A Student’s Perspective


Discourse, 17 October 2021

A typical grading system & requirements that does not improve our design capabilities nor the efficacy of knowledge transmission

I have quite a love-hate relationship to my alma mater.

A recent chat with my friend Zhi Kai from the junior batch of the same school (read more at Zhi Kai’s Blogfolio, where he did some insightful writings on architectural pedagogy), had me recalled back my journey in the school and many other retrospective reflections of it. I would love to relate this writing to my experience and further correlate to the greater picture of architectural education in our local schools, largely based on my personal observations and some discourses with peers, practitioners, and seniors. Though the topic is so broad, my focus here is primarily revolves around the school-student relationships and many corresponding issues of it.

Within the 5 years study of architecture locally, the school has been putting emphasis on its aim to get us ready for the practice as a qualified employee or ideally a licensed architect in future. It was kind of a default, implicit consensus of expectations for both the students and the school. However, the rift between the education and practice is gradually prevailing as the industry nowadays as I observed, is expanding horizontally and crossing to various fields. Do our schools evolve and respond to such phenomenon? It raises my question on our current education proposition and their stance to be projected on the students. Are we trained to be an architectural designer? A good draughtsman? A critical thinker? A researcher of built environment? A construction expert? A walking UBBL? Or simply a submitting person? Or a little bit of all? It could further relate backwards on how we perceive architecture principally: a profession or a form of intelligence? (Further read on Architect: A Powerless Profession?)

I believe in the latter, simply because that ‘profession’ is usually conditional and dependent, but the ‘form of intelligence’ is rather autonomous and non-static, growing through discovery and rediscovery timely. As much as I hope the school can train myself into a well-fitted labor or profession into the industry, I also believe the schools to be a leader to venture into the test boundaries of architecture. And this is how the coming generations could involve and escalate the current industry to be more progressive and perhaps, a little more subversive and radical.

These can be linked to my opinion on the architectural education in my former university (not sure is it applicable to other local schools), especially in the knowledge of design. We are being taught to design in very monotonous approach, almost like a format or mathematical equation, which can be clearly evidenced in our works. Most of the works displayed a lack of ambition, a lack of allegory imagination, a lack of rigor understanding to the subject matters, but merely producing drawings as if we work to simply complete a task, fulfill a checklist for drawing submission, or begging for a grade. It’s mediocrity. To me personally, the worst of all is that architectural ‘concept’ is seemingly just a word or term to package up the whole design.

Apart from going such specific into the design matters which could be probably my very own insight and experiences, I noticed that we had very least knowledge about the formal knowledge of architecture, especially the history and theories of it. Despite we have quite a rigid structure on our design studio which is due to the university compliance to the LAM/RIBA standards (yes, ironically our schools need to comply to someone too- it is a vicious cycle of compliancy), the classes for formal knowledge are instead loosely structured, and pretty much being ignored. The school limits many possible ways to approach architectural design yet leaving us hollow of fundamental wisdom of architecture, making us almost clueless and unconscious in doing our works.

Most of all, I guess the worst issue of my school as an academic institution is it institutionalizes, like how it supposed to be (?) This subconsciously oppressive yet unspoken tension eliminates many possibility of two-way communication between the students and the educators but reinforce the superiority of institution instead. This may not be an actual issue until the institution become corrupted internally or simply that the education system couldn’t provide any better learning environment. The nightmares happened where it instills the fear to fail, when we are actually learning the most from our failures. In another word, the school should be a place to embrace failures, rather than sweeping them under the carpet or making the so called ‘per-fake’ architecture.

After all, I will still cherish and remain gratitude to the days I had in the school. Those are the times that built me and my resiliency in the endeavor of many challenges in the process. As I moving on to further my learning of architecture in the practices, I hope this piece of writing could remain as a reminder to myself, and perhaps the greater audiences or anybody who cares.



