Interview: Kevin Low, smallprojects

Kevin Mark Low, an architect based in Malaysia whose work has gained global recognition, left his corporate architecture job to reclaim and pursue old dreams and established his practice, smallprojects in 2002, which he runs singlehandedly. He has since lectured internationally and conducted workshops and design critiques at various universities. Recently, Kevin was in India as a speaker for 361 Degrees conference where WAN’s Mumbai correspondent Pallavi Shrivastava had an opportuniy to speak to him. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Q: What inspired you to be an architect? And growing up as a professional architect, whose work you looked up to?

A: Many things really – my mother who taught geography, encouraged my ability to draw, without knowing that some of the worst architects in the world draw beautifully and some of the best, awfully. My father, being more taciturn, didn’t appear to bother much with what I decided, but the important thing was their both supporting the decisions I made – especially my mother and whatever she saw in me at the time, which pushed me just that bit further.

Throughout architecture school and my working years, I found I was less fascinated by architects than the specific buildings they did – over the course of my life, these were Cimitero Brion (carlo scarpa), Zimmerman House and Clooney Playhouse (Frank Lloyd Wright), Barragan House (Luis Barragan), Lunuganga and the Alfred Street house (Geoffrey Bawa), the Louvre Museum intervention (I.M. Pei), Exeter Library (Louis Kahn), the St. Louis Gateway Arch and MIT Chapel (Eero Saarinen), Casa En Valle de Bravo (Alberto Kalach), Chapel of Hope (Sigurd Lewerentz), Chapel at Ronchamp (Le Corbusier), Maison de Verre (Pierre Chareau), Commerzbank headquarters (Norman Foster) and the Cabrer house (Lacroze/Miguens/Prati). I feel that these architects built each work with a profound understanding of their specific context.

Of these, the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Luis Barragan and Geoffrey Bawa are the only three whose architecture consistently engaged the aesthetics of age in the way of time passing. Perhaps, this as yet undocumented understanding had the deepest impact on my own development.

Q. You mentioned something intriguing in your talk about natural state of ways and materials in architecture and your ongoing query on why buildings can be as imperfect as human beings? Can you elaborate on this?

A: In the way sixty-year-old people look a touch strange when they try to look like sixteen-year-olds, buildings that attempt to defy the passage of time puzzle me. I have a greater affinity for architecture that looks its age, architecture designed with sufficient confidence such that the knocks and scrapes of its making and use add instead of detract from how it is ultimately perceived. There is something about the wrinkles and lines of an old face that is beautiful, that tells its own rich story of scars, tears, joy and pride. In the same way some of us age with dignity and grace, so architecture too can – the question is what one does to encourage the circumstances under which such gracious aging happens. As such, I select materials and engage methods of construction less for how they are able to hide inaccuracy or imperfection, growth and decay, or the ravages of use, than for how all these aspects find their natural place as part of the aesthetic character, the life of the building. Perhaps I can quote from a passage I had written in smallprojects (adaptus 2010) –

“The way in which I interact with my architecture is total; friends are made of contracts and contractors, of detritus, building culture, materials and their manufacture, the act of use, of maintenance and the tectonics of construction. As friends, they are less there for the act of building than for what they intrinsically are, evidenced in the final product; one chooses not hide the nature of one’s friends but to discover them over time. Design thus becomes less the act of showing than of revealing – that of the details of space and its assembly, of production, of weaknesses and strengths of materials, and the character of elemental finish. A construction effort observed to be less skilled through act or appearance is not always rectified, but is instead given integrity through the design of its relationship to its immediate physical context – the materials and processes of construction, each understood for their basic characteristics and specific applications, find expression in the tectonics of what is created. And the simple issue of time passing becomes natural; that familiarity and sense of scale that only comes with age guide my deliberations and decisions, as time has considerably less impact on the quality of light and space (as volume) than it does on the materials that reveal them. Architecture, as a process does not end when the building is done, it barely begins. People age, as do materials and buildings: I am predisposed not merely to make their transition as gracious and dignified as possible, but to reengage them in ways I never realised were possible.”

