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Rooted Modernity, 2011

Interviewed by Seema Anthony

How would you describe your journey through your career and the underlying principles that guide your work today?

If we were to go through the milestones of my career, I am trained as an Engineer, which means that I come from a very boring profession. Later, I graduated from Lincoln University, which is yet again another very boring institution in New Zealand because it is actually a horticultural school in which there is a small little school of landscape architecture. I was trained to think within a box, but once I graduated, I worked in a firm in New Zealand which was very progressive in its thinking. The principal at the office influenced me substantially in my life because he was into the arts and humanities – I learned a lot from him.

I guess the turning point in design came from a workshop I took part in which Martha Schwartz participated. At that time in the mid 80's, it was phenomenal work for us; so refreshing and so different from what we had seen till then, using bagels and plastic frogs as landscape elements. I was influenced by her work for almost a decade, in which we designed landscape architecture projects which were oriented more towards a fine art perspective rather than the horticulture. On returning to Asia to work, the sheer extent of humanity and culture had an overwhelming effect on me. Later, looking back critically at my earlier work, the art oriented work, I realized that they were not so timeless. They were more shocking than anything else. They last for a few years but after a while they fade.

We started to look at some of our own gurus in Asia, such as Geoffrey Bawa with his landscape gardens which was also an important reference point in my work, and obviously Bali – the way the entire world influenced Balinese architecture and landscapes. This was quite influential in our later works. For the past 5-10 years we have begun to look not at other people's work but to look within ourselves. We fully believe that landscape architecture as a profession is an old man's profession; so we need to develop that craft and hone all the areas from graphics to detailing to understanding materials; so in the last 5-10 years it has been really about looking inside.

Has your engineering background also given you an added advantage in approaching design in an innovative manner?

Certainly, my engineering background has helped me in scale, since in civil engineering we are used to dealing with fantastically big scales, like power plants and dams. Nothing is really too big for us. So I think when we start to design landscapes, we are able to look at it at an epic scale – and quite easily translate from the small to the big.

Does local art and traditional craft play an important role in your work?

Local art is important from a context point of view. I don't believe in global architecture or global solutions to a problem. The key for us is appropriateness and context. If you are operating in Malaysia or operating in India, it is very different from operating in Dubai, or Singapore or Shanghai. I am trying to find that context in all sorts of ways including arts and culture.

The arts were a very important entry point for us for our design; my feeling is that every profession has its own movement. As Landscape Architects we are like babies – we can trace our history as a profession back about 100 years, while architecture has gone through a longer period of evolution. Of course, fine arts go much further back. So, we tend to borrow that kind of philosophy from the arts world into the architecture and landscape architecture world.

If I have a choice, I have decided that I will actually design projects only in Malaysia because I understand Malaysia better – the weather, the craftsmen, the idiosyncrasies of the construction industry, the local arts & culture and things like that. My preference is to work here. Five years ago I came to the conclusion that architecture as a global business is not really what I want to do. Some people can do it really well, but I am not that kind of a genius; we work on a local scale that I am able to understand better. Some people go into a country and pick up all the little subtleties of that region very quickly. I am very slow in that. If we are working in China or Indonesia we try to incorporate its context but it is at a very superficial level and that is not satisfactory to us.

Can you describe a specific project where the influence of the vernacular is especially integrated and the collaborative process that influenced it?

When I started our first project in 1994, we were probably most active in terms of trying to find a vernacular at that time. We were working with Lat, one of the most popular cartoonists in Malaysia whose forte is about depicting Malaysian life in the kampongs (villages). We were trying to borrow his understanding of his childhood memories, and obviously his cartoons, to bring it into an urban situation – the idea was to bring the Kampong into the City.

Since then we have stepped away from emulating the vernacular. We try to be a bit more neutral; it is not about the man-made vernacular that we are really after – that's the easy part. In Malaysia, we just copy the traditional roof forms or patterns of the weaving and turn it into some form of a design; I think that's too easy and too man-centric. It overlooks all the stuff that God has given us such as the natural landscape. So my tendency now is to try to be a bit more neutral.

Most of the time as architects or designers we tend to think that the objects we design and build are the most important aspects of the projects; my philosophy now is that I want to make those objects disappear into the background. So when we go into a site where there are trees and landforms and water, we try to make our work totally disappear into the background and try to emphasize the air, the light, the shadow and all those natural qualities.

A lot of Malaysian development is now taking place in the outer fringe of the City, where they are building big townships in the natural landscape. Some are actually vegetated forest lands and the problem I have confronted in the last 16 years practicing here is that every time we go into a beautiful site like that we destroy it and we spend years and millions of dollars trying to rejuvenate it later. So, in our latest field projects we are rethinking our strategy in collaboration with the architects and developers, because development will inevitably happen. We have been able to convince some developers to leave almost 80% of their land untouched and develop very high in density instead in the rest. At the moment, these proposals are on the drawing board – it is still a compromised solution. We are collaborating with architects at the conceptual stage because we are working with developers we know and are able to influence these decisions to a certain extent.

Where we were very lucky, I think, was with our weekend house in Serendah – I believe that is where we really impacted the industry by building our own houses in the forest and treading very lightly on the land. The project was quite significant. At that time, I don't think it was anything other than a place for us. But, gradually a lot of people started taking inspiration from it...

Describe a day in the life of Seksan Design; for ten people, the office does produce a lot of work spread out in the region, – and you get time for 'Play'!

My office doesn't work any overtime. Five days a week–mostly 9 to 6,or 7pm at the most. I think the way in which we have been able to sustain and still be able to pump out projects is by stepping back and taking a look at our industry. Our industry is a very inefficient industry. We attend too many meetings, we talk too much, we don't produce enough drawings and we go to meetings to justify why those drawings have not been produced.

