Tuesday, December 29, 2015


At the eve of the New Year, a friend asked if I counted and reflected. 

I think he meant my blessings, so I told him ‘yes’ - this year more than usual. Many people showed their true colours in positive and not-so-positive ways when I made the important decision to leave my former practice. The responses from these people showed up clearly like a litmus test. Fortunately, the blues of greed and self-interest were outweighed by the pinks of support and encouragement.

Colours that confirmed that my decision to leave was correct.

I am grateful that two young former partners invited me to share space, work and ideas in their new venture.
I am grateful for the colleagues who keep in touch and drop by for lunch, for the students and interns who continue to visit our studio to offer help with models or to take me out for lunch.
I am grateful that my friends who now use our office as a base for running, eating and teaching (soon).
I am grateful to have such a nice destination to cycle to everyday, and for the interesting people that I meet there.
I am grateful for my quirky team, and for clients who showed genuine support with new work and prompt payment.
I am grateful that Sam is working with me and that our children are 'safely' in Uni.
I am grateful for the clarity and purpose in my life now.

The pessimist in me expects problems from the past to resurface this year – but I am ready. 

Friday, December 25, 2015

It's Christmas time again

This is an excerpt from the latest issue of INTERSECTION, which I edit with Si Yong and Pik Shia. It refers to the Borneo Blitz Build by the local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, which we featured last year and which we helped to build as volunteers. The article is also a reaction to some people in the local community whom I felt have not practiced what they appear to be constantly preaching.

Excerpt from last year's issue - note the news headline proclaiming the 14 houses 'meant' to be built in 6 days.

This is the article - IT'S CHRISTMAS TIME AGAIN.

This is Terry.

Full name Terry Henry Asun, his brother is Rio Ferdinand Radin. I met Terry and his family more than a year ago during the Habitat for Humanity Borneo Blitz Build (BBB) in September 2014. We were part of a team of volunteers from PAMSC to start and complete House 11 (Terry’s house). Over the weeks before and during the build, we became friends and my wife, Sam promised him English tuition when he moves into his new home – just in time for his UPSR this year.

 That promise was not kept.

Terry’s family and 13 of their neighbours in this Habitat for Humanity (HfH) Global Village have not moved into their homes. Shortly after the fanfare of press coverage, and after the foreign volunteers* have gone back, construction slowed to a halt. I understand that the original plan was for the home owners to move in by Christmas 2014. To-date, most of the houses are near completion but the roads and drains are incomplete and as a result, water and power supply cannot be connected. When I wrote to HfH Kuching, they informed us that the engineering plans have not been approved. And that they expect the houses to be completed by June 2016. The remaining works, including some touching up works for the houses will be completed by contractors. 

 This is an extra 18 month wait. 
When I met with Hfh, they explained the events that caused the delay – a recalcitrant engineer appeared to be their biggest problem. It is curious that a committee of architects, engineers and lawyers were not able (or willing) to deal with the engineer more decisively. Rather have 14 families live in sub-standard houses for 18-months longer than change the engineer? What was their priority here?  As I listened, I heard different priorities – worries about backlash from the sponsors of the BBB, the land donor wanting to know if his land will be put to good use. Only later in the conversation did the current situation of the home owners arise. The same 14 families will eventually occupy the houses and some of them have started paying already although they have not been told when they can occupy their homes. 

I would have thought that your clients should be the first to be informed about the status of the project. That’s right –clients. Habitat houses are not free; only the volunteer labour is free. The home-owners pay for their houses like any other house buyer. Some people seemed to have forgotten this little point.

 *A HfH Global Village engages overseas volunteers to help build their houses, who contribute financially to the local affiliate as well.

My wife who was a active volunteer at Habitat Kuching, thinks that this article is a little bit harsh on the HfH committee. I understand her point of view - that perhaps my opinion could have been tempered with a more tact - but I feel that is the problem. When the committee beat around the bush for fear of offending someone's feelings (the engineer's, in this case), instead of giving him a mandate with a dateline.

And as a result, 14 families live in sub standard housing for a further 18 months.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A spot of gardening

Earlier this year, I made a commitment to oversee the construction of a house in ten months - in time for one of the children's wedding in December. I would like to say that we did it - but we took eleven months and there is more to do. In Kuching, it is difficult to find suitable landscape architects to compliment our work, so we do most of landscape design as well. Mostly it is a layout plan with some key ideas to start a conversation with the client and landscape contractor - the plan evolves during the course of its construction. I have learned to be OK with this fluidity - and am rewarded when I learn new things from the contractor and his team.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Revisiting Bali

We spent an interesting evening with my clients who are also my relatives (or it is the other way around?). We meant to check on the lighting levels of their new house but as they were still having dinner, we sat with them and shared drinks and conversation. We have worked for the last 10 months building a new house for their 4 sons, one of whom was getting married in December (now).