Global culture has become somewhat of a beast obsessed with the novelty of form. It has certainly grown past its previous romance with the spectacle of it, but the problem still remains that if the form of a work fails to excite or stimulate and present formal experiences in some fresh way, it warrants less attention. And a great part of this zeitgeist is driven by the immediacy, the instantaneous nature of the Internet – nothing is new or fresh if it is posted a day later. As such, we have evolved an architecture of the photoshoot, of work that has to be imaged as soon and as quickly as it is completed, an architecture intended to be experienced in completeness from the first day it is inhabited. For the work I do, it is not possible for me to think of architecture as ever complete with the completion of the contract – with something as dynamic, unpredictable, and human as architecture, as architects I believe we can only ever begin what time alone can complete.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your project Sibu Pavilion? Thought process, context and your suggested solution…

A: For the Malaysian Garden Festival held at the Lake Gardens in Kuala Lumpur in 2006 the Sibu Municipality of Sarawak in East Malaysia requested a local landscape architect for a design that was to be their pavilion. For all their lack of exposure as a somewhat marginalised logging town, the enlightened clients made request for a public toilet facility as a garden pavilion. Through his many years of work acquaintance with smallprojects and affinity for its completed work, the landscape architect took the opportunity to recommission a working concept and design for the project.

The problem first lay in the fact that most, if not all, public toilets simply look like public toilets all over the world – commonly expressed as three blank walls with high level windows for privacy and the last remaining wall with a door for access. Unless one was to get perverse, or hide the facility behind in some manner, it was simply impossible to escape the aesthetic ubiquity of a public toilet. And so they got the original global toilet, a bush.

The site for the Sibu pavilion was in the precinct of the Lake Gardens, a green enclave and city park presided over by a single large water body – the namesake for the park. Located at the foot of an old-growth Tembusu tree, the site was endowed with panoramic views across the lake to heavily verdant surrounds; a gentle slope of well-tended lawn from the access pathway to the revetment wall of the lake’s edge. The north end of the pavilion became a lounge for a sofa and armchairs under the shade of a grand old Tembusu tree, with views of the lake, while the other end became a tearoom. Nestled between the two was the ‘bush,’ a grove of a hundred and twenty apple green Eugenia aromaticum trees sourced from a nursery in southern Malaysia. A narrow maze ran through the tightly packed trees to a squatting pan commode at the heart of the grove, guarded by the trunk of a gnarly, Indian coral tree selected from the same nursery. A compost wall of steel mesh and dead leaves, with basin niches cut into the mesh to facilitate the washing of hands, gave privacy to the entrance. Fashioned after the Archie Bunker chair from a lawn furniture competition years back, the wall was to function as a recycled leaf repository for the local council as they swept the grounds of the Lake Gardens; the dead leaves would be disposed of efficiently, with the added value of replenishing the privacy required of the toilet entrance. The temporary pavilion may have been novel, but its significance went beyond its conceptual overtones of a pun – in built form, it served as a practical template for the screening and dignity of a functional garden and park toilet facility.

Evenly textured and neatly packed to the limit of its confines, the idea of the compost wall was not merely one of privacy for the bush bathroom it concealed and simultaneously announced; it was intended as a dump for park leaves and detritus, reducing the need for botanic waste transfer to a dumping ground elsewhere. The leaves and green garbage, piled on and compacted over time, begin their humid journey to decay and decomposition, to be removed at the end of the natural cycle for use as garden food; a functional and symbolic processing of park ecology. In its working form, the compost wall would have been designed with hinged lower mesh doors, from which the composted layers would be taken as a convenient source of fertilizer within the precinct of the park.

Q: Do you feel there is a larger theme unfolding beyond this east and west divisive discourse that is taking place to understand our field of architecture? What do you think of this distinction as we try to enforce traditional, modern, post-modern labels of architecture?

A: The idea of an East/West divide is a little banal really, being predicated on where someone arbitrarily decided to draw a middle line – if that longitude had been hard-lined just off the Californian coast for example, East would have been Europe, the former Soviet Union and China would have been the West, and the United States of America would be located somewhere right by the Middle East.

In preparation for a talk at the recent International Conference on Tropical Architecture in Singapore, I realised upon shading the tropical belt between the Tropic of Cancer and that of Capricorn, that the world actually found division by latitude rather than longitude – that besides the southern tips of South America and Africa, New Zealand and the nether parts of Australia, nothing was really left over of the southern hemisphere with the tropical belt shaded in – its really either Northern Hemisphere or Tropics. The discovery made me think about the differences of each; the northern hemisphere with its predictable and gradual temperature shifts from moderate to extreme, and the tropics with its consistently even temperature, but with more drastically changing weather patterns. And I began to figure a slightly different way to understand the global divide.

The people of the north had their lines drawn from the very beginning regarding survival – one either prepared for the long winter during the summer and fall, or died trying to keep warm and fed, since both food and fuel were scarce during the deep winter. The rigors of survival simply ensured that certain exacting concepts of order would evolve and be deeply ingrained in northern cultures and societies since life depended on it. The tropics conversely, with its moderate temperature swings and being the land of milk, honey, ukuleles and shish kebabs, has never truly developed formal systems of order of its own – if it flooded, one simply climbed a tree; hunger was merely fed by fruit; and dwelling was accomplished by the most temporary of materials since these were found in such great abundance year long. Humanity in the tropics was not bound by survival to any sense of deeper formal order. Barring exceptional conditions of filtering influences, political/cultural/social upheaval or the natural dictates of land mass in specific regions (China and central Asia, as examples) the tropical belt has resulted in cultures and societies with architectural traditions that basically took longer to develop with the same rigor, exactitude, and systemised industry of fabrication and production as that found in the northern hemisphere.

