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HABITUS #01, 2008

Interviewed by Chu Lik Ren

The Garden of Eden was there before architecture...

They also say that the mother of all arts this century is landscape architecture! It use to be architecture. something has changed. I like that shift. Like everything else, things are trying to get back to basics. Music is unplugged, architecture is moving back into the garden. God has a lot more input in the garden, I think. It is alive and growing. Architecture is man trying to be god. Not too long ago architecture was build for the gods, nowadays it is build for the rich Dubai Arabs. This is when some of us realised we have to return to basics. Groovy reflective architecture, gravity defying buildings, man made palm island, is only entertaining for a while. In Eden, Adam tried to be god for a while by eating the apple; his genes have been passed down to some of us. We will entertain ourselves for a while building things but in the long run we will yearn to return to that original garden.

Ever since Le Corbusier detached the building from the land with Villa Savoye, and in fact detaching the landscape from the attention of the architect, architecture has floundered and landscape architecture flourished. You think?

I've only seen pictures of Villa Savoye. Visited his Ronchamp a couple of years ago. Absolutely beautiful architecture but the relationship to the land and the wider landscape is not so hot. Fast forward to today, we have a lot of architects who see architecture as detached from the landscape. The thinking is compartmentalized. Buildings are designed as ubiquitous sculptures that can be placed anywhere on earth. This can be very problematic. The works of Frank Lloyd Wright, Luis Barragan and Geoffrey Bawa take on a more wholistic approach. The gardens and the wider landscape are totally locked into their buildings. It is not really about the competition between architecture and landscape architecture, it is more about the two coming together to form something that is greater than the two. These masters are magical.

You try to visit Bali as often as you can. I guess that's as close an ideal for living with nature we have. But the model of everyone owning and cultivating his/her plot of land is surely not sustainable- especially with rampant urbanisation. We stack homes upwards so we can free more land for greenery in between them. But how do you "lock" the landscape between these high-rise so that they are not left over spaces to be beautified by landscape architects? Are you happy with the level of inter-disciplinary approach you advocate in your work?

It is a common complain that landscape architects are not brought in early enough and are left with left-over spaces between the buildings but sometimes it is just a good excuse for doing a lousy job. I am not a big advocate of coming in early. Some of our best works are done when we came in late. The reason being the gestation time is a lot shorter and the design ideas are a lot fresher. In our industry the lapse between ideas and implementation is between 3-5 years. That is a long time. Whilst I believe that design ideas are not meant to be fashionable but in a period of 5 years I find myself doing and appreciating things differently, most of the time making things a lot simpler.

I have no problem with left-over space especially when it is a precondition for that negotiation to have total freedom to do what I like. I usually have more problems with interference by third parties; get in early where options are too many, designs are then done by committee. We have a term for that in Malaysia, the 'rojak' (mixed salad) scheme, where everyone's opinions are considered, and ending up with the lowest common denominator.

Lately my preference is to work with a set of preferred clients and architects. We have got to a level where there is a lot of trust; we can second guess each other. That level of inter-disciplinary approach you described has become almost second nature, negotiations are less, pretty and meaningless drawings are less, and we can concentrate on what's important.

I mean, don't you wish to come on early enough in a project's design phase where you can address the ecological and land use issues instead of this aesthetics of left-over land parcels?

What gives you the impression that I am so ecological?? I have some major confessions to make on this!

But seriously, I believe that ecological and sustainable issues are not in the sole domain of landscape architects. An enlightened client and architect is almost a prerequisite. We can come in early and articulate such issues, but such enlightenment of the team usually happens long before, usually the project before the last. The question is not how early we come in, it is about that consistent effort that will lay the groundwork for that next project. For developers it is very much about the realisation of the hidden value on ecological issues, otherwise there is no action. Enlightened developers are emerging, not necessarily educated by us, but more likely by Al Gore and his inconvenient truth on global warming. But it is true that we are getting involved in projects a lot earlier nowadays.

Recently we looked at a 2000-acre site in Malaysia. The planners and architects did not think it necessary to investigate the site. "It is a flat site." "There is only 2m difference from one end of the site to the other." Eventually when we did visit the site, there were ponds and lakes with cyan blue water and a beautiful orang asli village in an oil palm estate in the middle of the site. The standard modus operandi in this part of the world is to shift any orang asli settlement to the fringe of the site in order for "value" development to happen in the centre, likely to a swamp near a cemetery or a sewerage treatment plant. Our early involvement in this case helps in preserving the existing location of the orang asli village and giving a rationale to locate the new town central park around it and the cyan blue lakes.

Your "Sekeping Serendah", inspired by Peter Stutchbury, is a primer in "touching the earth lightly." But can a high-rise building also "touch the earth lightly"?

It is a matter of defining "touching the land lightly" differently in the case of high rise high density buildings. There can still be a lot of respect for the land. Sometimes we advocate less blocks and compensate with much higher blocks and leave some land untouched. We have also advocated building high rises with a large area of do-nothing land instead of spreading out all over the site with row houses and retaining walls. We have just completed a high rise development where the rock outcrops are kept intact. We have to fight on multiple fronts as there are a lot of interests to have the rocks blasted away for some lame safety considerations. The neighboring site did just that and they spend months blasting and hacking away at the rock. I don't think the genus loci was very happy. I guess every piece of land calls for its own solutions.

Touching the land lightly is about listening very carefully what the land is telling us. It takes a bit of effort. I have on numerous occasions encountered planners and architects who do not think it necessary to visit the site. Plans are drawn without even a contour plan. I guess the assumption is that the land can be flattened anyway. We have all these heavy machineries at our disposal. You can almost imagine the result in most of these cases.

Geoffrey Bawa builds a series of 4 to 5-storeys building for the Kandalama hotel in Sri Lanka. It is painted black and native plants are crawling out from every nook and cranny. It is totally integrated into the land. I bet it could go 20-storeys and it still works. He was touching the land very lightly.

Touching the land lightly is also more than just the physical manifestation. The process of healing the land is an extension of that same philosophy. In Kandalama's case, every guest that checks into the hotel take away an equivalent of their own waste in the form of plant compost when they check out, elegantly packed. That is a very gentle thought.

Also in the same philosophy is getting the land to reclaimed the buildings, having the land touch the building gently. The jardin vertical and vegetated walls of Patrick Blanc are leading in this area. He has open up some tremendous possibilities for cities, a paradigm shift in which we view the land and the garden. When we have stacked up homes to cater for urbanization, horizontal surfaces might be scarce, but there are a lot of vertical surfaces. Like the limestone cliffs and waterfall cliffs, they could be graciously cladded with vegetation. I am sure Patrick Blanc's vegetated wall was inspired by these.

There could be tremendous amount of greenery in future cities. It does not need to look like Batman's Gotham city.