3 Malaysian women architects who thrive in a male-dominated industry

The courtyard and landscaped areas at Sinkeh Hotel, Penang, converted from a 1920s shoplot. Photos: Veritas Design Group

Lillian Tay cuts a tall figure in person and her stature matches her experience and standing in the architecture industry.

Trained as a civil engineer and architect at Princeton University in the United States – obtaining her BSc in Engineering and Master of Architecture – Tay worked at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates in New York before returning home to Kuala Lumpur in the 1990s.

A principal of Veritas Architects (and vice president of Veritas Design Group), some of her key projects include the award-winning Sinkeh boutique hotel in George Town, Penang which won Building of the Year at the Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia (PAM) awards in 2015, and Dubai’s Cityscape Awards for Emerging Markets – Leisure & Hospitality (Built) category, in 2016.

But even after all these years, Tay says that the field of architecture remains a male-dominated playground.

“At university, (architectural) students are quite evenly split between male and female. However, in the workplace, the fall-out rate is higher for women. This is the norm in most industries but even more so among women architects. This is largely because women are often obligated to take on the primary home-maker role, especially in family-oriented Asian cultures,” opines Tay, 57, who also led a team to design the W Hotel Kuala Lumpur in collaboration with American firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP.

The Oxley Towers by Veritas Design Group at Jalan Ampang, KL is a set of three buildings linked by bridges that will include Jumeirah and So Sofitel hotels. Photo: Veritas Design Group
The courtyard and landscaped areas at Sinkeh Hotel, Penang, converted from a 1920s shoplot. Photos: Veritas Design Group

“On top of that, an architect’s design process can be lengthy and time-consuming. I see that juggling the long work hours and family responsibilities imposes greater obstacles for women than men,” says Tay, who is currently vice president of PAM.

The job also comes with other challenges for female professionals.

“A woman often has to work harder and outperform the men to be recognised. The subconscious socio-cultural conditioning in a generally male-driven, male-dominated society can discourage women from asserting themselves as leaders,” notes Tay, an advocate of urban architectural heritage conservation.

Traditional expectations, she adds, especially in Asian cultures, can make it harder for a woman to break into the male-driven business networking circles in the private sector.

“In Malaysia, I see more female leadership in this industry in the public sector, where moving up is rightly based more on individual good performance.

“In the private sector, women business owners are at a disadvantage when competing and getting the work because deals are often brokered in male-dominated business networking, be it male-bonding activities such as golf, cycling, luxury car clubs or entertainment.”

Unequal pay is another issue that persists in the industry, something which Tay hopes to play a role in changing.

“With more acute awareness globally of the gender pay gap, business owners and managers should examine salaries

and work performance assessments more closely.

“This gap is a reality here in Malaysia as it is in more developed societies. I believe there is an even greater onus on women business owners to promote greater awareness and commit to rectifying such gaps and other obstacles in promotion and hiring policies to ensure a more equitable workplace and greater women leadership in our respective industries,” she emphasises.

Naturally, she hopes to see more women architects holding leadership roles in the future.

“Women tend to be more prepared to listen and accommodate. Malaysia is fortunate that our new administration has taken an unprecedented and exemplary effort to have more women politicians in national leadership roles.

“I hope to see that commitment filter more to the private sector, including in our building industry,” she adds.

Eleena, principal and founder of Eleena Jamil Architect. Photo: The Star/S.S.Kanesan

Changing societal perceptions

When she first set up her architecture firm from home, a male colleague asked Dr Eleena Jamil whether she was doing architecture as a hobby.

“It takes a while before you are taken seriously as an architect,” says Eleena, whose firm now employs five architects, four of whom are women.

Although she has not faced any overt discrimination as a female architect, Eleena was annoyed when, once, someone told her, “Your building looks feminine.”

“I felt quite offended by that but (those types of comments are) very rare,” she acknowledges.

Eleena is the principal and founder of Eleena Jamil Architect set up in 2005, the same year she obtained her PhD from the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University, Great Britain.

One of her most notable projects is the Bamboo Playhouse in Kuala Lumpur – a play pavilion located within the Perdana Botanical Gardens – which was shortlisted for an award at the 2015 World Architecture Festival.

The Bamboo Playhouse is inspired by traditional Malay houses and features decks of various heights. Photo: Filepic

The Playhouse also received an honourable mention at the American Architecture Prize 2016 awards under the Installation & Structures category.

Eleena Jamil Architect was also one of five practices shortlisted for Dezeen’s Architect Of The Year award 2018.

Being given due respect and gaining trust are some of the many challenges that women architects and business owners face.

