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Monday August 26, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Monday August 26, 2013 MYT 4:39:44 PM
by leong siok hui
The Rhombus's communal spaces include a meeting/dining space with pantry, residents' lounge, infinity-edge pool, gym, and outdoor BBQ facilities. – ART CHEN/The Star
Perched on the crest of an upscale suburb in Kuala Lumpur, an award-winning apartment tower is turning heads with its striking looks and million-dollar views.
CONSTRAINTS drive creativity, they say. Yes, ingenious solutions do spring from tight constraints, as architect Ken Wong would attest.
Wong and design partner John Ding, of Unit One Design, are the design whizzes behind the Rhombus, a boutique residential tower ensconced in the heart of Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. Winner of the PAM (Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia) Gold Awards 2013 in the multiple residential high-rise category, the Rhombus houses 24 apartment units and a penthouse.
Facing Jalan Penaga, the site is a mere 0.2ha (half-acre) fringed by condominiums and bungalows and with a slope at its back. The size of the site and the topography were certainly constraints that challenged the designers.
“How do we maximise the use of space, take advantage of the view from the top, and make sure the slope is stable (during construction) because of an existing building in the back?” Wong says rhetorically during our recent interview at the Rhombus.
“We constructed a podium to maximise the floor area, then we ‘twisted’ the tower so everybody (in the apartments) gets a straight-on view of the KLCC skyline,” he explains. “Instead of facing the road, the building is diagonal to the site – that’s why you get the rhomboid shape.”
Sheathed in charcoal-black aluminium cladding, the Rhombus strikes a stunning pose with its sleek geometry. I did a double take the first time I drove past the building on Jalan Penaga heading towards Bangsar Shopping Centre.
“The choice of cladding is to articulate the sharpness of the corner,” Wong explains. Weather resistant, low maintenance, durable and recyclable, aluminium cladding is also a popular choice in the building industry nowadays.
On its sides, thin ribbon-like recesses make up the glass-panelled openings that allow natural light and ventilation into apartment bathrooms and corridors. For ease of construction, the aluminium cladding comes in standardised panels. This usually means there will be leftover bits – in this case, they were not simply discarded but have been used to create a zig-zag pattern on the facade.
“I think this comes with the understanding of how things are put together, how they are built and how to turn leftover materials into further articulation of the facade,” Wong says.
Looking at the facade, it is hard to gauge how many levels Rhombus has. That’s because the designers wanted to move away from what Wong calls the “flat syndrome”, referring to the standard linear constructions of flats. “The grid and horizontal band gets longer as you go up and conceal the actual number of storeys,” says Wong. There are 14 storeys, by the way.
At the Rhombus, utilitarian spaces like the four-level car park and lobby entrance are cleverly veiled with elegant timber screens and lush green walls. Also, unlike the usually dark, stuffy and dank car parks, this building’s car park spaces are naturally lit, well-ventilated, and adorned with green walls and graphic detailing.
“Many people don’t realise that in a condominium, the car park is your front door, you see it every day when you leave and come home,” says Chan Kin-Meng of Benéton Properties, the company that owns and manages the Rhombus.
“The fact that Unit One put all that time and care into designing even the car park makes the building feel a little more luxurious and exclusive.”
Visitors who arrive in the lobby are greeted by an atrium space where “you see right through the belly of the tower”. The triple-height volume allows hot air to rise and maximises ventilation in the common area. Above the lobby is a mezzanine level topped by a floor that houses the gym, infinity pool, guest lounge and meeting/dining room. Unit One also did the interior architecture and design of the Rhombus’s communal spaces and apartments.
The Green Building Index-certified building chalked up many green points from passive design features: orientation of the building, spatial layout, cross ventilation and shading.
“These are things we do naturally in our designs, for example, a deep overhang balcony (that provides shade) makes more sense than a glass curtain wall building in our climate,” says Wong.
The Rhombus was a project that was six years in the making, from design conception to its physical completion. The brief from Benéton’s executive chairman Tan Sri Chan Sau Lai was to design “a large-room ‘hotel’ interior and architecture that works together,” Wong explains.
“The Rhombus is one of the bigger projects we’ve dealt with and there was lots of coordination with different consultants involved in the project,” he says.
“But the level of detailing we do is the same for every project no matter the size. At the end of the day, the challenge is to stick to the original idea from day one.
“This is certainly one of our best projects and we’re proud of it! The original idea is intact,” says Wong, smiling.
“But of course there are areas we’re not completely happy with, like some of the workmanship and detailing ... it didn’t happen the way we wanted it to,” admits the perfectionist.
Since its inception in 1996, Unit One has been snagging accolades for notable projects like the Alexis Bistro chain and lifestyle brand BritishIndia’s headquarters in KL, and the Leisure Farm Villas in Johor.
“A lot of people recognise our work by certain visual elements common to Unit One projects – we’re particular about how things align and junctions meet, how different materials come together and how amenities work,” says Wong who honed his skills at London-based EDM Architects, KL-based TR Hamzah and Yeang, and GDP Architects before setting up Unit One.
“But what is not visual and easily recognised is that we’re excellent at space planning.”
Wong credits the training he and Ding got as architecture students at the Welsh School of Architecture in Britain, which is known for its pragmatic approach. “The school is strong on space planning, circulation, how things are put together and environmental stuff,” says Wong. Both he and Ding are chartered architects in Britain and members of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
“It’s not a big philosophy school. We used to joke that it should be called the ‘Welsh School of Drafting’! But looking back, it has done us a lot of good. The training grounded us in fundamentals that allowed us to explore ideas like how spaces work together and how efficiently they are planned to not waste space,” he says.
As the legendary Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa said: “Architecture cannot be totally explained but must be experienced.” Unit One has a knack for creating spaces that flow effortlessly as you move from one space to another.
“A good layout can also make a small space look larger and brighter than it is,” Chan chips in. “It is uncommon to find architects who can work beyond what you see on the outside.”
Wong adds, “With the Rhombus, we’ve been successful. Given the shape of the building and how it works with the internal space, there are no awkward corners or wasted space.”
Unit One’s latest project is the recently completed Casaman terrace homes in Desa ParkCity, KL. The 147 units were snapped up within five hours when the project was launched in 2010.
As Chan sums it up: “To have successful, wonderful projects, we need two things – talented designers and appreciative developers. Both parties have to work passionately together, support each other and give each other enough room to express creativity and realise the project.”
If the Rhombus is anything to go by, the Benéton-Unit One collaboration has been a grand slam.
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Lifestyle, Lifestyle, Rhombus apartment tower, Unit One Design, PAM Gold Award winner 2013
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