The arts have always been part of architect Edric Choo Poo Liang’s life. “My father was a self-taught artist, my mother is a great chef, and it was the subject that I always excelled at throughout my schooling days,” he says, laughing.
Growing up among the paddy fields of Kedah where nature was his playground, Choo understands deeply the impact of living with nature. “I grew up fishing by the river, catching fighting fishes, riding a bike and climbing trees – it is no wonder that I love nature,” he says. “It has shaped my thoughts and ways of design.” This soon led him to study Housing Building & Planning at Universiti Sains Malaysia and later on architecture at Universiti Malaya.
Before setting up O2 Design Atelier (O2DA) and Choo Poo Liang Architect (CPLA), his own practices in Petaling Jaya, Choo, 47, spent years soaking in the vibrant design culture of different cities around the world. His architecture career took off to a great start with stints at renowned architecture firms including TR Hamzah & Yeang, ZLG Design, RT+Q, W Architects, SCDA, and WOHA.
When asked what he considers the Edric Choo touch, he describes it as “light, nature and space as a contemporary statement.” In every project that he works on, Choo always makes these a priority. “At the same time, I create a space that is comfortable and suitable to the needs of the client. That is my forte.”
“I don’t think anyone would avoid having more space. Imagine you bought a terrace house but it’s now as big as a bungalow. You’ll definitely like it. However, when it comes to incorporating nature, it gets a little subjective, especially on the issue of maintenance. Some people like looking at greenery but do not have the time to maintain it,” says Choo.
After years on the road, Choo returned to Malaysia in 2014, founding his own firm that dips into his childhood experiences while being thoughtfully shaped by his global exposure. That same year Choo started renovations on his own home. This project, known as The Courtyard House in Sungai Buloh, exposed Choo and his firm to a wider audience as he turned a standard terrace property into a spacious contemporary design that played with natural light.
Connecting space and nature
“I wanted to create a place that was spacious, had plenty of light, fully crossed ventilated and a comfortable place to stay yet done with basic materials like bricks and cement,” explains Choo. It was a challenge, he admits but it was worth it. Soon after the house was completed in 2015, Choo received a number of requests from clients.
“It was the start of introducing to Malaysians what a cement house would look like. My entire master bathroom complete with a bathtub is 12ft x 12ft (3.7m x 3.7m) and the finishing was fully cement. Many commented that it looked like a prison cell and wondered how I would be able to live there,” he shares. Yet with ample lighting and touches of refinement, Choo turned that space using such basic materials to a beautiful masterpiece.
Choo’s designs are discreetly luxurious, the opulence shining through in his choice of materials and the symbiotic relationship they create with the space. This approach carries through to his other completed and current projects. For residential developments, a bungalow home in Kota Damansara that is nearing completion has Choo pushing the envelope on his designs. “I can’t say what it is, but I can say that it will make a statement when finished,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
“Good architecture should not be about creating your own style; instead, it should be designed well to accommodate the site situation as well as the type of project we are addressing. If we are doing housing, the approach should be more on the livability and conditions set by the clients. Instead of me choosing the style that I want for the client, the design is based on the brief, the budget, the client’s lifestyle, then I will use my creativity to make a dream house for them,” shares Choo.
Some of his noteworthy works include the recently completed restoration of Sentul Works which allowed Choo to express a fresh aesthetic to the building’s age and heritage. Located within the extended park setting of Sentul Park, the century-old structure was turned into a modern co-working space. “This project integrates the new and the old and that was the real challenge – working with an existing building without proper documentation. Most of it was site solutions and it turned out to be a success,” shares Choo who collaborated with YTL on this project.
“We also took a completely different approach with a fast food restaurant in Klang. With this restaurant we were tasked to create a Landmark look for that particular location,“ says Choo. The design of the restaurant’s interior is an extension of the exterior concept mixing a Modernist Retro approach but executed with contemporary materials and techniques. Inside, you’ll find retro cafe car seat style dining and classic mid-century Art Deco arches detailing in the interior. The main idea is to bring back the memories of the old days of KFC in the 1960s, when it was started where during that period, Art Deco was the major influence on architecture.
Always dreaming big, Choo and his team regularly enter architecture competitions, be it locally or internationally. “This gives me and my team an insight into a different level of architecture that explores architecture language and philosophy.”
This goes back to the exposure among clients when it comes to the value of architecture while he was working in Singapore. “In Malaysia, there are clients who are more profit or cost concentrated compared to the appreciation of architecture as an art form and architecture as a philosophy,” Choo explains.
“That is a major difference. If you look at the great buildings by great architects from around the world, you can see the thoughts and ideology that they bring to their design. That is what zeitgeist and genius loci (the spirit of the time and place) are about. It’s like a statement that you make when creating a masterpiece to mark the times and place.”
Choo is quick to point out that Malaysia also has great architecture, especially those from the early 1960s right through the 1980s. “Some of these buildings include the Subang Airport, Universiti Malaya’s Dewan Tunku Canselor, National Mosque, and the Parliament House. It features a modernist architecture that is able to blend with the local conditions yet still has the greatest touch in terms of architecture Languages that remains as impressive today as it was when it was first built.”
As if running a practice wasn’t challenging enough, Choo also teaches regularly at numerous universities including his alma mater, Universiti Malaya. “The interaction with students keeps me going,” he says. “In the spirit of giving back to the field, the teaching has enabled me to share my knowledge and allowed me to explore some architecture that is hardly able to materialise, especially in Malaysia. I like that I get to gain insights into the thoughts of youngsters too!”
“With social media, students today are much more aware of what is happening around them. As much as I want to expose them to the reality of the industry, I do want them to be as creative as they can be. I want them to fly and push the limit of architecture. I always tell my students that they have plenty of time to create commercial buildings after they graduate but in school, it’s a golden time to explore their creativity, see how far they can push the limits of current architecture and explore what are the future thoughts of architecture that can change society.”
The architecture profession is wide-ranging, according to Choo. “We are artists who create spaces for people. It involves many elements that we must manage professionally while prioritising what is important depending on the stage of the project,” explains Choo, listing “spatial experiences, user friendly, functionality, and professionalism” as measures of this feat. “Through architecture, you can excel in your artistic sense, philosophy, professionalism, and buildability.” Good architecture should not be about creating your own style; instead, it should be designed well to accommodate the site situation as well as the type of project we are addressing.