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Farah Azizan on seksan for IFA Stuttgart-Berlin Exhibition catalogue, 2012

by Farah Azizan


THE AVANT-GARDENER


WORK AND PLAY : Studio at Jalan Tempinis Satu, Kuala Lumpur

Roots of the creeper Cissus nodosa canopy trimmed to precision hovers gently in the breeze. It acts as shelter from the sun and frames the entrance to the studio tucked away in an unassuming neighbourhood in suburban Kuala Lumpur. The crunching gravel sounds the arrival of a colleague, a client or a visitor; alerts Olive the dog, the courtyard chickens and Uma, the steadfast guardian and keeper of secrets in the office.

The heavy-set door rolls to reveal an inner courtyard garden anchored by the Eugenia spicata whose branches have grown like hands outstretched from the earth with many fingers reaching for the sunlight.

We are in a space without walls, light filters through leaves and branches, and patterns the bare concrete floor.

Right at the back, under the dappled shade of the overgrown fig tree whose leaves and fruits fall mercilessly at times much to the dismay of the grumpy neighbour, is a weathered wooden table, the silent witness to the sun, rain, lunch spills and many conversations.

Bare feet stealthily climbs the recycled railway sleeper treads that lead to the studio on the first floor surprising even us and our occasional strays from planting plans to Facebook.

Wild,unruly hair. Worn hands, deft and nimble. Trousers patched with love and endurance, threadbare at times, reveals skin browned from the sun.

One learns to scale and humanize each element that feeds into the process of understanding the nature and principles that govern the design practice run by Ng Sek San since 1994 by breaking things down to its barest components and starting from there.


CONTEXT

For much of the twentieth century landscape has been viewed as a peripheral secondary activity to its more radical sister counterpart that is architecture. The Modern Movement‘s central fixation with progress, technology, order and the machine for living had no room for nature’s organic character within their frame of reference. As Modernism diluted and evaporated from an all encompassing ideal to a merely reigning aesthetics over the last 30 years, the boundaries between landscape and architecture have progressively blurred as the difficulties architects faced between their rigid architectural ideals eased and their tentative approach to understanding their surroundings, nature and context for building increased, eventually dissolving the traditional distinction between the building and the environment.

Malaysian landscape architect, Ng Seksan‘s works weave symbiotically between the tactile but often hard and imposing world of architecture seamlessly. With a career spanning over 30 years experience in the field of landscape architecture and design including the much publicized Sekeping Serendah and Sentul Park, Seksan projects a self-effacing vision, a profound respect for nature, the environment and a belief in committing to making works that reflect an egalitarian lifestyle, simple, uncluttered, affordable and not overtly finished unlike the decadent elitist frills that adorn much of the built environment in Kuala Lumpur. He eschews the principle of treading the land lightly as possible, being irreverent to man made rules and conventions, and the advocates restraint in design, knowing when to intervene and otherwise.

The Post-Modern era afforded designers more freedom in thought, eclectism, fragmentation, irony, wit and layering of unrelated ordering systems were deemed permissible and with this new ideology, designers specifically that in the landscape discipline with a renewed self-confidence grew and developed radical positions within the field of architectonic design. In particular Martha Schwartz whom Seksan cites as an influence in his early works, who almost single-handedly redefined the notion of landscape architecture, eschewing conventional notions of ‘natural’ and ‘landscape’ with an exciting mix of bold formalism, vibrant colours and unexpected materials and plants. This is evident in his earlier works that featured heavily the use of exaggerated colours and everyday objects as ornamentation in his initial compositions.

"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." Rooted Modernity 2011, interviewed by Seema Anthony Journal of LA India

Geoffrey Bawa is another such architect whose prolific body of works and approach to architecture within the tropical Asian context exudes a sense of timelessness and acute sensitivity to the natural landscape which has had a great impact solidifying Seksan’s ideals into the method to his work. Bawa believed in the significance of history and the need to study historical precedents to inform and validate one’s actions and mistakes as a point of reference and the importance of experiencing landform and its man-made interventions first hand.

