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Friday November 11, 2005

Function first

CHOOSING a house or any architectural design is like choosing a spouse. The problem is, most Malaysians, or people in general, are more concerned about how they look from the outside than the inside. No wonder more often than not, they do not work out well for them. 

Architecture is about people and how they live. It is what they do inside the building that determines the shape of the structure and not vice-versa, said Prof Jimmy C.S. Lim, a well-known chartered architect.  

Jimmy Lim in his three-storey office building, part of which is his daughter’s art gallery.
“When functionality is made to fit into the design, you’ll find that it doesn’t work,” he said.  

Being one of the few architects who insist on design fitting functionality, Lim said his stand upsets developers because they want fanciful designs that please their clients.  

“But the most important thing is that the building works. The look of the building is made to work with the function so that the building has a meaning – it tells you what it is in the inside,” he said.  

“Anyway, do people rush home and take their favourite armchair or do they go across the street, look at their house and say, ‘This building is lovely’?” he said.  

“It is important how people feel in a building. When there is a high ceiling in an office, for instance, it gives a nice feeling. You don’t experience this in most of the offices today that have only eight-feet high ceilings,” said Lim.  


Lim’s work is characterised by a response to the climate and the environment and his on-going search to define a national character for Malaysian architecture. He has channelled his efforts into searching for solutions to tropical architecture, which promotes energy and heritage conservation. His passion includes using recycled timber and other locally available materials in his projects.  

He maximises the use of sunlight, wind and water to create comfort for the occupants. He explores the use of “light and shade” and translates the elements of layered-roofing for energy-efficient architectural expression.  

Among his interesting works are the T.Y. Chiew House, which won the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) Architectural Award 1984, which is a single-storey house built completely of timber sitting on brick piers sited on top of a hill in a disused rubber estate, in which Lim took advantage of the natural elements to achieve basic comfort. 

Another of Lim’s work, Peter Eu House 1, in Taman SA, Damansara, is built on a difficult site with a concrete-framed main block that provides the anchor for the rest of the house built with timber. It has a series of umbrella roofs accompanying steps down the slope. The house won the PAM Building Award 1987. 

The spectacular Salinger house in Kajang, Selangor, that won Lim the Aga Khan Award for Architectural Excellence in 1998 is an interesting modern timber house based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s triangular, late-period houses and traditional Malay wooden dwellings on stilts.  

Lim’s work has also won him the Commonwealth Association of Architects National Award in 1985, an award for the use of timber in building from the Malaysian Timber Industry Board in 1988, and the Norway Award for Outstanding Contribution to Quality in 1991. 

Despite his international acclaim, convincing Malaysian clients and developers of the advantages of tropical architecture is still an uphill task, said Lim. 

“Clients and developers often are not willing to spend the money because they say it is expensive,” he said.  

“One client asked me to remove sun shades to reduce cost but I told him he might save himself RM300,000 but his electricity cost might go up by RM28,000 a month. If the building is used for 10 years, that will be RM2.8mil. Where is the logic?” he said.  

“Anyway, what is more expensive? Why do CEOs spend RM1mil on cars but grumble about high costs of buildings? Which is a statement of our civilisation? Are we talking about expensive or the lack of foresight?” he said.  

Jimmy Lim’s work, Peter Eu House 1, in Taman SA, Damansara, won the PAM Building Award 1987. The house is built on a difficult site with a concrete-framed main block that provides the anchor for the rest of the house built with timber. It slopes down with a series of umbrella roofs.
Lim lamented that Malaysian corporate leaders in general lack foresight when they construct buildings and have no foresight for the future landscape of Malaysia. Moreover, there is no serious attempt to preserve the existing rich heritage that we have, he said. 

“Badan Warisan (Heritage of Malaysia Trust) has tried hard to get people to understand the value of our heritage but the response has been poor,” said Lim, a founding member and trustee of the Badan Warisan Malaysia, which was established in 1983. 

“What is even scarier is that while we have something of the past we can preserve, we are not creating anything today for the future to preserve,” he said.  

The projects that Lim has undertaken besides individual residential bungalows are commercial high and low-rise buildings, apartments, hospitals, holiday resorts and horse racing and betting facilities.  

Lim has also been actively involved in the Malaysian Institute of Architects as a member and president. He is often invited to speak in public lectures and teach at local and international universities.  

Currently, he is an adjunct professor at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan. As a result of the recent earthquake, he is teaching the students at the college to use local earthquake-resistant materials in their buildings.  

“Malaysians are fortunate in that we have been safe from earthquakes and do not need earthquake-resistant materials for buildings,” he said. 

“Flooding is a more important issue for us. We need to stop cutting slopes, felling trees and polluting our rivers. We need to recreate the mangroves along our coastlines. Fishermen in Penang said if not for the mangrove swamps, last year’s tsunami waves would have been bigger. These are lessons but have we learned from them?” he asked.  

In nominating a candidate for the Amazing Malaysians project organised by DiGi Telecommunications Sdn Bhd, Lim says that one should look for a candidate whose main priority is not money making but is more concerned about creating a homegrown solution that is sustainable and stands up to architectural criteria, some of which may not have been established.  

“Very often, we use criteria that were developed overseas and we just import them without question. We have to start thinking on our own and this is going to be the difficult part,” he said.  

Tropical architecture is one topic that is little explored and there should be more attempts to do so, he said.  

In creating a conducive environment for architects to explore architectural creativity and criteria, our societal value system needs to be changed to meritocracy, he said.  

“If there is minimum interference by politicians in the realm of applied knowledge, I think our country will see amazing talents manifesting,” he said.  

Born in 1944, Lim was raised in Penang. He was sent by sea to Sydney, Australia, in 1959 at age 15, to complete his schooling. He graduated with a degree in architecture from the University of New South Wales in 1969.  

He worked in Australia for three years and returned to Kuala Lumpur in November 1972 to work with a local firm. In 1978, he ventured out on his own and set up CSL Associates.  


DiGi Telecommunications Sdn Bhd is inviting the public to nominate Amazing Malaysians who, quietly but dedicatedly, are involved in heritage work. These individuals should be willing to work with children on projects.  

For more information, and to nominate, please go to