Discourse, 24 October 2021

An image from the Book ‘Copy Paste. The Badass Architectural Copy Guide’ by Winy Maas and Felix Madrazo.

A recent YouTube video ‘When Architects Copy’ by Stewart Hicks had caught my attention, threw me into a further vortex of thoughts about the originality of design in architecture.

The topic of originality in architectural design is not exactly a taboo, but more likely becoming obsolete especially when we are living at such an era where all these info, pictures, and ideas are just a click away. Instagram, Pinterest, Archdaily, Dezeen… you name it. (further read on the current visual generation in architecture) But I do think it worth for a discourse, as it does depend on many levels within a design process- not so much about the ethic, but the intelligence of it.

From the very surface of it, we can easily find similar design of forms in various scales. It may not be an entire copy but parts of here and there, as if architecture design is just an attempt to test for an endless combination of forms. Do we call this ‘copy and paste’? But do we have completely new forms that are yet to be discovered? With so many masterpieces and brilliant crafts before us, copying seems inevitable in our generation of architecture, in term of its forms. In fact, we may sometimes find our designs are surprisingly similar to a random picture on an architecture magazine, even though we do not see it before or intentionally refer to it. Should we thus neglect the idea of originality from architectural forms?

Back to our days in architecture school, we were usually being told to do precedent studies before starting any design. “Ah, the entrance looks cool, let’s use it for my community centre” was a flagrant norm that resulted from these ‘precedent studies’. Even in the crit sessions with the mentors, we were often being directed to various pictures of famous architects’ works. They did cultivate a fallacy of designing, which almost become collaging various references of mere forms, ideas, or whatever, without really making an intensive, valid reference or self-conscious arguments to those pre-existed ideas. We end up being a lazy designer, don’t we?

I believe the stories behind the forms are rather important. As the forms, ideas, or designs find their ground to a very specific context, it makes them valid, and a lot tougher to be copied. Taking a window as an example, it can be made completely alike for two different houses, but what makes them different or original, is perhaps, they are being placed specifically to a view outside- a garden, a tree, a neighbor, a mountain, or even being closed. These made the distinctive meanings or validity to two windows, and defined their very own originality for the respective context. This, compared to the lazy montage of ideas in the previous paragraph, is difficult to be copied. (Or another way round, our works are easily being copied because they are not being specified and scrutinized enough addressing a very particular context?)

Architecture is hardly a pure art, and originality in architecture is damn difficult, almost an unrealistic attempt, or perhaps a non-existence aspect in the present architecture. After all, in architectural design we barely create, we discover instead.

‘How do you render these images?’


Discourse, 8 August 2021

A barely rendered image for a recent competition, yet its clarity portrays clearly on the depth and layering of its roofscape, also implying the potential spatial qualities behind it

This is probably the most frequent and annoying questions I encounter in daily terms, ever since I’ve started update my architectural content online constantly 2 years more ago.

It annoys me not in the sense of it is such trivial in relevance to architectural design and knowledge, but it annoys me that perhaps my works could evoke only the visual facets of architecture. As a tech-dummy myself, though I do not deny the significance of software applications in the design process, but I certainly believe the design lies much more on the thinking process. (The other reason is I have very less experience in the ‘making’). Software and technology are all tools, and of course, with their rapid advancement in the modern age they possess the power to influence the way of our thinking in design as well. But tools are relatively temporal to the ideologies behind our design, where I tend to advocate to focus more on how the tools can be optimally applied to deliver the messages or perceptions instead. It does not necessarily to be clear and singular, but it could be ambiguous and complex, or both at the same time.

This discourse could be extensively related to a larger scale of context. We can’t deny the fact we are a visual generation amid such digital-driven age, with countless medias and screens surrounding our mundane living. Many called this an issue of ‘ocularcentrism’, a modern term referring to human’s bias the sense of sight over the rest. Especially in the current architectural design process, whether it’s still on the paper or being fully built, ‘eye-catching’ seems to be a default trait for any design. And ‘aesthetic’ has become the primary concern associates with architectural designs.