In my office, we cut off this vicious cycle very early in the game. At the very start of the project, we tell the clients that we would not be attending 90% of the meetings. Instead, we are going to be spending all our time producing thorough and fully documented drawings, so that there is no necessity for any kind of clarification. Also, we try to prevent any kind of abortive works. I think the problem with our industry is that we try out so many options with our developers; some options that we ourselves don't even believe in and at the end of the day a lot many options get aborted, everybody gets tired and then you just give them what they want in sheer fatigue. We only design one option – that we are comfortable with, and most of the time they work because we are very considerate of all parameters – design and commercial, and site constraints.

On top of this, we try to solve it in a holistic manner so that every issue is addressed and most of the time, in my course of so many years of career here, I have never been in a presentation where the proposal is not accepted. We have been quite lucky in that sense.

Tell us more about the aspect of 'Play' in your work. What were the beginnings of this pursuit?

From day one, we felt that 'Play' is very important because it this part that is least constrained with costs and weather, and the fact that whether it will be able to stand the test of time. When we do things to play, we really are at our most creative because all the boring parameters are no longer there.

In the beginning we were quite lucky because we were collaborating with a lot of other artists, dancers, and the theatre. We were designing installations for theatre presentations and this experience informed us on a lot of our later works, because we are dealing with material and concepts. The scale is small and we stored these in our library and later, through the years it comes back in some form or the other. Whether it's the philosophy, the material or the concept – I try to encourage my staff to do it or collaborate – that's why a part of our studio space is kept free, without any obstructions. It is a space left for other people to come in for play, on their own or together with us.

Sometimes artists come with their exhibitions and installations and sometimes we help them do it. In the course of this I hope that some of the younger people in the firm will pick this up as well. A lot of the things you see on our website are done by me because I love to work with my hands. I feel that architecture needs to go back to its craft traditions as in the days of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. At present, there is a major disconnect between craft and the profession.

Plants play a very important role in your work, they are integral to the design and it seems to me that within your designed work perform an almost living breathing function for the design...

We try to learn 10 plants a year. Learn means to really understand how those plants actually perform – how they grow, sunlight requirement, water requirement, how they die, and the reason is because we want to use plants in an unusual fashion, as the soft architecture.

Most Landscape Architects in Malaysia use plants as a solely decorative element. I don't believe in a planting scheme that is decorative. It is all about using plants to serve a function – I use plants as double skins to bring down indoor temperatures, and screening etc. So to be most effective, I really have to know the plant and understand it well. The general impression is that I use only certain set of plants, but this is because I understand those plants so well and I do not want to experiment on the client with plants that I am unfamiliar with. Every year we try to introduce ten new plants and observe them over the year and then use them if we are really comfortable with their performance.

What is your take on the latest trends in Green Building design and construction and how do you rate the applicability of these trends in Southeast Asian building?

The trend towards more sustainability in buildings is good, it is exciting, and forces one to think in these terms, but we are still in a very early stage – at its infancy. I feel here it is mostly about the commercial considerations of marketing a building to companies which have CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), hence it still remains at a very superficial scale and I find this a bit problematic. Green Building is all about keeping track of the intelligence of a building and I find that using current and state-of-the-art technology is absolutely relevant in very sophisticated developed countries like Sweden or America.

However, if you're talking about India or Malaysia where everything is still so basic, we're talking about major cooling and heating ventilators/ inverters. I believe they are inappropriate. It is just an easy way of copying things and getting your certification, but after five years or so, the whole thing stops working, nobody knows how to fix it and it gets switched off!

We are getting a lot of freedom to administer passive cooling and climate conditioning/ cross ventilation – some very basic technologies that are highly appropriate. In retrospect, my interest in using planting innovatively for these functions goes back all the way to my days as a socialist student; trying to make the world a bit more egalitarian. We live in a state where there is such a big disparity between the rich and the poor, especially in Asia. It is about how innovative we can get with different solutions to allow 90% of the population to have a better quality of living.

Plant materials are cheap, and this is one of the main reasons why we use plants to do architectural functions. A lot of the conventional methods of cooling spaces with screening using louvers or shutters are not accessible to a majority of the population. For a person living in a tin shack, which is unbearably hot in our kind of weather, you can use a second skin of plants over that will make it more comfortable. These are the kinds of solutions that we are seeking and as landscape architects that is our job because we deal with plants. This is our point of view.

Malaysia is blessed with an abundance of natural resources – is the Landscape architecture profession in Malaysia closely tied into conservation strategies for these resources?

Not enough. I come from New Zealand which is incredible in terms of its conservation strategies; the number of landscape architects that are working on that is remarkable. However, in Malaysia, I don't think there is a single landscape architect involved in any conservation organization.

You also teach; what do you think is the biggest challenge for the young professionals stepping into their careers?

I take some design studios with architecture students from the University of Malaya. But unfortunately I don't have the patience to teach, because for me architecture is about doing. It is not about talking. I find talking about design and architecture extremely difficult. I prefer to make things or construct them rather.

I think the challenge for young professionals that I have met is that they are too impatient. They want to make it fast and quick; get rich quick. That's a major problem with young designers, architects and landscape architects. They are not going through the proper apprenticeship. The fact that they are impatient means they get sucked into the system very quickly. They forget all their ideas and churn things out; a lot of them will probably make a lot of money, but could have grown more. Unfortunately, I tell them that this is a profession for old people, you shouldn't be peaking at 30, you shouldn't be peaking at 40; in fact, you shouldn't even be peaking at 50, unless of course you are a genius! They groan when they hear that; it is like shock therapy for them.