“We get most of our work through word-of-mouth. I do very little socialising. We took part in international competitions and won a few, that’s how we started to grow,” shares Eleena, 47.

However, the perception that women cannot “handle” the architecture business still persists.

“The construction industry is very complex. It’s not just about designing but also managing projects that involve contractors, clients and consultants. The architect is the leader of the project.

The bamboo pavilion created by Eleena for her masterclass at the National Craft Institute (IKN) Malaysia is made from treated local bamboo and consists of four freestanding pavilions. Each pavilion features screens filled with colourful and textured infills. Photo: Eleena Jamil Architect

“There is the perception that women are not cut out for all that. And there are still people who are uncomfortable working with us,” says Eleena.

She also feels that there aren’t many women architects in top management or running their own firms due to the long hours involved.

“Women are still expected to stay at home with the children. And when women have children and take time off, they are not given equal salaries or opportunities when they come back.

“I think it helps to have more women in decision-making positions to make it a better environment for women at work,” she says.

In the long run, Eleena hopes to inspire her staff to pursue their dreams.

“I love what I do; I love architecture. I do hope that people who work for me are not afraid to be who they are. I hope I can instill in them confidence so that they can achieve their goals.”

Ultimately, Eleena is looking forward to seeing a change in the way society regards women.

“I hope that in the future, when people see female architects, they will just see an architect. With more women architects out there, that can happen,” she says.

Almaz is the founder of Almaz Architect, which designed the award-winning Kuang Retreat. Photo: The Star/Norafifi Ehsan

Pushing for sustainability

Almaz Salma Abdul Rahim believes in sustainability and maintaining the cycle of life. The Kuang Retreat which she designed epitomises both these elements: The retreat was built using recycled wood and the roof and external walls incorporate special features that promote natural ventilation.

Water for the retreat comes from a tube well drilled 61m below the rock layer, as well as from rainwater harvesting. Planted around the 2-acre (0.8ha) land are fruit trees, edible plants and also timber trees.

Owned by her family, the retreat in Rawang, Selangor won first prize in the Malaysian Wood Awards 2017.

“The project was to design a building that embodies all aspects of tropical architectural elements from our traditions in the form of details and construction methods, and to achieve passive sustainability co-existing in our locality and climate,” shares Almaz, 60.

She drew inspiration for the retreat from her third year university project at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, where she had to design an autonomous house.

“Part of the investigative work we did was to live in a commune for three days in South Yorkshire where we observed a community living in a sustainable environment, planting their own food, schooling their own children and using energy in a sustainable manner.

The Kuang Retreat uses recycled wood as part of the building materials. Photos: Almaz Architect
The roof and external walls of the Kuang Retreat incorporate special features that promote natural ventilation and a cooling effect.

“I felt that I needed to further explore the possibilities of an autonomous house and make it a reality. That was made possible when we bought the property in Kuang,” she explains.

The Kuang retreat was just one of Almaz’s many projects since she first set up Almaz Architect in 1994.

She also designed the Iraqi Airways Hotel in Baghdad and in 2012, her firm won third prize in the Bertam-Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia Masterplan competition.

One of her current projects is a small commercial hub, where the plan is to turn an otherwise normal row of commercial space into an integrated indoor and outdoor area. The hub will incorporate space that provides services to workers within an industrial area.

The International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) dental faculty is another project by Almaz Architect.

“Our design proposes to attract the workers here to eat, exercise and rehabilitate. It is very vibrant and we are glad our clients are equally excited about it,” she shares.

Almaz is one of the few women architects leading their own firms, and she says there is not enough women architects in Malaysia.

“It could be that the course is long, costs a lot, or many go on to get married and work. Many women are currently moving into design-related fields, and not necessarily in architecture. Architectural education is the perfect base for a design career and many girls are moving that way,” she opines.

Architects also need to visit work sites regularly to inspect ongoing projects.

“This part of the job could put off some women, although I do not see that as a problem among the women architects that I know, for they are firm and know their stuff,” she notes.

Nonetheless, networking and promoting their work do pose as a challenge for women.

“Marketing remains a key challenge for women architects as the boys tend to play golf and go for happy hours together,” says Almaz, who makes it a point to join organisations such as Wanita Industri Binaan Malaysia, which opens up networking possibilities.

Almaz feels that women also tend to design with people and families in mind.

“We are more concerned about the safety of children and also social effects on people, especially old folks.”

In future, Almaz hopes to engage in more projects that involve designing spaces for public interaction.

“I also hope to contribute my time to improving the position of architects as professionals in our country, that we may be seen as leaders of the building industry regardless of bei•ng a man or a woman,” she concludes.

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