Third World inspiration

  • Lifestyle
  • Saturday, 27 Mar 2010

Sekeping Tenggiri, an experimental project, is a cosy dig in the heart of Kuala Lumpur inspired by squatters and villages of the Third World.

My partner and I recently held a party at a house in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. The first thing our guests said when they arrived was: “Wow, this place is gorgeous!” and “What a lovely house you have . . .”

Alas, we don’t own the house; we merely rented it for the party.

With its red brick facade and foliage cascading down walls, Sekeping Tenggiri stands out in the row of nondescript 1960s terrace houses. The designer — landscape architect Ng Sek San of Seksan Design — has converted two adjoining houses, including a corner lot, into an art warehouse cum rental home with seven guest rooms.

Tenggiri was initially open to the public and curators, showcasing some 400 pieces of contemporary Malaysian works. The rental home was a spin-off due to the cost of maintaining the warehouse. As with most of Seksan Design’s projects, the garden is the showpiece.

“Call it a paradigm shift but most people build the house, then the garden, but we work the house around the garden,” says Ng during an interview at Tenggiri.

Like his signature works, Sekeping Serendah ( and Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac), to name a couple, Ng again shows his design genius in creating a lush sanctuary of tropical foliage within a limited space.

Stepping through the metal entrance door, visitors are greeted by a canvas of greens. Plants of all textures, shapes and sizes creep, cling or hang from the roof. Wispy miniature bamboo grass, glory bush, heart-shaped Monstera deliciosa and elegant Malay ginger spill out of planter boxes stacked vertically. Fine, aerial roots hanging like beaded curtains front the cosy verandas while regal tualang trees and a rambutan tree with dramatic branches devoid of leaves stand like artistic sculptures in the garden.

Wire mesh armchairs and stools — a signature but functional Seksan Design look — complement the verdant garden.

Guest rooms come with wall-to-ceiling transparent louvres or double-leaf wooden doors that allow a lot of natural ventilation and good views.

“It’s the idea of ‘opening up’ the house in a tropical climate and being able to sit in a semi-outdoor environment because our weather is so consistent,” says Ng.

“You throw open the large windows or see through the clear glass doors, and green is always out there.”

Attached bathrooms equipped with hot shower and flush toilet are roofless so there are no damp, wet and stinky toilet problems. Guests can have a refreshing wash in the rain shower and daydream under the blue sky.

Unpainted cement walls and brick walls are left as they are. Sinks and basins are just concrete slabs. Natural light spills through the foliage and wooden louvres, dappling the wall with pretty leaf and geometrical patterns.

Ng says architects and interior designers sometimes rely too much on materials with fancy patterns like Italian marble or imported material from Spain, India or China.

“Something as simple as the play of light and the way shadows are cast, creating beautiful patterns, is more interesting and exciting to me,” he explains.

Simplicity rules

Tenggiri reflects how the designer explores space, proportion, light and natural materials, rather than relying on superficial aesthetics.

“If the scale, proportion and the light quality of the spaces are considered carefully, the spaces will take care of itself — no ornamentation or decoration is needed,” says Ng.

“For example, if you don’t have a good bone structure, whatever make-up or dress you put on doesn’t matter.”

Though he leaves structures raw and the walls unfinished, they are not austere or even lacking in aesthetics. The canopy of trees double up as ceiling or become a vertical garden; a row of hedges sets the boundary for areas.

“Our philosophy on building is to tread lightly — if it’s not necessary to build and paint, we won’t,” he adds.

During the renovation process, Ng basically scooped out the interior but retained the original columns, beams, staircases and roof.

“I try not to destroy the layer of history, for example, keeping the original colour of the frame or the beautiful patina, which adds character to the place,”

Ng encourages people to live in small spaces but to make their small houses look bigger than they really are.

“The magic is all about perception and not physical space,” he explains.

One of my favourite spaces in Tenggiri is the dining area where most of activities are centred. Measuring 4m by 4m, the room is relatively small if enclosed by walls. But since the walls have been knocked down, it “borrows” space from the pool and the garden, giving it a sense of openness.

“It’s also all about being able to move unimpeded from the living room or bedrooms to the garden.”

‘Green’ elements

Where other people see junk, Ng sees gold.

For the past decade, he’s been amassing old doors, windows and timber planks scrounged from demolished houses or bought from scrap yards.

All of Tenggiri’s wooden doors and timber structures have been recycled. The double-leaf doors or timber plank walls were salvaged from traditional Malay houses, complete with the peeling paint and old-fashioned doorknobs.

Our guests raved about the one-of-a-kind lamps made using materials like milk cartons, Yakult yogurt drink bottles and cat food tins. Fashioned by Ng’s creative wife, Carolyn Lau, also a landscape architect, the lamps are stylish and funky. So who needs designer lamps?

The lamps use energy-saving bulbs while solar heaters provide hot showers. Though the house is designed with excellent cross-ventilation for natural cooling, energy-efficient air-conditioners are put in for fussier guests.

Ng says Tenggiri was inspired by Third World architecture.

“Most of us are Western-trained so we brought back with us lots of Western ideas, especially technology related to architecture,” admits the New Zealand-trained Ng who works mainly in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

“But as I grow older I find that it’s not appropriate to this region because we are dealing with a massive population that is poor and living in villages or squatter areas. So I wanted to explore the idea of Third World aesthetics. It’s about taking one step back into an unfinished, raw, shack-like feel, and how to make this type of architecture more elegant. If people like it, it can be replicated in mass.”

Most of Ng’s inspiration comes from his travels around the Third World.

“I look at how spaces and the way shadows and light work, and try to replicate these kinds of qualities in a modern house,” he explains.

Will Tenggiri’s concept work for a “normal” modern house in Malaysia?

“I don’t know, I see my role as an experimenter,” Ng chuckles.

When he returned to Malaysia 15 years ago, Ng found that Malaysia didn’t have a strong landscape tradition, unlike Japan or Bali, which have a strong aesthetic sensibility rooted in the countries’ cultural heritage and translated into their landscape design.

“Here, there was nothing really sacred to preserve so my role is to experiment. We can afford to be eclectic in our approach and draw references from both East and West,” says Ng.

From the huge and high-profile projects lining up Seksan Design’s résumé, one can safely say that the “experiment” has received tremendous response.

“But in this age of globalisation where local identity is often muddled, it’s important to use local materials in our work to give it the local context like using indigenous plants and plucking ideas from local arts and culture,” he stresses.

Can one slap together an impressive house like Tenggiri without breaking the bank?

“It’s possible but it does need a lot of thinking,” says Ng, who is currently experimenting with low-cost houses in Papua New Guinea.

He thinks money can buy style but that’s not challenging. You can splurge on designer furniture and lights and capture those stylish interiors splashed in coffeetable books.

“If you have no money yet have style — that’s the challenge for designers!”

Certainly, something about Tenggiri resonated with us. The space communicates natural simplicity, relaxation and a lack of pretence. Most of our guests left the party gushing about Tenggiri, and everyone had a great time. That says a lot, doesn’t it?

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