City&Country: Saifuddin: PAM must reconnect with the government

Growing up in the small town of Alor Setar in the 1960s and 1970s, architect Haji Saifuddin Ahmad had few influences to inspire him, be it form or personality. In fact, he admits that he did not even know then what an architect did.

“Everybody I know wanted to be an engineer or doctor; no one talked about being an architect. But I have always had a fascination for buildings and all I know is that I wanted a career associated with design and construction,” he tells City & Country.

It was a fascination that grew into a passion and a fulfilling 30-year career. In August last year, Saifuddin became the 24th president of the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM), taking  over from immediate past president Boon Che Wee. He is also the founder of SNO Architects Sdn Bhd, which designed the energy-efficient building of the Ministry of Energy, Water and Communications in Putrajaya.

And due to Boon’s hands-on approach as president, Saifuddin feels he has big shoes to fill.

“Being president is almost a full-time job and Boon has set a benchmark in that regard. I don’t know how he did it,” he remarks.

Saifuddin’s situation is unusual -- his term will only run for eight months instead of 12 and his council has only six members instead of the usual 10. This is due to a directive from the Registrar of Societies (ROS) that says all societies and institutes must hold their annual general meeting (AGM) in the first quarter of the year. While the PAM constitution states that the AGM should be held in February, it has, for years, held its AGM in August.

“We appealed to the ROS and as a compromise, we will hold our AGM in April. This means my council term runs from August to April. Actually, counting the Raya holidays shortly after I took office and the voting process which starts in March, I have a six-month term,” Saifuddin points out.
But that will not deter Saifuddin and his team from pursuing their goals. In fact, this has increased their sense of urgency and, as Saifuddin points out, while they may not accomplish all they have set out to do, they would at least set the path for the next council.

Regaining what was lost
When Saifuddin started his career in the early 1980s, PAM was a much sought-after professional voice in the building and construction industry. Sadly, says Saifuddin, that is no longer true.

“PAM and, by extension, architects have lost their position in the industry and our connection with the government. It’s not anyone’s fault; it’s just that things have progressed a lot over the past few decades,” he explains.

He stresses the need to regain PAM’s representation in the government, particularly in the light of the government’s transformation plan, which promises a vibrant built environment in the next eight years.

“If you look back at the 1980s, architects were actually represented in a lot of committees set up by the government. We need to enhance our role with regard to the government and its policies. As a non-profit organisation and institute, we should remain apolitical, but still be able to speak our minds on matters related to the industry.”

Things are looking up, however. Saifuddin points out that efforts made in the last few years are starting to pay off.  PAM assisted in the formulation of the One Stop Centre manual, a detailed guideline published by the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) for the submission of development plans and helped judged the proposed River of Life (ROL) masterplan competition, which ended not long ago.  ROL is a project identified in the Greater KL/Klang Valley National Key Economic Area under the Economic Transformation Programme. The aim is to transform the 10.7-km stretch along the Klang and Gombak river corridor into a vibrant and livable waterfront. PAM is also represented on a few government committees, for example those under the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

“There has been progress, but to go back to the level where we once were, we still have a long way to go,” says Saifuddin.

On the micro level, there is a need to create more opportunities for local architects within the country. In the past decade or so, the trend has been to hire foreign architects to design buildings of public interest in Malaysia. Two examples are the Petronas Twin Towers, designed by Argentine American architect Cesar Pelli, and the Kuala Lumpur International Airport by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa.

Saifuddin feels that there is a degree of bias against local architects in developing countries. “For some reason, people tend to look overseas for a lot of things. We have a lot of talent locally and some of our architects, like Datuk Dr Ken Yeang, have done very well overseas. That’s why we have been asking the government to open up proposed projects of iconic buildings or buildings of public interest to competition.”

Yeang, who is regarded as the father of bioclimatic skyscrapers, was awarded the PAM gold medal last year.

Progress has been made in this aspect too. PAM will be working with a government-linked company on one of its projects.

“We are going to be involved in an idea competition for the proposed project, which will be opened to individuals and groups. But more work still needs to be done. We need to change the mindset that foreign work is better or, in the case of developers, provides a stronger marketing point,” says Saifuddin.

Education is another concern for PAM. According to Saifuddin, the gap between practitioners and academics in universities is widening, resulting in a decline in quality of architecture graduates. He stresses the need for universities and the government to differentiate between non-professional and professional courses such as architecture.

“For professional courses, input from practitioners is very important. It’s not enough to just have lecturers with PhD qualifications. Those with practical experience are also needed. However, I know this is easier said than done,” remarks Saifuddin.

PAM needs to touch base with the academic community and look again at the curriculum of architectural studies, he adds.

He stresses that it is important to strike a balance between theory and practical knowledge and that it will benefit the future of the profession if practitioners and academics work hand in hand.
Saifuddin also feels that advancement in technology, particularly the Internet, is partly to blame for the decline in quality. The Internet may have created a borderless world, but it has also made students lazy.

“Back in my day, the only reference we had was books. We had to do a lot of research and because of that, you analyse a lot more. These days, I find that students tend to take shortcuts by cutting and pasting and not doing much analysis because information is so easy to come by. When that happens, a project loses its originality,” he laments.

He feels that in architecture, copying the ideas of others is fine but they should be improved upon or localised instead of being taken wholesale.

“At the end of the day, being an architect is not just about designing. It is a holistic profession,” says Saifuddin, adding that this problem is not restricted to Malaysia.

PAM is doing its part by organising activities such as lecture series and competitions to engage the students as well as road shows to campuses.  

Bringing in new faces
Saifuddin, who is in his fifties, is the third oldest president to take office in PAM’s history.  He says most of the past presidents came into office in their thirties or forties. Yet, most of the active members in the last decade have been 40 and above. More of a concern is that most are familiar faces.

“Whether it’s our AGM or other activities, it’s the same old group. Where are the new faces and the younger architects?” asks Saifuddin.

However, due to the voluntary nature of the job, Saifuddin understands that finding the time is difficult.

“I heard many people say that they always see the same old faces in PAM. It wasn’t until I got actively involved in PAM that I understood why. If you are a working architect, to actually find the time is very difficult. That’s why I salute those who put in so much time, for their passion and love of the profession. But we need a new group to come in and continue the work as we can’t be here forever,” comments Saifuddin.

It is also very likely that the institute will have to move out of the historical PAM centre — a mansion built in 1907 by businessman and municipal councillor Loke Chow Kit — during Saifuddin’s term. PAM has occupied the building since 1973.

“The building belongs to DBKL and they have plans to upgrade the property soon. We are the best custodian of this historical building but at the end of the day, the decision is with the owners. We are looking for a permanent base,” says Saifuddin.

Asked if he would run for a second term, Saifuddin laughs. “I need to decide by March as that’s when the nomination process starts. There are a lot of things I want to do, but have not managed to yet. I’m still thinking about this.”

This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 897, Feb 13-19, 2012

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