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City&Country: Architectural fusion

Local architectural firm Akitek Rekabina Sdn Bhd and Italian-based BiCuadro Architects are bridging the gap between Eastern and Western designs to create international works of art.

Established in 1972, Akitek Rekabina mostly designed housing schemes in its early years but it has turned to building public institutions such as schools, colleges, polytechnics and universities.

BiCuardo Architects was set up in 2007 by three partners and received recognition when it won the third prize in a design competition organised by the Italian Institute of Architects for the Italian Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo in China.

In 2010, BiCuadro was recognised as the Best Italian Architect Firm under 40 and won the Young Italian Architects prize in Venice. The firm is currently involved in projects in several countries including Italy, Ghana, Malaysia and Mongolia.

BiCuadro and Rekabina have been working on a few design projects for almost a year. Their eagerness to work together led to the signing of an MoU in September 2010 for a collaboration on seven projects involving colleges, high-end residences, offices, institutional buildings and houses.

Ar Nazlan Baharudin, managing director of Rekabina, says the joint venture was in response to the government’s call for local firms to raise their capabilities to compete in the global arena.

“BiCuadro is carving a new ‘silk route’, linking the best of the east and the west by providing cutting-edge architectural design services that are capable of winning major competitions,” says Nazlan.
Rekabina and BiCuadro have completed two projects that reflect their passion for the environment and sustainable development. “We respect the environment. People talk about green architecture but Rekabina was involved in green architecture long before it became a buzzword,” says Nazlan, adding that it mostly designs low-energy buildings.

The two firms got together when Rekabina was invited by Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia (PAM) to join 21 other architects from Malaysia to exhibit their works at the prestigious Venice Biennale International Architectural Exhibition in Italy in August 2010. It was the first time Malaysians were invited to participate in the event.

“One of the buildings we designed last year, the Felcra Tower, was chosen by PAM to be exhibited in Venice. From the 100 shortlisted Malaysian firms, ours was one of the 22 that was exhibited,” says Nazlan.

Before the trip to Venice, he had read about BiCuadro Architects, which placed third in the competition to design the Italian Pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo 2010 despite being a relatively young outfit.
Nazlan decided to contact the Italian firm and express his interest in a partnership. The two firms met for the first time during the exhibition in Venice.

“When I got Nazlan’s email proposing a joint venture, I replied right away because of the opportunity. Asia is fast becoming the centre of the world. In the next 20 to 60 years, Asia will be the new future. We see the partnership as an opportunity to project ourselves to Asia. When Nazlan proposed that we work together, our team jumped at the chance to explore new territory,” says Massimiliano Brugia, architect and partner at BiCuadro.

Their first collaboration was to come up with a design for Universiti Malaya’s (UM) new business school in Petaling Jaya, in a design competition among five bidding design firms. The success of the new partnership was immediately evident as their design won the competition.

The duo called their building design “iconic” as its glass façade gives it a more corporate appearance than an institutional one.

“This will be the most recognisable building in UM. It looks different from every angle and the concept is based on feng shui.

“It was our first collaboration and we came up with the concept in one month,” says Nazlan. He has hopes that the building will be recognised with the Green Building Index (GBI) certification and design awards.

The firms’ second joint design was the Academy of Sciences Malaysia’s (ASM) new headquarters in Jalan Tun Ismail in Kuala Lumpur, which overlooks Padang Merbok. It was an open competition with 38 entries, but the concept fusing the East and West attracted the judges’ attention and gave the firms their second consecutive win.

Rekabina and BiCuadro attribute their success to the combined use of local expertise and international design.

“Always attempt a joint venture with the locals. There is a trend to merge international strength with the local, otherwise known as glocal. The future is not global, it is glocal. We are always careful with tradition and culture, and try to create chemistry with the environment and the people of the country,” says Brugia.

ASM will have many green and modern building features, including a floating ground slab that reduces the building’s temperature by providing natural upward ventilation through its interior courtyards.

The building will also be kept cool by the gardens and water pools on its roof surface. The rooftop will have energy-saving solar panels and wind turbines while the skylight system will provide natural indoor lighting. Water-holding tanks will harvest rainwater, and through a series of low-energy pumps, a series of cascading water pools will add to the atmosphere of the interior space. The architects hope that their design will receive a GBI Platinum rating.

“We have so much sun in Malaysia but we don’t harness its energy. We have high-rises everywhere in Malaysia, [but] people don’t open the curtains and switch on the lights, even during the daytime, so we waste a lot of energy,” says Nazlan.

“When we respect the environment, we are benefiting humanity as well. When the end-users — those who use, work and live in the building — are comfortable, they are happy,” Brugia says, adding that most people tend to associate the environment with trees, but the fact of the matter is that people are part of the environment and, hence, must take care of themselves.

Nazlan attributes the success of the Rekabina and BiCuadro partnership to effective communication.

“As we work long distance, it’s important that we don’t need to say something many times over before the other person understands. When we work on competition-based projects, we have time limits. We communicate through email and Skype, and it has been proven [through two competition wins] that this can work.

“You can work with someone a thousand miles away and produce fantastic results even though you sometimes can’t even do that with your colleague in the same office. You tell him to do something but he produces something else. Communication is important — one must listen carefully and get it right the first time.”

Nazlan says the firms spend time understanding a site before drawing up a design as it is necessary to get the feel of a place before designing a building.

“I would never have been able to do a proper design for Malaysia without Rekabina. They know the traditions and culture, which makes our job easier,” says Brugia.

Nazlan hopes the partnership will inspire other local groups to aim for globalisation and smart partnerships.

The two firms are currently working together on an open Urban Design competition organised by PAM and also a high-end housing project in Shah Alam for a private developer.

 

This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 870, Aug 8-14, 2011

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