Nonetheless, the fascination of human over visually pleasing sensation seems to be encoded in our gene. It is similar to other senses too, we often love that instant pleasure of any sensory dynamics. Personally, I don’t see the obsession over aesthetic nor the primacy of visual sensory is the true issue, but the overwhelming state of flooding information and graphics where we lost patience to solemnly appreciate the ‘beauty’. Those noises blunted our other senses, and our vision becomes even agitated, until that we only see but barely read. This happened to me as well, that I made lots of quick judgements only through my eyes without really tracing what’s happening behind the screen- the intents, the origins, the theories, and so on.

Another perspective that could extended from this discourse leads me think about the fundamental difference of ‘aesthetic’ and ‘beauty’. Sometimes I see myself prefer the word ‘beauty’ over ‘aesthetic’, that I found it is more humane and relatable. Beauty is in its sense relatively more diplomatic, engaging at the people’s front- appeared to be rather personal and subjective. Whereas aesthetic is principles-driven, respecting sets of codes and disciples instead, ended up in a more objective stance. Of course, there is no definite answer which we should follow as human beings, but to take a step slower, and a breath deeper, we might find the true meanings behind the beauty or aesthetic in relation to our inner selves.

Typological Matters


Discourse, 25 June 2021

An inventory of typologies collected as study samples in my dissertation

The term ‘typology’ in my school is often referred to a building program: a community center, a museum, a church, an apartment, and so on. In the syllabus, this so-called ‘typology’, apart from the selected site, dominate our design brief and determine many design entails later. But it certainly means more than this.

I have been overlooked the definition of typology, until the recent qualitative research I’ve completed which revolves around the typological and analogical analysis largely hinged on The Architecture of The City by Aldo Rossi. (A highly interpretive and theoretical discourse positioned in the context of New Villages in Malaysia, that could be another sharing in my future post) I’ve proceeded into a deeper insight regarding the meaning of ‘typology’, and perhaps to me personally, it was the biggest lesson learned from this dissertation and its preparation process.

Typology, in many of the past architectural references and literature, is described as an irreducible element of architecture, which governs the intrinsic design regardless of any form and function. In many cases, it is usually incomprehensible, enigmatic yet substantial.

During my earlier days in the school, we are often being requested to do precedent studies in the design studio courses, corresponding to the ‘typology’ of the building. In example, we took Guggenheim Museum, National Museum of Malaysia or maybe other renowned museum as precedent, when designing a local ethnic museum for Baba-Nyonya. Though they are all embody partial similarity in their backbone of main building program (they all archive, exhibit artefacts and allow visitation), yet they are, nonetheless, different in many ways in their typological value. The Guggenheim Museum is a deliberate monument, portray a more universalistic, liberal, and democratic accent. Whereas the National Museum of Malaysia represent a nationalistic history and it is institutionally established. They are not laterally the similar ‘museum’ to the Baba-Nyonya Museum, which is rather dialectic and focus solely on the local front instead. In results, the typologies of them ended up totally different due to their nature instead of mere building programs.

Nevertheless, I think the building program still play a significant position to perceive the architecture typology. A religious building could be a good demonstration here: it is fundamentally a place for worship, yet it can be turned into a museum, café, dormitory, or even brothel as the time changes and its relevance becomes dependent to the community demands, and its typology is shifted while being inhabited through ages and new dwellers and activities. This is where a new typology is breed, yet its old typology does not disappear but being inherited into the new one. Form and function are considered hyper-ephemeral as time and space too, but the typology of architecture, though can be changed and adapted, it transcends and persisted as long as the building remained.

To conclude that, architecture typology is seen as a principle- logical, suggestive, and autonomous. Here, typology as the transcendent notion of model, which fundamentally inherits the memory and traces within, connected to the multiplex events of its context instead.

