Monday February 18, 2013
By NATALIE HENG
Two young designers say we should be asking more of our buildings than just aesthetics.
SUNLIGHT streams through, illuminating a strange but welcoming oasis of wood flooring, steel banisters and concrete latticed walls. It’s a strange half-world, part outdoors, part indoors, that offers options. For example, a transitioning homeless person can choose the familiarity of a bench or the privacy of one of the building’s many pod-like rooms.
There building’s multiple levels are lit by vertical tubes delivering natural light to the lower levels. The floors below are darker, offering space for contemplation – somewhere to be alone, to rest and recuperate. The higher levels are covered with lawns and pleasant landscaping, making a welcoming environment for counselling sessions and training on how to get back on the income wagon through various modes of self employment.
The building has all the nuts and bolts of a winner: green design, innovation, originality, and the real kicker – relevance.
Interior architecture graduate Lim Meng Yeu, 23, names this creation the Awareness Centre of Humanity. His inspiration for the design, which exists only on paper for the moment, originates from scenes of everyday life in his hometown, Malacca.
“The state has channelled a fair amount into beautifying the Malacca river,” he says, beginning his explanation of how the design came about.
Indeed, anyone who has visited Malacca recently will have noted the stunning transformation from polluted waters to a clean and aesthetically pleasing tourist attraction, complete with pedestrian-friendly banks. However, after night has fallen and all the tourists have gone to bed, it becomes populated by the city’s homeless.
“I feel like the homeless issue is relatively unexposed. In almost every advanced country, there isn’t much awareness of or focus on the issue,” explains Lim.
Hence his 2012 Nippon Paint Young Designer Award entry repurposed the abandoned Federal Cinema just up the road from Malacca River, on Jalan Bungaraya, from a dead space that benefits nobody into a halfway house for the homeless, the aforementioned Awareness Centre of Humanity.
Design, after all, shouldn’t just be about aesthetics, it should also be about utility, he says. His choices and design skills ended up bagging him the regional Platinum Award for Interior Design (after he qualified by winning the Gold Award at national level), beating hundreds of entries from seven countries across Asia.
Setting Lim’s design apart were subtle but important elements that he incorporated to foster a sense of both security and freedom, and to create a space that was accessible, non-judgmental and that would allow the homeless and destitute to feel they had a “way out” but on their own terms. He achieved this to an extent by going to the ground and coming up with a design driven not just by socio-economics but also the need to have local relevance.
A couple of bright sparks
Hanis Abdul Razak, 25, is an architecture graduate who shares Lim’s vision about what buildings should be: socially relevant structures that serve people rather than aesthetics. They both believe that architecture and interior design professionals, along with the developers who commission their work, have a crucial role to play in making that a reality.
Sometimes, all it takes to come up with a good design is a few visits to get to know the actual site – which is what both Lim and Hanis did for their submissions to the Nippon competition.
“When I was doing this project, I went almost twice a week and wandered around, sometimes late at night, sitting and talking with the artists at Pasar Seni,” says Hanis.
Also known as Central Market, Kuala Lumpur’s Pasar Seni was constructed by the British in 1937. The Art Deco building used to house a wet market in the 1970s but was renovated in 1986 and reopened as an arts and culture market after escaping demolition in the wake of the city’s huge appetite for urban expansion.
Hanis remembers visiting the site as a child, following his father to get art supplies. Painters and buskers filled the market with colour, it was alive with creativity, full of art and music. “But today it seems to have lost its soul,” he says.
Indeed, the market seems less of a showcase for local art and culture today than a well-oiled commercial machine, designed to peddle tourist souvenirs neatly categorised according to various ethnic zones, each featuring trinkets loosely related to the three prominent “races” of Malaysia.
For his project, Hanis wanted to re-invigorate the area, to create a conducive environment where artistic talent and contemporary culture could once again flourish.
Going to the site allows a designer to get a feel for the place, to capture its spirit, he says. “Some of the guys in the street are really knowledgable about stuff and can tell you interesting things about the history of Pasar Seni.”
