Sunday September 3, 2006
Blending with the landscape
Kerry Hill is regarded as one of the best regional architects, up there among the exalted ranks of Geoffrey Bawa and Peter Muller. CHIN MUI YOON finds out the principles that govern this award-winning architect’s works.
HOW should an architect maintain the delicate balance of past and future? This question lies at the heart of all Kerry Hill’s work.
Since the 1990s, the typical tropical resort has been at the forefront of what’s termed “Tropical Regionalism”.
While the period produced buildings that celebrate local cultures and identity, it also spawned romanticised reproductions where carved wooden doors, or gardens with a lotus pond and scattered with stone statues are immediately described as “Balinese style”.
But Hill’s architecture “transcends obvious notions of region and what the tropical resort might be”, comments Philip Goad, professor of architecture at the University of Melbourne, in his book New Directions in Tropical Asian Architecture.
Hill’s buildings go beyond mere aesthetics. The spaces capture the essence of each location and achieve a delicate balance between beauty and simplicity; rustic and contemporary; past and present.
“To me, architecture cannot rely on image alone; it involves and speaks to the senses,” said Hill at an interview during Datum: KL2006, the Malaysian Institute of Architects’ fourth Annual International Architectural Design Conference.
“If architecture is perceived as image only, then it’s very easy to fall into a state of mind in which traditional takes over from innovation, or worse, innovation denies tradition.”
He resists the development of a house style, preferring to respond to each location.
Take the Amankora resort, for example. It features a series of lodges spread across Bhutan’s central and western valleys.
The solitude and tranquility of this mountainous, Buddhist Himalayan kingdom, still untouched by tourism, is reflected in the low-impact buildings utilising natural rammed earth, timber and stone that exude an almost monastic ambience.
“I am reminded of an old Chinese proverb ? the future is only the past again, entered through another gate,” Hill quoted.
“The regeneration of building forms, or variants of past models, fails to address the concerns of contemporary architecture.
“Yet, I also believe an architecture that denies its past is at the risk of being skin-deep, as in architecture at home everywhere and yet nowhere.
“Forms can manifest in diverse ways. But each building needs to tell its own story. It can belong to a family of precedents, but it must speak for itself.”
This connection between past and present is also made viable through materials.
Where possible, Hill said he uses materials common to each place and prefers natural materials for their generic compatibility.
“For instance, the natural way to build in Bhutan is with mud or stone while it’s timber for Kyoto,” he explained.
Born in 1943, Hill was among the pioneering batch of eight architecture graduates from the University of Western Australia in 1968.
He worked for three years with Perth-based architects, Howlett and Bailey, before attempting to make his mark in the United States.
However, Hill seemed destined to remain in Asia. He joined the firm of Palmer and Turner from 1972 to 1978, based initially in Hong Kong and later in Jakarta.
It was during this time that Hill became acquainted with the late Geoffrey Bawa and Peter Muller, two architects who defined tropical resorts.
What was intended to be a three-month stint in Asia extended to over 30 years.
In 1979, Hill started his own practice in Singapore, which is now also his home and where he has an office in a restored shophouse.
“Kerry Hill is not someone you’d describe as sociable. It augurs well for his architectural works, as his buildings have a scope of past, present and future, yet are finely detailed in their interpretation,” commented an architect at Datum:KL2006.
Up close, the silver-bearded architect has the appearance of a professor. With sharp, perceptive eyes behind tortoise-shell glasses, Hill’s wry wit and dry humour are not readily apparent because he is a man of few words, appearing almost aloof at times.
A string of extraordinary resorts across Asia exemplifies Hill’s vision of tropical architecture.
These are spaces that are effortlessly comfortable, encourage rest and reflection, yet inspiring with their harmony.
The designs are often minimal but never minimalist, a quality inherent in good architecture that Hill described as “exactitude.”
“Exactitude is attributed to any object constructed with precision – neither too much, nor too little. One material pays respect to another. It is tangible and clearly evident,” he explained.
“Another quality is authenticity, which is the ability of an architectural work to feel comfortable in its own skin, to look forward and backwards with equal ease.
“It involves a response to the tangible and current realities of a situation, of site, climate, technology, tradition and the human values of a place. It is building with a sense of belonging.”
The Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA), which selected Hill as the year’s Gold Medallist, hailed his works as “encouraging a progressive, regionally sensitive approach to the design and construction of buildings across the Asia Pacific.”
One of Hill’s earliest works that established his name was The Datai in Langkawi. The project won the 2001 Aga Khan Architectural Award for its “ecological approach ? that allows nature to reclaim the terrain after construction.”
“My works are always a response to landscape and climate,” explained Hill. “Perhaps my inspiration has everything to do with living for three decades in Singapore, which has beautiful old buildings that were designed for tropical climates and are still fully relevant and functional today.”
Now, at 63, how has his architecture evolved?
“When you’re young, you lay all your ideas on the table because you treat every project as your first and last job,” Hill replied, a hint of a smile showing at last. “Now, I see more restrain in my work. I’m no longer in such a hurry to give it all.”
To young architects, Hill has only one advice: be patient. I mention Malaysian-born Bali-based architect Cheong Yew Kuan, and Richard Hassell and Wong Mun Summ from WOHA Architects, all who had started successful practices after having worked with Hill.
“Architecture is a practice that is developed over time,” he said. “These architects have moved on and evolved well.
“Lots of people ask me when I’ll be calling it a day. But the word retirement is not in my vocabulary. My greatest achievement in architecture is that I’m still enjoying the work. And I’m looking forward to what the future brings.”