Ps: This piece of writing is completed as I found the common fallacy when the schools’ and the students’ response to the brief in the beginning of a design process. Typology is supposed to start with a vigorous sense of self-consciousness in design. Either we have a strong, precise reference to a prevailed typology of precedents, or we rethink the configuration for a new typology address the latent issue, the last thing we should do is just encapsulate all the programs in the brief to an empty shell, or the so-called ‘concept’ (Further refer to my previous post on Context, Concept, Content). After all, the lack of self-awareness and critical approach but simply completing task and requirements will defeat the purpose of learning.

Context, Concept, Content


Discourse, 18 June 2021

A hand-sketched mapping to capture the details lost in simplified CAD drawing, to comprehend a rather complete context

Context, concept, and content are probably the most significant matters within an architectural design process.

I recall that my very first introduction to the term ‘context’ was during my sophomore year in the university, when the design projects are scaled up from a countryside single dwelling into a community center in the campus. That was when the scope of our study was expanded by a little bit, considering our designs were actually placed on a specific setting, serving a community, and affecting its environment. Since then, for every design project, our batch will be divided into groups to focus on respective aspects of the so-called ‘context’ within two or three weeks.

It was an inferior model indeed. The one-size-fits-all attempt to standardize the contextual study in a fixed template: climate, environmental study, traffic, accessibility, vegetation, and so on, seems nonsensical to me. And most of the time, we find our designs later are lost in translation to the contextual concerns. They are mostly redundant, trivial, or lack of a rigorous grasp, that eventually turned out into an insensitive inference towards the specific context. The meaning of context is often being misunderstood.

Studying a specific context is supposed to be similar as studying a language. It is not expected to be easy, not within two, three weeks or even a month, especially when you are not a member of the context. The more we are familiar and masterful to a particular language, the more we may be able to navigate ourselves to read the context- which are circumstantial, multidimensional, dialectical, or even vexatious sometimes. The nature of its multiplicity shall give rise to various expressions. Those are the critical ingredients to be involved in the design process- either considering them as a convenient whole by exclusions, or a difficult whole by inclusions (though the latter one could result in richer, manifold, and convoluted architecture, but the former one is usually being adopted considering the timeframe of a project nowadays).

That bring us to another topic- the concept in architecture. There was a time I avoid using the term ‘concept’ to explain my design, simply because the way which lecturers demand a ‘concept’ like a wow-factor without even questioning why our projects need to be ‘wow’. We often see architectural concepts nowadays comes in as form-findings, shallow metaphors, sticked-up feature, or even marketing jargons. (I do not go against those ideas and the application of them, but I tend not to refer them as architectural concept- instead, they came in as cluster of ideas instead of being shouted as ‘concept’. Nowadays I aware many of my projects especially quick competition entries are having less ‘concept’ or perhaps without it, but simply made of collages of notions and little innovations.)

In fact, concept is the furthest thing from a wow-factor, and it does not need to be explained in one word. I rather refer it as a continuum of overarching narratives to relate the specific context to the architectural content within the design spectrum. It is highly idiosyncratic, radical, and the validity of designer’s decision of his/her architectural approach. I would perhaps see it as series of speculative justifications of personal enthusiasm in architecture, that sometimes conform, confront, collide, or conflict to emerge an accent or expression reflecting to the context. Subsequently, it could be extremely explicit, intensively intellectual, or inherently profound, depending to the designer’s approach.

The context and concept are always correlated, in either way creating equilibrium or tension of the shaping of architecture. This could be what I believe a well-crafted and sophisticated architectural design thinking. Whereby the content is everything that is being positioned and pioneer within, and sometimes beyond the context and concept- that would be another story instead.

Architect: A Powerless Profession?


Discourse, 10 June 2021

A photograph of us during the freshie year in the studio, when we had no any clue about architecture

Amid heading towards my graduation of Master’s Degree in Architecture and searching for jobs, I was having some spare time to rethink architecture as a career, or perhaps as part of me. Especially in the recent years when I grew my reach and knowledge regarding architect as profession, I’ve come to start questioning the supposed position of architects in our world.