His Gold Award-winning project, the Centre of Contemporary Art Kuala Lumpur (which he dubs COCA KL), beat 437 other Malaysian entries in the architecture category.
Hanis chose to locate Coca – a vast and versatile concrete structure that is largely open air – just next to Pasar Seni, on the banks of the Klang River. The intention was to create connectivity between KL’s public transportation system and its artistic spaces.
The pedestrian-friendly design links hubs such as the Pasar Seni LRT station, Klang Bus Station, and the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station through pathways and overhead bridges crossing the river.
Coca is essentially about letting the public reclaim their public spaces. It is inspired to an extent by the Pompidou Centre in Paris which opened in 1977 as a multicultural nerve centre for French art and culture.
“The idea is that Coca is an openly accessible space, and the ground floor will be for everyone to come and go,” Hanis explains.
Constructed from locally-sourced concrete and steel, the design is simple yet effective, facilitating maximum airflow and natural lighting.
The spaces can be used for public art exhibitions, festivals, performances, busking, and for holding a riverside arts market where artists can showcase their works and sell their handicraft.
A sprawling set of steps takes you down to the riverside plaza, which overlooks the banks of the River Klang, home to Malaysia’s longest graffiti wall.
The graffiti wall’s position was partly what led Hanis to choose this site to work on for his entry because designing a building isn’t just about the architecture – one also has to consider details of its surroundings.
“That kind of detail (the graffiti wall) attracts like-minded people,” he explains.
In fact, what better “nerve centre” for creative expression than a public canvas for contemporary society?
In a way, it all takes root in the idea that when the community has a stake in something, there is a sense of self-ownership and therefore responsibility towards it.
“Malaysia’s youth need space,” says Hanis. A fact that is perhaps evident, he adds, in movements like Occupy Dataran, referring to an autonomous grassroots movement that sprang up in 2011 and that involved people gathering at Dataran Merdeka every Saturday to share ideas and address community problems.
Design in Malaysia
Unfortunately, the disused Federal Cinema still stands idle on Jalan Bungaraya, and homeless people still sleep on the streets at night. As for the grand designs of Hanis’s community-inspired Coca, they too remain nothing more than a digital design dream. At least for now.
Both Lim and Hanis want to play a role in creating a better, more connected and more holistically-designed Malaysia. But first, they have working realities to face.
The problem with architects and planners in Malaysia, they opine, is that architects and designers often don’t even bother with site visits and instead get the boundaries from Google maps – something they discovered upon entering the job market after graduating from university last year.
Many of the principles they were taught in class – which Lim attended in KBU International College, and Hanis, at the International Islamic University Malaysia – aren’t always deployed as part of the working world’s design process.
“But I believe in community-driven designs,” Hanis reaffirms, explaining that this, simply put, means allowing the public to participate in the design process so that the designer can come up with something that works for everyone.
In fact, these two young professionals come across as something of an exception in the local talent pool.
Lim notes that a lot of the designs submitted in the competition last year were for hotels, cafes, or restaurants. Also, “It felt like a lot of the Malaysian design entries were not necessarily related to the site. Like, you could place the design anywhere – KL, Malacca, or Ipoh – and it wouldn’t necessarily matter.”
It is easy to imagine that what got Lim and Hanis their trophies was their passion and the clear message it entails: that architecture has a role to play in addressing socio-economic challenges and shaping a better, more conscientious society.
Hanis became an architects because he believes in what architecture is about. “Architects are creators,” he says.
Unfortunately in our current condition, in Malaysia, architects are often seen as no more than tools. “Developers give us a project, and expect their product to come back fast (ergo, there is less emphasis on community driven designs).”
Lim agrees, but says he feels that it is important to never let others change you.
“I think Malaysia has to start acknowledging its young designers, and let them apply what they have learned.”
On that note, competitions like the Nippon Paint Young Designer Award are important outlets for young designers to explore their ideas without boundaries or the limitations of delivering the narrow briefs required of a working life.
“You also get to meet like minded people,” adds Hanis, who has clearly hit it off with Lim – the two are even thinking about the possibility of collaborating in the future.
“I hope Malaysians start to trust young people more, because we have fresh ideas.”