Looking relaxed in a light blue shirt and white jeans, Prof Jason Pomeroy was quite easy to spot at the Colonial Cafe in Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur.
The good-looking eco-architect, academic and urban planner is the host of architecture travel series City Time Traveller, which is currently into its second season.
The programme highlights the unique architecture in different cities and explores how such buildings were influenced by culture, tradition and social practices.
The first season of City Time Traveller took Pomeroy to cities in Vietnam, Thailand, China, India and Singapore and was highly commended for the Best Infotainment category at the 2014 Asian Television Award.
In Season Two, Pomeroy leaves the beaten track to explore six more cities and their architectural heritage, such as the Spanish colonial structure of Intramuros in Manila; the Presidency University and Oberoi Grand hotel in Kolkatta; Kuala Lumpur’s National Mosque and Railway Station; the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) of Amritsar, India; Shanghai’s towering skyscrapers; and the monasteries of Paro, Bhutan.
More than merely hosting the show, Pomeroy also provided architectural and academic direction in both seasons.
“It’s a remarkable experience because it’s not every day that one gets the privilege to see the diverse types of architecture and range of cultures in such a short amount of time.
“For me. it’s kind of like being a student again, learning so much more about architecture. It just highlights how little we know and how much more we can learn,” says the articulate Pomeroy, 41.
“Many of these lessons are so strongly rooted in the past that many solutions to our current climate, cultural, economical, technological, spatial and social problems could be addressed if we learnt something from the past occupants of these traditional buildings,” says the special professor at Nottingham University, Britain, and the Universita IUAV di Venezia, Italy.
Pomeroy gave the example of Bhutan, a country that embraces a dual system of the Buddhist faith and secularism, and known for its Gross National Happiness index.
“So when so many thriving economies seek to create an index to measure their Gross Domestic Product, they are more concerned with their Gross National Happiness, with the view that if you are happy, you are going to be prosperous, economically and socially,” he says. “What I find fascinating is that they have somehow managed to create building types that seem to foster that sense of happiness.”
Citing the Paro Dzong, Pomeroy says the fortified citadel was not only a court of administration but also a court of justice, a temple and a place where people could live, work, play and pray.
“This fortified citadel serves as the beacon to society, a model of how one should live in order to eventually reach enlightenment. The impact on the city is that all buildings try to emulate the Dzong, to the point that they are almost replicas architecturally,” says the Singapore-based founder of sustainable design firm Pomeroy Studio.
Within the buildings, he adds, there also exists a balance between religious harmony and secularism, with offices, residences and retail outlets having small altar houses.
When it comes to the global city of Shanghai, Pomeroy raises the question of whether the city’s skyscrapers – symbolising prestige, opulence and prosperity – are because of the nation’s belief that one city should be more economically outstanding, or whether they are a reflection of Shanghainese culture, which is about openness, tolerance, diversity and adaptability to the times.
“Does that really stem from the British, who came in to create a trade and commercial hub that was constantly changing with the times, which is why the city has always been a hotbed of new ideas, technology and changing circumstances?”
India’s Amritsar, a city at the centre of the Sikh kingdom, also fascinates Pomeroy, serving as a paradox of sorts.
“You have the Golden Temple right next to a fortress. You’ve got an epicentre of the Sikh faith, yet it sits cheek by jowl next to one of the most important trading hubs for silk and textile in India.
“What dawned on me is it worked because it’s about acceptance, and the Sikh faith is again about tolerance and openness, supported by the fact that they had opened up their city to so many foreign traders,” says the author of two books, Skycourt And Skygarden: Greening The Urban Habitat and Idea House: Future Tropical Living Today.
In today’s City Time Traveller 2 episode on Kuala Lumpur, Pomeroy reveals that the show is about the quest for a Malaysian architectural identity.
“When you have colonial British and Indian, Chinese and Malay influences, what becomes your national style?”
In the show, he explores the KL Railway Station, designed by British architects with Moghul and Saracenic influence; the National Mosque which features Islamic architecture fused with modern materials and technology; and the Petronas Twin Towers, a gleaming skyscraper that incorporates Islamic geometry.
The past in present times
Overall, Pomeroy’s journey is more than an architectural quest, but also a social and cultural exploration.
“Buildings and enclosures allow us to be social. If we design without thinking about the practices of social interaction there, then it becomes sterile and lifeless, and that’s where a lot of architecture goes wrong,” says Pomeroy, who designed South-East Asia’s first zero-carbon landed property, the Idea House, and Singapore’s first carbon-negative home.
To Pomeroy, who is of Malaysian Chinese and British parentage, the series also educates people on how to use space.
“The feedback that I’ve had from the show is lovely. Old ladies stop me in the streets and say how happy they are that I made the programme because they are able to tell their grandchildren how they used to live, work or play, before technology took control. And how people used to use courtyards and squares as a means of natural lighting and ventilation.”
He likens the programme to an extension of his lecture theatre, and a means of extending his reach to try and help people understand the importance of architecture and the built environment.
The series also expounds the “Darwinian evolution of design”. “Ideas that don’t work or are not resilient enough to accommodate a particular culture, climate and social economics or technology of the place would eventually die out. So, cities and buildings that still function today acknowledge the past, and have been flexible enough to adapt to the present,” says Pomeroy, citing examples like the Presidency University and the Oberoi Grand hotel in Kolkatta.
He says the fact that natural light and ventilation, modularity and open spaces that allow for social interaction can be found in all these examples mean that our ancestors had sustainabilty in mind before the advent of technology.
“For me, being a green architect is wonderful because it means we can still learn lessons from those past buildings and be able to re-interpret them for our modern design,” he says.
Clearly an advocate of preserving architectural heritage, Pomeroy feels strongly about learning from our past.
“There could be nothing worse than my grandchildren telling me, ‘I have no idea why this building is shaped like this’. We need to be able to tell them why the built environment is the way it is.
“If we are going to deny a place’s history, then it’s the future generation who will be worse off and ignorant of the past. We would have to re-invent the wheel, create architecture and not have all the benefit of the learned knowledge of previous generations.
“So I think it’s important for us to capture that knowledge from the past, distil the lessons from it, design for the present needs and disseminate that knowledge to the future generation,” says Pomeroy.
City Time Traveller Season Two airs every Saturday at 8.30pm (with a repeat at 11.30pm) on Channel NewsAsia, Astro Channel 530. Catch the third episode today which highlights the unique architecture in Kuala Lumpur.