Of what roles are architects represent in our society? Are architects or their works always speak for a predominant agenda? Or their responsibility is purely constructing a building in the name to serve any client? To what extend the architects and their works could impact society, the intimate environment, or the architectural industry itself? Perhaps everything about their works is just simply a by-product of their clients? Are architects’ works in the state of obsolescence?

In Malaysia’s context, the official definition of ‘Architect’ in general can be referred as the person who is entitled to design and construct a legal building. Such entitlement is a transmission of power and responsibility, legalization of profession- which has little, or nothing relate to design. Though I am sceptical about this entitlement can uphold its power for how long, as if the legislative power is the only threshold to differ what architects can do. The advancement of technology and tools today have made the architectural knowledge and skillset much accessible than ever. Yet, the relatively stagnant situation in Malaysia has made the profession relies heavily on this entitlement in a defensive way- is this a healthy phenomenon or the only way we could do to sustain the architect’s profession?

On the other hand, during the years in school, we are reminded to uphold the responsibility of an architect, not only by the legality of building, but also through the act of design- even though sometimes I found it comes with the monotonous reading of issues and their relationships, resulting in oversimplification towards the whole context. Thus, for such a long time in school, we begin our architectural design as a measure to address common issues, or even solve them hypothetically. The bright side is, we trained to be more sensitive to relate the topic of built environment with many ongoing issues for various contexts, to look a little bit beyond what architecture is.

However, this sounds very ideal, in fact too ideal to consider the designer as a problem-solver of many conditions in the worlds we live in. This reminds me of the counterstatement in the letter written by Jacques Herzog to David Chipperfield:

“Dear David, you ask me what we architects should do about the unmistakably impending environmental catastrophe. About social inequality. About poverty. About the degradation of this planet’s resources. About the pandemic, which has placed us in an almost surreal mode that begs description. All of which is being managed by political leaders, whose cynicism and absurd actions put the Marx Brothers to shame. Dear David, the answer is: nothing.

… Architects have always kept company with the world’s mighty.”

The whole writing can refer to: https://www.domusweb.it/en/architecture/2020/10/13/jacques-herzog-letter-from-basel.html

From the entire reading, it implied the passive nature lies within the profession of an architect. It does not completely deny the tangible contribution that can be made by architects’ works, but it raises how powerless an architect is when it comes to the decisive issues which are omnipresent around the world. This is quite contradicting to the belief of many young, passionate architects who wish their works contribute to the betterment of the world, seeing them has very little to do with addressing the issues in reality. But at the very least, all we had left is the architecture itself. I tend not to think pessimistically regarding architect’s position, but I have not yet found an answer to these doubts.

Anyway, I would love to cite Reinier de Graaf’s words in Failed Architecture: Architecture is in a State of Denial which expresses the similar thought with my current apprehension:

“An architect is not supposed to be nostalgic but forward-looking. But I’m nostalgic for a time when mankind was a lot more forward-looking than it is today; for a gradual optimism about the future. That’s the paradox.”

The whole writing can refer to: https://failedarchitecture.com/2017/12/reinier-de-graaf-architecture-is-in-a-state-of-denial/

Thinking & Making


Discourse, 5 June 2021

A photograph of my experience involved in the construction of an exhibiting pavilion project.

I believe every architecture starts from constructing a mental image in one’s mind- whatever the design approach or embodied ideology might be. The architecture is not likely to get built if you can’t imagine it in your head. Thinking + Making is what it is all about. And we as designers usually anatomize this topic into almost contrary and isolated branches, which are the concept or the philosophy behind the design, against the underlying technicality or resolutions to realize it. We often debate whether which has the higher difficulty in the whole process of realizing an architecture, and sometimes we even champion one over another.

