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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Best Modern Houses

Powell: "I tried to do this book 10 years ago but there weren’t enough decent houses or talent." Photograph by Johnni Wong

Author, urban designer and former academic Robert Powell, 66, initially refused to pick his favourite house among the 25 featured in his latest book, The New Malaysian House.

"I’m not going to answer that. Every house was carefully selected. I visited them all with one exception. I actually looked at 40 houses and all have specific qualities," said Powell who was in Kuala Lumpur recently. He is now based in London where he resides with his KL-born wife, Shantheni Choralingam.

But the prolific author did point out that he loved the Sekeping Serendah house by architect and owner Ng Seksan because, "I slept in it". He also loved architect Kerry Hill’s Bukit Ledang Housein Federal Hill, KL, because the valley was an extension of the living space.

Powell remarked that new houses in Malaysia now are very different from houses in Singapore, where he resided, and taught at the National University of Singapore from 1984-2001.

"It used to be the case, some 20 years ago, that builders would flatten the site but now architects are more confident of building according to the land form. It has become much more interesting as houses now have views."

How did the author come up with a list and know which houses to select? "I know of a couple of well-known architects like Jimmy Lim, Ken Yeang and Kerry Hill for some 20 years and others like Frank Ling and Pilar Gonzalez-Herraiz for about 10 years and also younger architects like Kevin Low," said Powell.

"I started asking around and they recommended others who produce the same sort of (modern) architecture. And there are those coming out of the institute (Malaysian Institute of Architects / PAM). But also, little groups of people like Ng Seksan and Wooi Lok Kuang. Wooi had worked for Jimmy Lim and little bits of Jimmy Lim came out of the houses that he has done."

Powell regard such groups as a loose collective of intellectuals with an affinity for each other’s architectural work.

"Interestingly, every architect featured in the book has spent some formative years working abroad. They came back and brought with them new ideas and adapted them to the particular climate and culture."

The original list had 40 houses and the selection was limited by the author’s time and schedule.

"I didn’t have a fixed idea of what this book should be about. I talked with architects. They each have a common connection and interaction with the landscape in their work."

Does Powell detect a common trend in Malaysian architecture?

"Surprisingly, no. Some countries do reflect a great deal of repetition in local architecture. But there is a wide variety here from vernacular to contemporary that reflect a spectrum of approaches."

Among the houses featured in the book highlighted by Powell include the Johor House at the Leisure Farm Resort, Enderong House and Sum Sum Valley Housein Bukit Janda Baik. For houses that are regarded as experimental, the author picks the Mud Houses in Serendah, Rawang.

And out of the work of the 25 architects featured, Powell was proud to point out that 21 were Malaysian.

"I tried to do this book 10 years ago but there weren’t enough decent houses or talent. Even seven years ago this couldn’t be done.

"Now, Malaysian architecture is recognised as being of international standards. To be honest, I’ve only just scratched the sur¬face."

Which among the houses would Powell pick to represent the best of modern Malaysian architecture?

"The Sum Sum Valley House by Choo Gim Wah. This three-storey house is a concrete-and-glass structure sited in the jungle. It is a beautifully modern house in Bukit Janda Baik, some 40km from Kuala Lumpur.

"When inside the house, one can ‘touch’ the greenery outside. And from the outside, the house is almost transparent. This is pure modernist architecture. That would be my choice, closely followed by - for entirely different reasons - Ernesto Bedmar’s Sadeesh House. So sensuous."

And after authoring 27 books including the "seminal", The Asian House Powell has become wiser about production quality. He has his fair share of dreadful photographers, such as one who is notorious for underexposed pictures. "I’ll never work with him again," stressed Powell.

For this new book, he worked with Singapore-based Albert Lim Koon Seng whose works have been published widely in architectural journals, according to the book jacket. But hey, didn’t we see similar pictures of the Tierra House supplied by Frank and Pilar’s architectural firm, Architron Design Consultants? Perhaps, I missed the due credits.

By The Star (by

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