ONE TENDS VERY unfairly not to associate creativity with architecture. This could simply be because buildings are so much larger than other creative products. Large amounts of money are usually involved, a lot of negotiations are needed, and many permits are required. The architect is always subject to many restrictions. In that perhaps understandable sense, the label of “artist” is often not applied to architects. Their products do not only have to comply with regulations, they also have to meet the requirements of investors.
At the same time though, working with that much space and so much resources should afford architects with opportunities other artists can only dream of. And as environmental consciousness grows along with the trend towards the restoration of old buildings and historical sites, doing a job well can be a career-making achievement. It may be that the need to conform to rules and regulations, and to the form of the object being restored, for example, hampers an architect’s creativity, but it is also under such constraints that creativity can strive and be appreciated most vividly. The parameters that an architect deals with which allows for creativity and innovative professionalism are many. Restoration is after all preservation as well; so an architect can have a field day putting his technical skills to work in support of his brand of creativity.
Concurrently, one must also wonder what should be restored, and what should be preserved from restoration.
Ar. Mei Chee Seong, 48, founder of ALM Arkitek in Penang which is a multi-disciplinary firm engaging in the practice of architecture, urban design, town planning, interior design, green building and heritage building conservation introduced me to the concept of “timescaping”.
One of Mei’s projects in George Town, the Gudang Café at Gat Lebuh Armenian. Photo: Mei Chee Seong.
He believes that the most valuable thing about historical buildings are the traces of time left on their façades.
What is allowed in one period is also a factor to consider. Being too conservative could lead to new trends not being accepted, to the loss of later generations. Baroque architecture is a highly decorative and theatrical architecture style that developed in Italy in the Medieval Period, which then gradually spread all over Europe. If Baroque architecture, once seen as rather radical, had not been allowed, a vital expression of an age would not have come into being.
The new from each era appear alongside the old, and together they appear old to later generations. In a living cityscape, therefore, a puritan attitude towards architectural art would be hard – and unwise – to maintain. Can Penang tolerate and respect relics from different periods so that new and old things can stay in harmony for future contemplation?
The professionals of each period, be they engineers, town planners or landscape architects, suffer the regulatory and aesthetic limitations and contestations of the times. The artistic impulse is often to survive beyond one’s own times, and yet the present tastes and needs of society have to be met.
Mei is quite optimistic about this. For him, gaining experience dealing with project funders and community members is of great benefit. All views need to be considered. For example, feng shui may sound superstitious, but it makes sense in daily life. Also, it is not necessarily a bad thing that investors wish to save. Overspending on a project can often harm it aesthetically and functionally as well, not to mention the costs of wastage to society as a whole.
It is often assumed that architecture must have a style to be regarded as a creative item. But very often, the creating is done before a style is identified.
When asked what his favourite piece of architecture in Penang was, Mei named one of his own previous projects – the Perak Road Market. This project won the first runner-up award in a national-level “Rejuvenation Design Idea” competition last year organised by the Penang Island City Council and the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) Northern Chapter.
The ground survey is usually the first step in the renovating of a building. But where the Perak Road Market was concerned, Mei decided to go sketching in the market on the first day. He was trying to understand the building structure through the sketching; and he wanted to communicate with the people who were actually using the space. He would not have obtained the same information through survey forms.
The next day, he became a photographer and took black-and-white photos of the market. The third day, he held an exhibition within the space.
“People started telling stories after seeing the exhibition, and we began to record those stories. Mixing with the community, I tried to use the information I gained as inspiration for new ideas.” Mei was also greatly inspired by the fact that those people knew the structure of the building better than the architects. All the talks, whispers, quarrels and arguments came together to provide a tapestry of the place as a living space. The context behind the disorder appeared.
The artistic impulse is often to survive beyond one’s own times, and yet the present tastes and needs of society have to be met.
In the end, Mei decided to only provide the basic facilities that those users needed, which at the same time gave them flexibility in the use of the space.
The architect, it would seem, is not a decider nor a creator; he is a programmer.
Mei is applying this people-oriented idea to affordable housing. The concept that Mei wants to champion is simple: the architect may make the decision about everything that has to do with the building, but it is the user that chooses whether to buy into it or not. His approach is to design a building by taking the users as the main body; that way, it is the users who decide over their space autonomously. However, making such an idea come true takes time.
Mei believes that the most valuable thing about historical buildings are the traces of time left on their façades. Photo: Mei Chee Seong.
“To be able to produce buildings for a comfortable life, you need to understand what kind of life is to be lived there. Buildings designed by people who don't know how to enjoy their own life can make it impossible for those who live in them.”