City&Country-- Datum:KL to open minds

Architectural enthusiasts have reason to celebrate as Datum:KL, an annual architectural event organised by the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM), has been restructured as a month-long multi-programme event.

Held since 2003, the event, which will begin on June 30, has been renamed Datum:KL, the Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival 2011.

PAM president Boon Che Wee tells City & Country that the inaugural Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival is “PAM’s newest and most expansive initiative to build a sustaining, positive and energetic engagement with Kuala Lumpur in the public domain”.

It aims to generate excitement among a newer and wider audience as well as reinforce the notion that architecture is an essential consideration in the cultural agenda of the city.

“With the world gradually re-aligning itself with this region, and as Asian cities jostle to turn on their hip factor to wrestle for creative talents to power their global standings, we have never been this close to the creative core of the modern world. We can thus afford to take more courageous creative risks if we are to match the renewed optimism and vigour reflected in the works from Asia generally,” says Boon.

He says the festival’s main conference and key event known as the NOW conference is named as such “to compel us to move onward from this moment in the present”.

“NOW implies an immediacy to define new positions and potentials, at a time when Kuala Lumpur is eager to seek new direction and new beginnings.”

Besides the NOW conference, there are talks, exhibitions, forums and workshops, including the Green Building Forum, the KL Design Forum and Datum Showbox exhibition. For details go to

On currrent architectural trends, Boon says due to environmental concerns and the economic situation in most parts of the world, the Asian idea of “sufficiency” will be at the forefront of the global architectural agenda. Architects will have to face these conditions creatively.

Boon notes that with these concerns, architecture and design in general will be even more greatly influenced by digital abilities in concept and design development, enhancing the climatic performance of the design, estimating the construction cost in real time during design development, and forecasting the value in up-cycling construction components in future.

“Malaysian architects have fast embraced digital technology such as building information modelling in their works but its full deployment and true potential may not yet be realised as its adoption by other professions in the building industry had been slower.”

The NOW Conference features lectures by a selection of established and emerging designers from around the world. Among them are Zhang Li of TeamMinus from Beijing, Jürgen Mayer H of J Mayer H Architekten from Berlin, Ole Scheeren of Büro Ole Scheeren from Germany and Alan Tay of Formwerkz Architects from Singapore. They talk to City & Country about their architectural experiences:

Zhang Li

Zhang Li had known since his childhood in Beijing, China, that he wanted to pursue an education in architecture.

“Two things made me select architecture as my major. One was my enthusiasm for classical music. I believed that the closest thing to music in the available college majors listed in the engineering category was architecture,” he says.

“The other was my dislike for chemistry. Architecture was then the only engineering-related college major in China which didn’t require further studies in chemistry.”

He also found a common thread between maths, music and architecture — all three subjects relate to the establishment and reinterpretation of some abstract order.

Zhang received his degrees from the School of Architecture, Tsinghua University, and is now a professor of architecture there. He is also the director of design at architectural firm TeamMinus, Beijing, and a Tsao Fellow at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University. He has also taught and lectured at Harvard GSD, Yale, Barcelona, Berlage, and NUS.

Architectural designs that excite him are those that do not seem promising at first sight, while oriental philosophy is his main design inspiration.

“The unique connection between the subject and the object in oriental philosophy leads me away from over-objectification. Over-objectification ends up in the sheer fetishisation of objects, which is pandemic in contemporary cities,” he adds.

“Thanks to globalisation, established paradigms and norms are never in short supply, with a dozen or so topics of interests that can legitimatise designs as contemporary, or trends to follow. With the urbanisation in China, I have found many projects that cannot be easily categorised, yet each has a special potential for reinterpreting architecture in a different way.

“Sometimes these projects are carried out under frustrating conditions but it is under these conditions that an unexpected interpretation is most possible. I like this kind of design jobs best,” he says.

Zhang’s works include the JinChang Cultural Centre, an important landmark in a mining city in Northwest China, as well as a park on the roof of the China Pavilion during the Shanghai World Expo 2010 that represented the ancient Chinese idea of a miniature universe. In the future, Zhang hopes to include designs that revive the pre-industrial integration of farming in human settlements.

His team is currently working on a number of projects.

The large scale projects include two mixed-use developments in Ningbo, a new cultural complex in Jiuquan, and a social-housing project in Shanghai. Medium-scale projects include a history museum in Shandong and several urban planning museums in Beijing, Guangdong and Zhejiang.

Smaller projects include clubs in Beijing and Ningbo and a visitor centre at the Grand Mani Cairn in Yushu. The Grand Mani Cairn is an earthquake-prone region and the visitor centre is listed as one of the 10 prominent earthquake reconstruction projects in the Yushu Tibetian Automous County, says Zhang.

Jürgen Mayer H
J Mayer H Architekten

In Berlin in 1996, Jürgen Mayer H founded J Mayer H Architekten, Germany, a firm which focuses on architecture, communications and new technologies.

Jürgen studied architecture at Stuttgart University, The Cooper Union and Princeton University. He had a solid engineering-based education in Germany, but knew that something was amiss when he didn’t have a clear idea about how to develop his own thoughts or architectural language, he says.

“I went to The Cooper Union in New York, which was a very challenging period for me in the beginning because instead of dealing with a real site or a programme, I could be given the text of the Noah’s Ark story from the Bible and asked to develop a project. But I understood that nothing could be copied literally.”

Jürgen says it is important to argue about everything, prove why it works and relate everything to your own ideas. In Germany, he learned “how” and at Cooper, he learned “why”. He then went to Princeton for his Masters degree where architecture was used as a critique and discourse on contemporary life and culture.