"A building can only be understood by moving around and through it and by experiencing the modulation of the spaces one moves through – from the outside verandahs, the rooms, passages, courtyards – the view from these spaces into others, views through to landscape and beyond, and from the outside the building, views back through rooms into inner rooms and courts. Equally important, the play of light in both garden and inner room – from a shaded inner space to the celebration of light in a courtyard" Beyond Bawa 2008, David Robson and Richard Powers, Thames and Hudson

Seksan grew up in Ipoh, a small town 200km north of Kuala Lumpur, its geographic location in the rich tin-bearing valley of the Kinta River made it a natural centre of growth that gained prominence and wealth in the early 20th century due to its boom in the tin mining industry. Surrounded by limestone hills and blessed with water rich with minerals, vegetation was lush and abundant and this left a lasting impression on the young Seksan as he travessed the landscape in his father’s old Volkswagon helping him sell medicine to villagers in the region.

My parents especially my father came from a very deprived beginning. He was orphaned at age 10 and had to fend for himself as well as his younger brother, during that very difficult period of the Second World War and the Japanese occupation of Malaya.

He told me incredible stories of hardship, hardwork and the human will to succeed,mostly from his own personal experience. He started working at 10 years old helping out in a farm in Tanjung Tualang and taking vegetables out to the nearby town market every morning on bicycles.

He later became a general laborer in a relative's medicine shop in Ipoh. The only schooling he got was from a night school when the day’s work is done. By 20 years old he started a small business concocting cough mixtures etc from formulas he probably stole or borrowed from his relative's shop! I spent a lot of my weekends and holidays in my fathers Volkswagen van traveling to the small villages and kampungs in Perak helping to sell his medicine.

It is not superficial as I get to experience all the details in the riverbanks and streams and drains (which were full of fishes then) and village streets and sidewalks whilst waiting for my father to ply his trade. I also experienced the land in its wet and dry seasons and I remember spending a lot of time looking out of the window of that Volkswagen and deciding on my favorite landscape and in the later years spending lots of time imagining my dream house in the rubber estate or on the grassy windswept slopes or floating on the edge of the cyan blue mining pools.

After spending 13 years studying and working in tranquil New Zealand, Seksan returned to confront the sheer extent of extremities that Peninsular Malaysia offered in the early 90s. Malaysia’s natural ecological condition is lush tropical vegetation on laterite soil, torrential rainfall, fluctuating humidity and scorching sun is typical that of countries that lie within the equatorial belt. This requires a sensitivity and careful observation of the localities specific to the site that are key to planning and design. In addition to ecological and cultural elements, the local building industry is plagued with many idiosyncratic issues surrounding political red tape, bureaucracy and clients that demand first-world construction standards which cannot be met by contractors on a third world contract. This affects the way architects and designers conceptualize, apprehend and approach any project when operating in these regions. Also known in the local building industry for his ability to ‘bend’ the rules and regulations in the name of pursuing his design ambitions, Seksan does not shy away from confrontations with the authorities in his belief to push design boundaries. When asked about his insurbordinate ways, he says

I think the rebellious streak comes from my student activist days in New Zealand in the 80s, when we were trying to change the world back then from protesting the apartheid regime in South Africa to US intervention in Chile and Nicaragua to human rights campaigns in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines etc. In that process I guess I learnt not to conform but question unjust laws or any conventions imposed.

Martha Schwartz in the mid 90s also had a tremendous influence on me on pushing boundaries of design and to look at landscape design in a totally unconventional way. The analysis was that we needed to experiment with the Malaysian landscape and lab test them before we can crystallise a more authentic truly Malaysian landscape tradition if it means redrawing the lines between what the authorities imposed on the built environment.

Contractors became friends and intrinsic to the design, building and planting process of his projects, thus traces and imprints of their work processes are etched in the final outcome sometimes revealing weaknesses and strengths of the different individuals in the collective construction process evidenced is the uneven patterning and colouring of the poured concrete in Tenggiri house , the chipped, but charming brickwork walls that demarcate the garden spaces is characteristic of the studio’s work, and the accidental crack in the mudwalls of Serendah only to allow a stray creeper to meander and clad it within its tentacle fold in time. The final building or landscape product in conventional terms is only the beginning of its slow and inevitable decay like any organic being over time. Materials age overtime and it is fundamental to his belief that this ageing process is not restricted but nurtured and engaged with on a constant basis in enriching one’s perception and spatial experience of a particular space. Where in previous works he had not shied away from bright shocking compositions, more recently his works display a conscientious effort to veil the built environment in the greens of the natural surrounding or by concealing and revealing only what is necessary via planting and strategically placed green constructs in an effort to symbiotically merge the man-made and the organic into a seamless whole.

"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." Rooted modernity, journal of LA India.

