. It's wonderfully tectonic. What was the main idea here?

We were toying with the idea of a proletariat garden house. It's a stone's throw away from my office where I currently live; I aspire to live in a bungalow but can only afford a single storey semi-D! So I exaggerated one half of the semi-D with an additional floor to make it look like a narrow bungalow. Unfortunately it is looking more like a factory now! I like the way you describe it as tectonic. It was also conceived as a traditional Asian raised house, so the entire ground floor is a garden. The main house is the first floor (second storey). Keeps the tigers at bay. I am into recycling nowadays, so I attempt to throw away as little as possible. The old roof tiles are recycled into a wall... I love the cheap egalitarian feel to it and also that bit of history that it gives...I love working with cheap construction materials as an alternative to the elitist sh*t, you know what I mean? The imported Italian marble... and recently the carved Ballnese sandstone, I believe that architecture and landscape architecture should be inclusive rather than exclusive. The recent obsessions about gated communities are problematic. It just reminds me of the New Villages that our ancestors suffered in during the British Emergency; all fenced up and limited entry points with a guardhouse. And an entrance arch! This house subscribes to the idea of one my respected architect colleague, Kevin Low, who believes that modern architecture should be always unfinished, allowing time to complete it.

By that he means we must wait for the trees to grow... But you already knew how it will turn out, because you selected the plants, the materials, the colours.... I think he meant more than that. It is about knowing when to stop and about enjoying the little imperfections that come with it and not being too anal about getting everything right, because a building, especially a house, is an organic thing... it mutates and changes and grows old with us together. I realize that my preferences change every few years anyway, and it being unfinished will cater for the change. The alternative of building a new house every few years is not an option. Hey, some of the best stuff is by accident! I prefer not to know how everything will turn out. Surprises are always magical.