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Monday July 23, 2012

Showcase of explosive ideas

A group of Malaysians will showcase their ideas at the world’s premier architectural showcase in Venice next month. But how can torn palm leaves, bent rattan and a Rubik’s Cube inspire ideas for cutting-edge building designs?

A PALM leaf sheaf is rasped and torn, yet it curls elegantly between rectangular metal frames. A thin strand of rattan winds its way ephemerally skywards, suspended by almost invisible fishing lines. A translucent plastic box has illusions of steps refracted in different directions. Could these models become actual buildings?

This is what 20 Malaysian architecture firms hope will come true one day, as they prepare to showcase some of their most innovative designs at the 13th Venice Biennale for Architecture from Aug 29 to Nov 25.

“The biennale is the world’s largest and most prestigious architectural festival,” points out Lim Teng Ngiom (everybody mentioned in this article is an architect), who is the curator for “Voices”, the theme for the upcoming Malaysian pavilion in Venice.

The biennale for architecture has been running for over 50 years, and it alternates with the equally renowned biennale for art, explains Boon Che Wee, one of two co-directors for the creative team.

The Malaysian creative team preparing for the Venice Architectural Biennale are (from left) Wan Sofiah Wan Ishak, Pital Marof, Boon Che Wee, Sarly Adre Sarkum and Lim Teng Ngiom. They are posing with the ‘sound wave’ armature that will contain the exhibits.

“Malaysia was invited to participate for the first time at the last festival in 2010 and we’re going again next month. Venice is not a property exhibition, it’s an explosion of the latest design ideas. Media and developers from around the world will be there. It’s a great opportunity to position our architectural concepts on the world stage,” he says during at interview at the Publika shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur with his team.

And hence the torn, curving palm sheaf actually encapsulates Lim’s ideas about how hard structures can co-exist with the softer organic portions of a building, how solid/cold surfaces can interact with permeable/soft ones, and ultimately about how a building impacts its environment.

Seamless (the winding rattan) is a concept by Che Wan Ahmad Faizal of a building without traditional levels, but a continuous spiral where people can walk on a gradual plane upwards rather than taking lifts or escalators, in a “never-ending exploration of movement”.

Refraction, which looks like a plastic box of steps (and illusions of steps), is the result of Ng Khuen Keat’s musings on how a structure can reflect an intoxicated state with distorted effects, inflated perceptions and contradictory scales. However, it is uncertain if sober residents would end up feeling dizzy inside!

Being a purely ideas-driven showcase, the Venice Biennale will give architects total freedom to be as creative as they want. “We can do so much more than what property developers are prepared to pay for,” underlines Pital Marof, one of the team members.

These multiple ‘explosions’ of slivers of wood represent recorded sound waves of people in an architect’s firm speaking in different languages and accents.

Wan Sofiah Wan Ishak, the team’s other co-director laments that much of Malaysian architecture is about “designing by numbers”, according to floor areas and budgets. “But architecture is also about expressing certain emotions, not just maximising square feet,” chips in Pital.

And some of these seemingly “far out” ideas can become real projects. In fact, Pital says that his concept for the last Venice Biennale in 2010 is now being constructed in Bandar Enstek, near Sepang in Selangor.

At a preview of the Malaysian pavilion at Publika earlier this month, many other fascinating ideas were on display. A proposal entitled Multiplicity by Amna A. Emir for the George Town Business Improvement District (BIDS) resembles an oversized Rubik’s Cube – and it’s all transparent to reflect the “transformation of the city in the spirit of democracy” and the “multitude of possibilities for community voices to be heard”.

The concept Serpihan Laman (Courtyard Fragments) by a team from C’Arch architecture juxtaposes a kampung house, a Chinese colonial mansion and a Terengganu Malay palace, reflecting how we share similar histories of how different communities have responded to our humid tropical climate, and how public and private spaces can intersect each other.