Landscape and architecture should have more of a timeless quality to it an idea that a successful piece of work is one that is still relevant ten or twenty years later.

"When I first came back to Malaysia, we were looking at what is the tradition of landscape in this country or how landscape can be imagined. In Japan or in Bali, for example, one can see a strong aesthetic sensibility rooted in their cultural worldview that is translated into their garden or landscape design. After our initial research, we came to the conclusion that Malaysia, being a relatively new country, is too young to have a tradition. As such, our main thrust was towards experimentation. Because there wasn't really precedence to follow, the next thing to do was to experiment, to try to pump in new ideas into the landscape scene, in the process, hopefully initiate something that can be distilled and developed over the next fifty or hundred years into something worth thinking and refining. Seeing a Malaysian vernacular, which is tied into what can be described as a Malaysian sensibility, realised probably won't happen within my lifetime. What is important is to kick-start this. Because we are constantly experimenting, there are a lot less hang-ups. Therefore we can afford to be eclectic in our approach, drawing references from both East and West. That is from a philosophical and historical point of view." ART4d Magazine, February 2010, Interviewed by Simon Soon

The trend towards vertical greening pioneered by Patric Blanc in the late 1980s proliferated through the landscape design scene and upon seeing it for the first time at the Cartier Foundation in Paris, Seksan was mesmerized by its impact on an urban setting and scale in parallel to his memories of growing up within the folds of the Ipoh limestone hills, vertically cladded with verdant natural vegetation. This impacted his thinking on intensifying urban landscaping where plants, architecture and human interaction could potentially and simultaneously engage and perform functionally on an equal platform to steer landscape’s peripheral role as merely decorative to one that serves to improve and impact a spatial condition on a holistic level. For example, using vertical planting as a double skin to lower the indoor temperature of a building in the Lot 10 gardens and most recently toying with the idea of the vertical urban farm to address the environmental and food crisis that is slowly enveloping the world.

The question of influence has always been a thorny issue surrounding some architects who jealously defend their status as instigators of original ideas. This idea perpetuated by the Modernists whose anti-historicist views advocates the new over the tried and tested, and the revolutionary over the evolutionary. However the truth is that architects and designers have always borrowed from the past in the process of learning and educating, as they hone their skills of observation, eye for detail, feel for materials, as well as developing ideas and critical thinking by studying the work of other designers and master craftsmen. They consciously and subconsciously absorb what works within their framework and discard what does not, architects manifest and filter these observations until they form new ways, ideas, methods and processes that inform of their own individual works. Thus ensuring the process of inspiration and influence continues from generation to generation.


ROOTS, VOIDS AND SHADOWS Sekeping Serendah, Serendah

The idyllic and quaint landscape frames the journey to the famed jungle retreat which is now expanding organically as I write this. What originally started as a single glass house for a private family getaway has now extended to a sprawling complex of two glass houses, two timber Malay houses, two mud houses and his latest acquisition of two timber framed ex-cast iron foundry warehouses relocated to the jungles at the foot hills of Serendah.

"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. Sekeping Serendah attempts to merge the intentions and the execution. It's our little experiment in walking the talk." CUBES #007 Magazine, 2004, Interviewed by Abdul Aziz Draim

The Aboriginal proverb - 'touch the earth lightly' - plays a central role in the inception of his designs, solidifying the intimate relationship between the built and natural environment. A romantic notion in theory but requires physical effort to walk the site, a sensitivity to the feel of the land, a skill in observation of the very specific conditions of the existing, light quality, spatial topography, air-flow, direction of the sun on how to locate that first cornerstone of the man-made intervention and the spontaneity of the gifted. The proverb is more than just a physical manifestation according to Seksan, but a process of healing the land as an extension of that same philosophy that is fused in Serendah, a consolidation of Seksan’s ideals and principles in life and design.


LIGHT, SPACE AND AIR Kong Heng Hotel, Ipoh, Perak

In sleepy down town dilapidated Ipoh, sits a 3-storey stately building whose sunburnt skin reveal shades of ochre, ultramarine and sea-foam green. The ground floor houses a traditional Chinese old-style coffeehouse which has reached a institutionalized status patronized by generations of families from the old to the young. The smell of freshly brewed white coffee a specialty of Ipoh, rise and perfumes the early morning air amidst the cacophony of noises of pots and pans and the hawker ladies and men’s daily banter.