A tight work programme, many meetings on site to draw, mock up, approve and build elements of the new house - we have been spending plenty of time together. As we were not able to attend the wedding party in Kuching, they suggested that we should attend the ceremony in Bali.

We declined, and the suggestion became a request and yesterday evening, the request became an instruction, with a suggestion that hotel rooms might be available for Sam and I. He 'warned' that if we did not attend the Bali wedding, he is liable to harp on it for the next year when the project enters Phase 2..so it looks like we are going to Bali this Christmas.

Saturday, November 21, 2015


Since visiting Cambodia years ago, there started a family joke (openly shared) that Sara was adopted from that country. Her complexion is darker than ours and we met many young children there with a similar dark skin. So, her parents made up a story and told it to her as a joke, she was 10.

So, nowadays when people tell her she looks like her dad (me) - she replies " ...can't be - I am adopted.."

Monday, November 16, 2015

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Other people's plans

Some years ago, during a dinner conversation I mentioned to someone that my days seemed filled with other people's plans - of their houses, their offices, their staircases, their bathrooms.

The next day, which was a Sunday, I had the idea of drawing plans of their actual persons. I had some acrylic paints and a front panel of a recently dismantled drawer from Sara's room. This is the result - a little bit of tongue-in-cheek 'art'. In case my artistic skills do not make the grade, there is a little bit of humour to nudge it past the the passing mark.

Monday, October 26, 2015

My 'hood

When I first moved to my new office, I joked to my colleagues that I will eat my lunches from one end of town to the other. Since the new office is in the old centre of Kuching, this can be quite an adventure - plenty to experience amongst the streets and alleys.

To date, I have only explored a small number. This sketch is completed while seating at the five foot way outside a tiny Malay shop selling Kek Lapis together with some breakfast snacks.  Packets of nasi lemak, curry puffs and peanut and anchovy crackers.

I tried to convey the activity and the pace of life around me, but I am not able to re-produce the sound of 'tin' (galvanised iron) sheets being hammered into kitchen utensils, water cans and so forth. In the shop just across from where I was sitting, instead of being a nuisance, the rhythmic beating lulled me as I sketched.
Photo courtesy of gazzarooni

Friday, October 16, 2015

One summer a long time ago..

.. I followed Dianne home to Wangaratta, and because I am one half of Min and Sam; she came along, and because it was summer, my sister was visiting; she too came along. Di took us hiking to the 'baked bean' (see above) and then swimming in rock pools.

It was only one weekend and so long ago, it is almost forgotten but these little adventures add up to our Australian experience. Many of the students nowadays fail to take advantage of this opportunity to soak up the local culture and friendship - simply because air-fares are cheap, they come home for summer (and mid semester); because there is a large Asian population, they keep to themselves; because they have to be wealthier to study overseas nowadays, they don't know need to known local culture or people. It is a badge of participation for them - been there, got the degree.

And for that they miss out on meeting families with stories to tell and meals to share, they miss out on driving around country towns in Dianne's dad's 'ute' - and greeted by other people driving in 'utes' - usually a raised index finger from the hand on top of the steering wheel, they miss out on the picnic lunch on top of Mt Buffalo of Salada sandwiches made from a stub of salami from Dianne's backpack and peppers from her mom's garden; they miss out meeting brothers who just had their wisdom tooth pulled out and had to eat mushed up mac-and-cheese for dinner (or tea as they sometimes call it in the country), they miss out hearing about next summer's plans to re-locate the barn, and they they miss out on meeting the dog named Kettle. (?)

And most importantly, they miss out on having a rich tapestry of stories to tell from old black and white photos a generation later..

The barn in Dianne's Farm in Wang

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Quick lines on paper

At our recently completed food court, the client wanted ideas about way finding signage. There are days when I have all the ideas in my head but not the time to put them down on paper. So, I employ a little trick - I have is to jot them all down in a small sketch book when I am on the plane. Small sheets A5 and a time limit 2 hours between Kuching and Penang did the trick.

Small and thin, I am likely to finish all the pages in a week - most satisfying.

Later, I showed this sketch to Fiona who did her magic
showing the location of this proposed banner

more banners
ideas for the food court renovation

The Food Gallery was originally designed as the generic type of food court found in a shopping centre; one with something for everyone. In recent years, the clientele had changed; moving away from family groups towards young professionals wanting a conducive environment for a working lunch. The client decided to re-vamp the image of their food court - aimed for a more contemporary feel and experience.