Floating Dwellers is a fascinating concept by Suhaimi Fadzir that translates Jawi calligraphy of Malay poems and proverbs into architectural possibilities; while Aircraft takes the idea of a gated community skywards, suggesting a lofty building that can escape the tumultuous ties of earth.

The biggest exhibit is a long, sinuous metal frame, or armature, a metaphor for a sound wave, that will contain all the other 19 models. Given that the Malaysian pavilion at Venice is entitled “Voices”, this frame is eminently appropriate to epitomise the multi-farious architectural ideas, indeed voices, of our country on the world stage.

Serpihan Laman by C’Arch Architecture juxtaposes courtyards of a kampung house, a Chinese colonial mansion and a Terengganu Malay palace.

Boon, the immediate past president of the Malaysian Institute of Architects (or Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia, PAM), fervently believes in the need to “position” Malaysian architecture globally.

“Many famous architects were first discovered at Venice. There’s no bigger or more prestigious architectural showcase in the world,” he says, adding that the last biennale in 2010 had a record attendance of 170,000 people. “If we want to become a high-income nation, we have to move from just producing goods into creating design.”

Lim says, “We have to move beyond a Third World culture of mere survival towards a First World culture that can appreciate the finer things in life such as arts and philosophy.”

Wan Sofiah says that Malaysia has been more focused on the physical aspects of economic development, such as highways and other infrastructure, but now needs to shift up a gear to become a provider of intellectual services – such as architectural design.

Boon says that over the past 20 years, Malaysia has proven that it can build any physical structure it wants, including the world’s (formerly) tallest twin towers: “Now is the time to move to the next level, to add value by having better design.”

Sarly Adre Sarkum, another team member, adds, “Just compare the price of an ordinary handbag versus a designer handbag. Value is added by creative ideas. This is the way to become a high-income nation.”

Seamless by Chewan Architecture shows a winding piece of rattan representing a building without traditional levels, but a continuous spiral where people can walk upwards in a never-ending exploration of movement.

The team points out that “Voices” is being supported by the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (Matrade). “This shows that when a professional body such as PAM approaches the Government with good ideas, things can happen,” says Boon.

Wan Sofiah explains that Malaysia can no longer compete based on the volume of cheap products.

“Our population is just a little more than 29 million. Other countries have many more people so how can we compete with their numbers? But we can compete based on intelligence and quality. We can be as creative as any architect, anywhere in the world.”

As it stands, Boon points out that some Malaysian architects have made their mark globally. Dr Ken Yeang for instance is renowned for his “eco-friendly tropical skyscrapers”. And Sarawakian Teo A. Khing designed the RM6.8bil Meydan Racecourse in Dubai. At 7.06 million square meters, it’s the world’s biggest course and includes a five-star hotel, luxurious horse stables, a marina, a racing museum and a 1.6km-long grandstand with 20,000 seats crowned by a distinctive crescent-shaped roof.

Wan Sofiah hopes that Venice will help Malaysia spearhead a new “design economy”. This is crucial given that the architectural services sector is supposed to be opened up for free competition from Asean nations by the end of this year, and from the world by 2015.

One exhibit from Sacha and Tan Architects sums up the whole “Voices” project. From a distance, it looks a bit like a mutant hedgehog, but closer inspection reveals multiple “explosive” slivers of wood. These are actually representations of recorded sound waves of everyone in the firm speaking in different languages and accents; and, of course, each wave has a unique pattern.

And what are they saying? As the architects’ concept statement explains: “The Biennale is a ‘vessel’ in which we now have a platform to let our ‘Voices’ be heard.... There is a growing frustration in our industry that the playing field is not level. Why are Western architects able to literally waltz into the industry here in the East and get work, while ... for a Malaysian architect to land a job in the West is nigh on impossible. Why does the Western client-community ignore us? STOP IGNORING US, we say.”

> For more information on the 13th Venice Biennale for Architecture, which runs from Aug 29 to Nov 25, go to