Jürgen is looking at expanding architecture beyond just putting up buildings. The influence of new media and materials now expand our understanding of “space” as a platform for communication and sociocultural interactivity, he says.

“We look closely at the site, critically rethink the programme and try to extract something that is special to the site. We believe that architecture should work as an activator to move people from a passive mode of expectation to an involved level of participation and attention.”

Jürgen has projects all over Germany and abroad, including as a courthouse in Belgium and a border station and rest stops in Georgia.

“I am very curious to see how our speculation about communications and public space might transform once they are handed over and begin their own life,” he says.

Jürgen’s work has been published and exhibited worldwide and is part of international collections like MoMA New York and SF MoMA. He has taught at Princeton University, University of the Arts Berlin, Harvard University, Kunsthochschule Berlin and the Architectural Association in London, and is currently teaching at Columbia University in New York.

For future projects, Jürgen is interested in working on high-rise buildings.“Every part of a high-rise refers to a different context, even according to height,” he says.

One of his projects is the recently opened Metropol Parasol in Seville, Spain. It offers a new form of urban public space that combines a new city landmark with an archeological museum as it stands on top of Roman ruins, a food market, and other commercial areas at the centre of the medieval city.

“It’s the largest timber construction in the world and one of our most innovative projects because it uses the latest glue technology for strengthening joints, of which there are thousands.”

Jürgen believes that architecture needs to surprise and seduce while maintaining a social and sustainable responsibility.

Ole Scheeren
Büro Ole Scheeren

German architect Ole Scheeren says he grew up in an architecture school as his father was an architecture student when he was born and would always take him along to class.

With such an early exposure to the industry, Scheeren started work in his father’s office at age 14, and by 18, had started his own office for model making.

“ [At] 21, I handled my first project from the client’s first handshake to completion. It was a fashion store with a fairly significant structural intervention in the existing multi-storey building. So in a way, I had a very early start,” he says.

Nevertheless, there was a time when Scheeren thought that the last thing he wanted was to be an architect as he was more interested in literature and music, and even played in a few bands. But he soon realised that architecture held incredible potential and decided to remain an architect.

He says he is not into any particular elements of style, he says.

“I think the role of architecture should be to imagine and propose scenarios for the present and the future. Critical thinking and critical observation are the necessary basis for that.”

“The fantasy of how things could be” excites Scheeren, and his imagination is not limited to the building but also what happens inside and around it.

“It is about how architecture can ultimately create and accommodate social structures,” he says.
Scheeren is interested in architecture as a larger social issue — as something that plays a particular role in society while subjected to an enormous amount of development, force and change within that society.

“Architecture reflects social conditions. At the same time, it bears the scope for intervening and influencing them at the same time,” he says.

He cites the CCTV headquarters in China as one of his most exceptional. He describes it as a rare opportunity as it saw the coming together of historical events at a particular time, which ultimately realised a vision of China’s future.

“ When the construction of CCTV began, I decided to move to Beijing. I felt that it was not only an opportunity but also a responsibility — if you do something that ambitious, you have to make sure that it works — technically and culturally. But it also presented an opportunity to engage further with Asia by living and working from here,” he says.

Currently Scheeren is working on a mixed-use 268m high tower in Kuala Lumpur as well as a studio for a Chinese artist and a cultural project in Beijing.

“We are pursuing work at different scales, from the very small to the very large to create a broad mix and contrast of projects. I am fascinated by the notion of complexity. Large-scale projects lend themselves to that. Small-scale projects have a different aspect of complexity where every little detail counts. I like to move between these different worlds,” he says.

Scheeren is also a visiting professor at Hong Kong University. Educated at the universities of Lausanne and Karlsruhe, he graduated from the Architectural Association in London and was awarded the Riba Silver Medal.

Prior to launching Büro Ole Scheeren in March 2010 with offices in Beijing and Hong Kong, Scheeren was a partner, along with Rem Koolhaas, at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, and was responsible for the office’s work across Asia.

Alan Tay
Formwerkz Architects

Alan Tay is a partner at Formwerkz Architects in Singapore, which he founded with Berlin Lee and Seetoh Kum Loon in 1998.

Born into a middle-class family, Tay had always been subconsciously drawn to design and the built environment.

“The turning point was when I enrolled in an architectural school, where I got sucked into this new world. For the first time in my life, I knew with certainty that this was what I wanted … that was 20 years ago and fortunately the passion is still pretty much alive,” he says.

There are two types of architectural designs that he finds exciting. The first are designs that “appeal to my senses like the poetic works of Peter Zumthor and Oscar Niemeyer” while the second are “designs that quench my intellectual thirst like works by Rem Koolhas and Sou Fujimoto”.

Tay hopes to have a variety of public commissions that permit the continuation of his investigation and design processes that began with mostly private projects.

“It would also be great to work with more foreign cultures and look at their regulations as a constraint to generate ideas,” he says.

Tay is now working on six residential and two commercial projects in Singapore, as well as a 16ha resort-residential development in Sanya, China, due for completion in 2013. In Jakarta, work is about to commence on the design of a house in the city centre.

He wants his work to be considered “rational, clear in its intention, questioning at times, but always interested in the human condition”.

“I also see our body of work as a continuum, always refining and reshaping past experiences, lending more clarity to current or future projects and vice versa.”

He says the places he visits and the people he meets are his main source of inspiration when designing. He also derives his inspiration from reading.

On the current trends in architectural design, Tay believes that the delight and elegance of architecture is often borne out of simplicity, sustainability and restraint.


This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 865, July 4-July 10, 2011

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