With the collapse of tin prices and the closure of the tin mines in the late 1970s, Ipoh's growth stagnated and resulted in migration to other parts of Malaysia particularly metropolitan areas such as Kuala Lumpur and Singapore leaving Ipoh a shell of its active and indulgent past. Testimony to its very diverse and culturally decadent life was Kong Heng, originally an old hostel to house theatre performers. It is a 3 storey neo-classical colonial building bought over by Seksan and his partners in an effort to not only preserve but revitalize and regenerate the old town’s rate of activity by generating a multi functioning public space to house a bed and breakfast for visiting tourists and relatives from out of town alike. This is a conscious effort to capitalize culture to frame and humanize the space of real estate development through sensitive design and landscaping and recreating a public culture by shaping public space for social interaction and reconstructing a visual representation of the new Ipoh.

Arguably is second most ambitious project after the the well publicized Serendah, a uninamous decision was made to preserve the existing building envelope leaving almost everything intact including the charming coffeshop. The first floor of the building is converted into eight dormitory-like rooms flanking a narrow, dimly lit corridors reminiscent of its past. The rooms in contrast are surprisingly spacious in feel and configuration, with risqué show glass shower boxes not for the uninitiated, a cheeky cue of its theatrical history. All rooms impart a layering of history evidenced the patina on the walls left unpainted. The top floor is vast, sunlight streams through the creaky window panes, upon entering the room, one is confounded the impressive perspectival views of the timber rafters and sleeping glass boxes are suspended between the rafters add a dramatic feature to the space. A newly built annexe block which houses a café space on the ground, a family style apartment and a open communal space.

Seksan hopes this effort will initiate an urban revival of the old Ipoh quarter. Much of the urban development has taken place in the outer fringes of the old town in the suburban areas, leaving the charming town devoid of new initiatives. Part of his commitment to sustainable development would be to extend the reaches of Kong Heng to the neighbouring plot in an industrial warehouse building and convert it into a culinary school for disadvantaged children and setting up a fair trade market to promote the arts and crafts in collaboration with his friends in the arts. This experimental space will also be used to test out new ideas in urban farming on the rooftop of the warehouse structure in a simultaneous effort increase food production within the localities the area and how this idea could also be designed to act as a passive cooling system for the space below. The recognition of environmental degradation within cities through the relocation of resources to serve urban populations has inspired the implementation of different schemes of urban agriculture across the developed and developing world. From historic models such as Machu Pichu to designs for new productive city farmers, the idea of locating agriculture in or around the city can take on many characteristics that is potentially exciting to explore.


DESIGN FOR THE 90%

The new landscape is pluralist and inclusive, and draws from a great diversity or sources and disciplines as witnessed in the emergence of landscape designers from different fields such as architecture, engineering, fine art, urbanism and environmental art. This confluence of the artistic, inventive, resourcefulness and community spirit is what Seksan, who trained formally as an engineer though an autonomous artist at heart, is what he brings into the field at play to today along with the realization that landscape design of all disciplines was inherently tied to the global ecosystem and its appropriation to place and context.

Despite having spent most of his time in the larger chaos of Kuala Lumpur, Seksan is still a small town boy at heart; appreciating the smaller things in life and giving value to things that we so easily walk pass without an added thought. It’s the things we miss only when it’s gone but take for granted when we have it. It’s the sort of thing that foreigners find unique and different that we find common and boring. Seksan has made his statement about being appreciative of the simplistic and what has been divinely blessed.

Now sitting in the midst of a mountain range of magazines, books and invitation cards with his trusty laptop in front of him, he looks towards a world where design is not just for the elitist but rather (and more importantly) for all. When asked about leaving a legacy, he shrugs the term associating it with ego-centrism. Instead he prefers the word hope. Hope for the future. Having been in the business for more than 15 years, he has seen his fair share of how the elitist have made the world the way it is today. The rat-race for more is one that cannot be won with more losses to be made along the way than gains. His hope is for a realization of this is to be evident in the built environment. He looks back at his first 15 years running business as a learning curve but looks forward to the next 15 years where his most meaningful work would take place. In an unorthodox take to worldly success, Seksan sees a world where rather than self-proclaimed celebrities rule, it is the story of community that takes precedent.

The hope for the future is that more designers will attempt in their own way find unconventional solutions in order to leapfrog our built environment to a better one and that good design will not be concentrated on the upper end and elite development/products but find itself in a big way in the mass market that impacts the majority of our population.