Multi-award winning architect’s works are steeped in conservation

THE tidal bore observatory at Taman Panorama Benak in Sri Aman, situated next to the century old Fort Alice, has won Sarawak architecture a prestigious honour.

It was a top winner in the Public and Civic Building Category at the 2010 Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia (PAM) Awards — the premier award for architecture in Malaysia.

The observatory’s architect Mike Boon had succeeded in blending a contemporary design next to a historical site, incorporating a ramp in a limited space to give access to the disabled.

“It is next to a heritage site so you don’t want something that is fighting for attention. This is not merely a building, it’s a landscape,” Boon, 46, described his winning design.

His work is best described by the jury as “an ingenious, honest and powerful form of language coupled with distinct relationships between forms, its surrounding undulating terrains as well as adjacent water bodies. There is a sense of serendipity and place making in this facility.”

He also won two prizes in this year’s PAM Awards — an Honorary Mention (second prize) for the conservation of the Square Tower along the Kuching waterfront and a Mention (third prize) for the Sibu Central Police Station.

Boon has gained attention for his efforts in conserving heritage buildings in Sarawak. Other than his award-winning preservation work on the Old Court House in Kuching, he is also widely associated with promoting awareness on conservation.

Besides working closely with the State Government on the conservation of heritage buildings, he is also a consultant for similar projects in the South-East Asian region.

“Winning awards is not everything, but this is definitely the best form of recognition of your work,” Boon said at his residence at Green Heights in Kuching. His house, called ‘M + M House’, also won a prize in the 2009 PAM Awards.

With his wife working and eldest son studying at a big table located at one corner of the spacious living room, the father of four, looking relaxed at another wooden table facing the backyard, shares his passion of architecture and his plans to green his garden with StarMetro.

Q: Tell us about yourself and your family background.

A: I am from Siniawan. My family lived in a small wooden house next to the ancient Swee Guk Kung temple. We moved to Kuching when I was in primary school and I lived in a detached house in Kenyalang with my grandparents, my parents and two other siblings.

My father, who was a teacher, sent me to learn drawing and I practised it on the wall. My mother loved gardening.

Since young, I always tried my very best to make our house more comfortable. I was a prefect and scout member at SMK Kuching High. I was actively involved in all exhibitions in school, from drawing, handicraft, lantern making and so on.

To become an architect was always my dream and ambition. I went to Australia to study architecture for five years. I did very poorly in my first project in university, which was technical drawing, I scored only four out of ten. Since then, I promised myself I want to get a prize every year, and I did.

Q: Did it ever cross your mind to work in Australia or was it always your plan to return?

A: I was awarded first-class honours in my fourth year and I was approached by representatives from the Singapore government who were recruiting talents. In my final year when I was doing my final thesis, my mother passed away. But my family didn’t tell me until after my exam.

Originally, I planned to work in Australia for a while to save some money and go back-packing in Europe. But since my mother’s demise, I was thinking maybe I should go home. I didn’t want to go to Singapore. So I came home and never fulfilled my Europe back-packing dream.

Q: What happened after you came back to Kuching?

A: I came back in 1990 but before that, I did return twice during school holidays, and I met my teacher’s son who is working as an architect. So, when I came back to Kuching, I went to see him and worked in his company, Jfn Architect. I became a partner after I was accredited in 1995.

We grew from five people to up to 30 people at one point. When I started working on government projects a few years back, I met some professionals with similar interest and passion in buildings and cultures, that’s when I had the chance to slow down and review my business model.

Q: Is your work on the Old Court House your first award?

A: My first award was actually some work for SMK Tabuan Jaya in the 90s. But it was the preservation work on the Old Court House, that sparked the business model I want to do.

I had won several awards with the Old Court House. It has won the National Heritage Award 2004 for the preservation of cultural and architectural history, the first time Sarawak won such an award.

I also won the Conservation Awards in ARCASIA Awards 2008 in Korea. This successful conservation effort set a benchmark for conservation in Sarawak, and I continued my passion in conservation since then.

Q: What inspires your designs?

A: Be sensitive to the environment around you. Architecture is about art, science and culture; it has to fit into the cultural and environmental context. Otherwise, it is going to be an object, just like a television set in the living room with no attachment at all.

Q: What is your greatest achievement?

A: I don’t have any great achievement. There are much better works. Personally, the tidal bore observatory is my best work at the moment. It addressed the environment — a contemporary design next to a heritage building and also the issue of sustainability.

Q: What do you think about Sarawak’s conservation efforts?

A: The idea of conservation is quite new here. It is definitely not a mainstream thing. Every country is facing the same issue of old buildings versus new development. There is no perfect system.

We are not against development, we just want a find a balance, a way to coexist.

Q: Can you tell us more about your involvement in the Sarawak Heritage Society (SHS) and in your opinion, how an NGO can help in promoting conservation?

A: SHS was formed in 2006 after the Old Court House won the award. The president of Badan Warisan Malaysia came here to present the awards to the State Government in 2004 and suggested the formation of the society. The Chief Minister then set aside RM100,000 for the society and I was the first president.

The society currently has about 40 members. We focus on promotion and education, targeting schoolchildren and we organise heritage walk, talks, and site visits.

The society also initiated a community heritage conservation project in Siniawan. Why Siniawan? Because it is an ancient, long forgotten small town, with the best kept timber shophouses in Sarawak. There is no development pressure, you can still have the ‘yesterday’ feeling pretty much, it has all the ingredients – the story line with tangible and intangible cultures. And of course, I was born there.

We get the local community involved to do documentation, awareness campaigns and other activities on the conservation of the ancient town.

Q: What do you want to achieve in the next five years?

A: When I reached 40 and everything was more stable, I started thinking of my five-year plan. I had reconstructed my business model and spent about 60% of my time on NGO work the first five years.

Now, in my second five-year plan, I realised that my practice in Sarawak should be kept to a small office. So, I keep my staff below 10 so I can focus on quality work, and also to continue my social responsibility in conservation efforts.

Q: What do you do when you are not working?

A: I love gardening, partly because of my late mother. I am planting trees in my backyard. I want to plan a jungle with local trees. There are lots of experimentation to do.

I am also in the editorial board of a book called ‘Architectural history in Sarawak’ which is scheduled to be published next year. Other than that, what I want to do most is to spend more time with my family.

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