City&Country: Cover Story-- PAM Gold Medalist 2011 — Datuk Dr Kenneth Yeang

First instituted in 1988, the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) Gold Medal has only been awarded to five architects. It is the highest honour awarded by PAM to recognise lifetime achievement in architecture by Malaysian architects. The five Gold Medallists are Datuk Kington Loo, Datuk Hisham Albakri, Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat, Hijjas Kasturi and Datuk Baharuddin Abu Kassim — pioneers of architecture in Malaysia.

Joining their ranks this year is Datuk Dr Kenneth Yeang, who is regarded as the father of bioclimatic skyscrapers or low-energy skyscapers built with environmentally and climatically sensitive forms and construction methods.

Yeang has been a director of T.R. Hamzah & Yeang since 1976 and British architect firm Llewelyn Davies Yeang since 2005. In a career spanning over three decades, Yeang has amassed a portfolio of over a dozen high-rise towers and over 200 projects.

Born in Penang in 1948, he first learned about tropical home design in the house he was born in — a timber-frame Malayan colonial bungalow sitting on brick piers, raised above ground level, similar to a traditional Malay house, with a tiled pitched roof.

Further fuelling his passion for architecture was the Modernist-style house built by his father when he was four years old. The house was designed by famed Dutch architect Berthel Michael Iversen who had set up home in Ipoh.

“From this house, I learnt about Modern architecture and spaces. The interior was ahead of its time — my bedroom walls were sliding panels, which slid together to become a large common play space, together with my sister’s room opposite,” says Yeang. Years later, Iversen’s widow told him that Iversen had regarded this house as his masterpiece.

Yeang was also greatly influenced by his uncles who were studying architecture at the Architectural Association (AA) school and at the Regent Street Poly (now Westminster University) in the UK.

In 1962, he moved to Gloucestershire, UK, and studied at Cheltenham Boys College after three years at Penang Free School. From there, he enrolled in the AA School in London in 1966.

In his final year, he was offered a place to do graduate work at Cambridge University on the “Autonomous House” project, a concept mooted by Buckminster Fuller, regarded as one of the key innovators of the 20th century.

“However, six months into the project, I concluded what was lacking was work on the theory of ecological design. I sought leave to do instead a doctorate on the topic of ecological design and planning, which became afterwards my life’s agenda,” says Yeang.

An important experiment in bioclimatic design was the Roof-Roof House in Taman Sri Ukay, Kuala Lumpur, completed in 1984. The house features double roofs — a louvered roof over a lower roof terrace - an evaporative cooling pool to the living space and wind wing-walls at the side courtyards that channel wind into the interior, among other things.

The Roof-Roof House won the Merit Award at the Kenneth F Brown Asia Pacific Culture and Architecture Design Awards in 1995.

Next came a series of experimental “tropical skyscapers”, among them IBM Plaza (Now VADS Plaza), Plaza Atrium and Central Plaza towers in the Klang Valley. That culminated in Menara Mesiniaga, which won the 1993 PAM Architecture Award for Excellence in Design for Commercial Buildings and the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1996.

Yeang went on to design the Singapore National Library, which was developed during the recession years of the late 1990s. An early endeavour at eco-aesthetic design, it was certifed Green Mark platinum by Singapore’s Building & Construction Authority.

His recent work explores the use of eco infrastructures, as seen in this year’s PAM Award Gold Winner in the Overseas category, Solaris in Singapore. Solaris, also a Green Mark platinum certified project, features a 1.3km long vertical linear park wrapped around its façade. He also worked on ecomasterplans, including the SOMA masterplan in Bangalore which explores the use of ecobridges and ecoundercrofts.

Purpose of a building
Yeang believes that architects need to go beyond just fulfilling a client’s requirements.

“We seek to make our buildings and masterplans green, going beyond conventional accreditation systems to create beautiful objects and environments that are pleasurable to use,” he says.

Underlying his designs is a discourse that gives intensity and depth to the work. “Much of today’s work have little substance and compensate for the shallowness by over detailing the construction to death. “I often start by asking what is the purpose of the building? I see architecture as existing for a number of reasons — as a symbol, as an investment, as a marketable product and as an enclosure,” he says.

He stresses that the importance (and hence the extent of allocation of money) placed on each of these factors depends on the project and its client.

“Understanding these at the outset is crucial and enables the architect to place the appropriate design emphasis on the project and indicate where to spend the project’s budget,” he says.

A private house, for instance, is often a symbol of its owner’s status and achievement in society. As such, a greater extent of the project’s budget might be allocated to the building’s façade and external features and finishes for their symbolic value.

However, these need to be done with taste and elegance, he notes, adding that this also applies to the design of a headquarters for a corporate owner.

It differs when architecture is an investment, for example, an upmarket hotel where returns on investment are over a much longer period and so, the aesthetics need to be durable.

“Here, a greater allocation of the project’s budget might be a higher quality monitoring and evaluation system that saves energy and water costs over time, and to reduce maintenance and need for frequent replacements,” says Yeang.

When it comes to mass housing, which are marketable products, purchasers’ expectations are key factors in design, and designing to budget is important as this affects prices and the developer’s profit.

“Most, if not all, buildings are enclosures where construction needs to be durable and watertight to exclude any unwanted entry of rain, keep out the sun (glare) and heat (solar insulation) and serves the level of enclosural protection needed,” says Yeang.

“Beyond that, architecture is about people; about contributing positively to their lives and giving them pleasure and creating a happy environment and a new form of internal life.

“But in every instance and as second nature in all our design work, we must design buildings to integrate with the natural environment, to reduce impact on climate change, to reduce energy and water consumption, to reduce carbon emissions, loss of biodiversity and environmental degradation,” he says.

The evolution of architecture in Malaysia
The first generation of Malaysian architects, such as the previous five PAM Gold Medallists, came to the forefront to meet the needs of a developing nation after the decline of British firms following the country’s independence in 1957.

These architects are heroic pioneers who led the nation into periods of exuberant building from the 1970s until today.

“The trend today is for iconic buildings, which can be suspect as iconicity simply to be different has no significance. Parametric design generates a new builtform but if it does not result in a new and better internal life, it is just a novel shape for being novel. Same goes for green ... we need to design green but design must go beyond conventional accreditation systems,’ says Yeang.

He also questions why Malaysian architects should derive a Malaysian identity. “The idea of the need for a Malaysian identity is often regarded by many as an anxiety foisted upon the local community by foreign architects playing upon the insecurity of a young country and undermining the confidence of the local architectural psyche,” he offers.

He believes what is important is the need to design with a cultural, functional and climatic link to the locality, such as in a critical regionalist approach.

Yeang once asked the famous Egyptian architect Abdel-Halim Ibrahim Abdel-Halim, who is an expert on Islamic architecture, “What is Islamic architecture?”.

“He told me that Islamic architecture is not about forms, domes, arches or geometric patterns, but designing to engender in people the feeling of the greatness of Islam,” shares Yeang.

He sees a slowly emerging Malaysian style in the architecture among the younger architects, but finds what is often lacking is the intensity in the thinking and discourse underlying the work, to make the work in totality the best-in-class worldwide.

Meanwhile, Yeang is encouraged by the emergence of green developments in Malaysia in recent years, saying that the Green Building Index is doing good work.

However, he feels that there is much “greenwash” and too many architects today are green wannabes with simplistic and incomplete works. Notwithstanding these, there are of course many who are truly committed green designers, he says.

He has a word of encouragement for young architects: “I see Malaysia as a land of milk and honey with plentiful opportunities for its architects to practise architecture.”


This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 868, July 25-July 31, 2011

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