Everyday coffee shop items are used in un-usual ways - plastic stools become the ceiling and screens for the dining rooms and enamel crockery from the 70's are used as part of signage and decor.
We wanted to invoke the experience of eating street food; at the market, along the five foot way in the old part of town. Using the more intangible elements - the silhouette of the concertina grilles that allude to the Chinatown shop fronts while the incandescent light tubes are reminiscent of the market at night. 
The new furniture are re-designed with simpler and cleaner lines that might remind patrons of their school days; sitting on benches, sharing stories and food. Perhaps this is more than a re-vamping or face-lift because it goes beyond the skin - it is more like a coming of age.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Thinking aloud

In the latest issue of INTERSECTION, I shared some thoughts about the state of our profession body in relation to young graduates and architecture students, to stay relevant or risk being sidelined in the minds of the next generation of Malaysian architects.

Recognition and Relevance
As part of the Liberalisation of Professional Services, the Architects Act 1967 has been amended so that non architects may own up to 30% equity in architectural practices. Non architects mean just that - a group not limited to our colleagues in the building industry such as the engineers and surveyors, but everyone - developers, politicians, businessmen and graduate architects as well.  
This Act has taken effect after it was gazetted on 1st of June 2015.

The fact that PAM does not agree with these amendments means little. Our President has raised the matter with LAM and the Minister of Works, who clarified that the amendments have been passed and cannot be revoked. PAM will address the matter administratively by making amendments to the Architects Rules, and to that end, a Joint LAM-PAM Committee has been set up to draft the Rules.
But one hears the fading sound of hoof beats as the barn door is slammed shut. 

To be positive, one would imagine that the Liberalisation of our profession can be viewed as a healthy move:
1. More foreign competition means that local architects will have beef up their services to get commissions; resulting in better quality of architecture.
2. Foreign firms bring in specialist knowledge; collaborating with them improves our own skill-set.

However, these situations apply usually to larger and specialised projects; universities, hospitals, airports, and not to medium sized projects such as housing and schools, for example. Not all 'imported' architects are of the same calibre; it would be interesting to see how PAM is able to differentiate the masterful from the mediocre using the amended Architect Rules. One hopes that it works, because we have our fair share of mediocre architects already, we do not need imported ones.

In a recent dialogue between PAMSC and PAM President, the key problems facing our professional development and architectural education were highlighted though not discussed in detail. They are summarised here: my comments are shown in italics
1. The declining quality of professional service - many new graduates are opting to work overseas; those from overseas universities are staying on to work, while many local graduates leave to work in Singapore and Australia. This makes it difficult for local practices to groom their second tier; to inject fresh ideas, help with work load and continuity. It is little wonder why the quality of service deteriorates.
2. Low Passing Rate for PAM-LAM Part 3 Exam of between 6-20% - there should be a review of this system of examining the candidates. Perhaps longer time for each exam paper or shorter papers over more sessions. It should not be a test of speed, because that is not what happens in practice. In Singapore, there is an option for candidates to submit a report detailing 5 years of relevant work. We are all cut from different cloth, and there are many forms of practice - there should be more than one way to evaluate the candidates.
3.  Quality of graduates not meeting industry expectations - there are some architecture colleges that use 40% as a passing mark. When benchmarks are lowered this way, it is little wonder that quality of graduates is poor. In Tong Hai University in Taiwan, the prerequisite mark to progress to the next semester is 60. But let's not put the burden on the schools only, practitioners can get involved in school curriculum - as external examiners or by offering internship and training.
4. Architecture is not a popular career choice amongst secondary students -this point comes as a surprise to me, because I understand from my colleagues in academia that intake is still very good. "...why we have two intakes each year!..".
It is quite clear that the above issues are inter-related, so one wonders if this next issue discussed at the dialogue is related as well.

From January 2017, LAM will revoke the automatic recognition of overseas architecture programmes. This means that only degrees from local architecture schools will be recognised. Architecture schools can apply for their programmes to be accredited, whereupon LAM will send representatives to that university to 'validate' the accreditation. We were told that the applying university will bear the cost of this process.

The new Manual of Accreditation for Architecture Programme is available from LAM, but one wonders what the logic for this decision is?  Does LAM think that foreign graduates are lowering the quality of our services? If so, surely LAM can continue to vet and interview them for their eligibility to sit for the Part 3 exams. Is it not simpler to recognise the list of accredited schools in the countries where LAM-PAM has reciprocal relationships?
In any case, all this may amount to nothing.
We all know that the quality of graduate architects are largely assessed based on the strength of their school portfolio and not the school’s degree. So, graduates from non-recognised schools (some of whom are there on government scholarship) will continue to get work where ever they choose. And by not recognizing their qualifications, LAM-PAM simply makes itself less relevant to their graduates. 
With so many hurdles to surmount in order to be registered, it might well be easier for them to buy a 30% stake-hold in an architectural practice.