However, I don’t really perceive them as complete opposition or distinct phases. In fact, there is always a degree of technicality in architectural theory to shape a concept; and there are always some notions relating back to the concept from the technical construction of architecture. Most of the time, we go back and forth in the cycle of thinking + making, that the process is never linear, and become almost seamless sometimes. The act of thinking is the making itself, while the process of making is the thinking as well.

This leads to another discourse that concerned me a lot since I delved into the architecture field. What is the difference between a building and architecture? Whenever I review a building closely from an architectural viewpoint, there is always a sense of slightly off for me to consider it as a ‘building’ or ‘architecture’. I’ve kept wonder what ‘line’ draws the discrepancy between them. Up to this day, I perhaps, consider the ‘line’ as the disjunction between thinking and making- some buildings are made with an ambitiously sounded idea without carrying it down to various levels of technicality to actually let the idea grounded; while some buildings are constructed beautifully but hollow without a conceptual proposition or the theoretical prefiguration.

Whether it comes from an intellectually focused direction or a layman’s approach, architecture should always bridge both thinking + making, within and beyond a seamless body. It should concern less about how things are made or thought differently. Instead, focus more on the latent yet intimate relationship which ties them together. I would love to refer to one simple analogy made by the local designer, WHBC Architects:

“The plywood is one really well-designed product. The use of very thin fragile veneer, laid together in layers of alternating direction of its grain. All glued together, forming a strong, stable piece of product.
Architecture is not the plywood. It is the glue.”

Architecture Within & Beyond


Discourse, 4 June 2021

A diagram illustrates my fundamental approach to architecture

My architectural approach (or philosophy) slowly takes shape after few years in school and short experience practice overseas and homeland. Looking across my works, they came off in various styles, and very different approaches indeed. Sometimes I get lost finding their similarity and correlation. Their representations are never static, but shifted from time to time and took form to their very own parameters. I do not have the intention of making architecture differently or vice versa- to remain as generic as possible either.

Architecture to me, is always originated from wonders, and ended up perhaps a reminder of something greater than us. It should always start from a typological question, transcending mere functionalism, superficial concept, and blatant aesthetics. Architecture is mainly about architecture, though many side orders come to its concerns as well. At this point, my design approach usually begins with a series of monologues and self-critique scrutiny on the inner side, and extends outwards to conform, confront, and sometimes challenge the latent context, which I’ll call it the ‘within and beyond’.

They are nothing literal about the inside or outside of the architecture, but everything relates to architecture and itself. The term ‘within’ implies the viewpoint to contemplate architecture autonomously. It could be imagined as an internal dialogue, lies eminently on self-consciousness, which is an absolute necessity in any form of creation, or the act of creating itself. Whereas the ‘beyond’ are more about the significance, not of architecture, but of the relation of architecture to other things. This way of thought relates the creation of architecture to the reality ground, of everything about its context and emerging issues. The balance and tension between the ‘within’ and ‘beyond’ come as the first quest whenever I start to design architecture.

And I have always concerned with the scales, especially the scales of thought. It makes so much difference on the perspectives of oneself to relate with particular matters. I realize the more we may shift ourselves from one to another scale when concerning a context, the more of depth we may create during the design process. Most of the time, the depth is not referred to a specific aspect of the design, but the condensed thoughts that stacked together before reaching a design decision. In that sense, the architecture here may not be a sole building or space- it could be a new typology, a cyclical process, a radical statement, or an entire framework of policymaking.

Of course, many of my works had failed too, or sometimes does not align perfectly to the similar ‘depth’ or speculations I have mentioned. Yet, they have become the bits and pieces which shape and overlay my design philosophy from stage to stage nonetheless. Along the journey, I tried to experiment more with critical reflections on my progress through these works and I will continue to do so.

After all, like what Robert Venturi has raised in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture: “Should an artist go all the way with his or her philosophies?”, I am still being sceptical to the meaning of such pursuit. Currently, I am pretty much intended to be suggestive rather than dogmatic for my writings here.