I believe that a deeper understanding of architecture cannot happen through broad and arbitrarily drawn distinctions of form – it can only be sought through deeper questions we choose to ask about content – the specificity of place, time, culture, and language. The architectural distinctions we currently have, all concern labels as related to the generalisation of formal considerations which create diametrically opposing ideas, whether it is about the east or west, traditional or modern, post-modern or deconstructivist – although some may have begun with deeper philosophical basis, they have all been reduced to, and identified by formal outcomes of expression. As such, I find architectural labels a touch silly as they mystify through formal categorisation rather than clarify through deeper involvement of content. I would rather the foundations of architecture be rooted in content and the specific context thereof, and all those issues that go beyond mere texture, colour, shape, material, space, and size.

Q: What would be your advice to young and emerging architects?

A: The world is broadly made up of two kinds of practitioners, commercial architects and critical architects. It matters less what sort of architect you decide you wish to be, but that you are absolutely honest about the decision you make. Too many architects decide that the business and branding of their architecture is what they are best at, and yet speak about their work as though design is their priority – most especially when whatever talent is available to them has brought them a measure of global success and attention. It is not wrong to compromise in life, but it is wrong to be dishonest about that act of compromise.

Conversely, if critical work is what one has decided for oneself, the understanding that patience is the deepest pursuit of true passion becomes necessary. Not fame, not success, not recognition, since none of these are about passion, nor relate to it. Passion is, not knowing where you will end, since your only care is the journey, not where it will ultimately lead you. An architectural project is like an expedition to the top of the world, Everest. If your goal is to summit for that money shot and the experience of reaching the top, then that is all you will take away with you. The most accomplished and respected climbers in the world never look at a summit as their goal, but merely as a guide for where they have to take their very next step, and strangely enough, every step focused on, creates that patience which feeds the passion. And all the best climbers in the world reflect on exactly the same experience upon their reaching the top – less the jubilation of having succeeded in what they set out to do, than the absolute surprise and excitement at finding themselves at a place they never thought they would arrive at. In the same way, commercial architects look at how far they have come, build on what they have accomplished, and are amazed at what they intend to do next. Critical architects are amazed simply at what they are currently involved in doing. But whatever the case, I believe that it is ultimately less important what one chooses to do; only that one is absolutely honest about that decision.

Q: How has Indian landscape and its cultural conditions affected you in this trip. what learning and unlearning you are taking back as architect?

A: India is very much the centre of the world. I believe the raw dictates of its culture amid the sheer mass of its population provide the perfect combination of empathy to provide a way forward for the rest of humanity, but only if it realises the way forward is not the one prescribed by the developed world – that of free capital markets, advancing the brand, pushing the boundaries of one’s selected market, and sustaining the global culture of acquisition. Specifically, I have learned that on Indian roads, men, women, children, cows, pushcarts, motorcycles, cars, lorries and buses are not different types of things, but part of the amazing life of a street, and there is little difference between being nudged by another human being and a cow, or a bus, because life is simply too rich for such distinctions to matter. It is this delightful ambiguity that I will take away with me.

Q: What is state of women architects in Malaysia. Is it culturally progressive or regressive for female architects to thrive?

I do not believe one’s sex plays much of a part in one’s ability to thrive professionally in Malaysia, though it very well might in another country. Through my years working in Malaysia, I am quite glad to say that I have never experienced an intelligent statement, comment, or question by a female or male architect that was not given deep regard, and with that individual earning the greater respect of others. Perhaps the deeper aggression associated with men enables certain advances and opportunities denied women, but I believe that culture here has little to blame for.

Having taught at the University Malaya in Kuala Lumpur over the past ten years, I have found female students to actually have an edge over male students with respect to a quicker understanding of concepts, ideas and issues of content over those of form. I do believe women have it in them to be greater architects than men. However, I also believe women to be better nurturers than men, and when it comes to raising a family, a woman will make sacrifices few men would ever consider, let alone undertake. The fact is that many of us do grow up, get married, and ultimately produce children – if there exists fewer women than men in architecture performing at the very highest levels of the profession, I believe it is only because the very best women architects are doing their best work caring for their families as a sacrifice they cannot see any other way but make.

Images: Sibu Pavilion, smallprojects

This entry was posted in Mumbai. Bookmark the permalink.