First on stage was Leon van Schaik, Professor of Architecture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University, Australia.
He introduced Minsuk Cho of Mass Studies, Seoul, Korea.
“I am not Australian but I live in that continent which has a population of about 22 million people whereas Minsuk lives in a city that has 22 million people. This has an amazing impact on the work that he does,” commented Leon.
Minsuk presented his observations of the emerging modern city – its dilemmas and how he responds to the unique challenges facing him as a 21st century architect. Probably the only player to keep to the alloted time frame of five minutes, he spoke on the “Human Explosion” and a “Globalised Society”.
“As the scale of our physical body of architecture increases followed by the scale of the population, the inseparable trinity of ‘Bigger, Faster, Cheaper’ develops which ironically was never meant to happen in real life. Scale and size do not matter but with the new attitude, four case scenarios present themselves.
“In the first case, inverted bigness is possibly a more powerful alternative to just being simply big. In case two, exercise a simultaneous ‘think small when asked to do big’ approach. In case three, start from a small approach when asked to do big (projects). Like pieces of a puzzle, case four brings you back to the question of how to design spaces for people."
Leon, in response to Minsuk’s presentation acknowledged that the opposite is now true of the rural demographics that used to house 80 per cent of the population. In the new demographics of the city, a drastic role reversal of sorts is now the norm with cities currently containing 80 per cent of the population.
His session over, Minsuk introduced Venezuelan-born architect Igor Peraza of Miralles Tagliabue EMBT who has traversed three continents for work. His firm won the competition for the design of the Shanghai Spanish Pavilion, China.
“Today, we talked about scale and how we approached the design of the pavilion. The project is big in terms of the facades made of wicker.
“After the expo was over, they decided to keep the pavilion for the future and work on the next life of the building,” he said of the project which he feels bridged China and Spain.
“One of the Chinese characters used means 'big'. Building big and fast is very difficult,” he added, agreeing with Minsuk on the ironies of modern-day demands to build “bigger, faster, cheaper”.
Wanting to complete the pavilion on a different scale for “Spanish use in Asia”, the pavilion was designed in Barcelona using wicker as a material which he maintains is symbolic of “going to a different culture but using common elements.”
The beauty of the pavilion saw the same technique of creating spaces being used to generate consistency and texture being employed to illustrate the feeling of “creating big things from small things”.
Delectable by design
Peraza then introduced Isadora Chai, chef of Bistro à Table, KL.
“The question is, is bigger better? Of course not. Against popular belief, bigger isn’t better. It boils down to technique,” she observed.
“When you think of food, everything is about design, how it all comes together and is served to you. It is designed on a different scale and in an indirect way.”
Chai who provided her comments on the parallels and duality in terms of design and food composition then drew attention to Colin Seah, designer, Ministry of Design, Singapore.
Ministry of Design
Seah began by saying that typologically, the issue of scale has been a growing interest of his firm.
“This issue of rapid urbanisation is one that perplexes us and gives rise to the twin phenomenon of needing to think bigger, as well as to think smaller."
“I think that the notion of scale leaves me to ponder on the bigness and the smallness of it all," he said, adding that the practice has been working on projects in rapidly urbanising or urbanised regions where large scale developments seem rampant.
Referencing a large scale housing project in Singapore which is set amidst small scale historic buildings, he maintained that "urban designers in the architectural timeframe" have the responsibility to examine the buildings in the foreground which took decades to develop and those in the background that took a few years to develop.
Seah said that though the typical Asian is now two inches taller than the previous generation, the way space is experienced is essentially the same. However, it is ironic that the new urban centres are more dense, and provide less space per person.
“While the scale of our cities has progressively become larger, the intentional fragmentation of this scale is also important. We create streets and corners reflecting the human scale,” he added, saying that on another scale, his practice also ponders about smallness.
“Reflecting the influx of people to the urban centres of the world, every square inch of space becomes premium. We see apartments that have been shrunk down to incredibly small sizes. In that small space, how do we allow for richness and quality of life?"
To him, one of the ways lies in transformability and how the space has to be multi-faceted. At the heart of the matter, Seah asserted that the issue of smallness deals with how one approaches the needs of a wide spectrum of occupants.
“For instance, I don’t like to think of the bathroom as a shower or tub area, but I like to think of it as a place for rejuvenation. It’s about the art of living that good design responds to,” he concluded.
The next player was Jo Kukathas who has carved a name for herself in theatre.
“Jo in the flesh, what more do you need? Jo’s medium is the narrative or is the story. She either writes the story or is the story,” Seah introduced the actress and theatre director.
Taking on the persona of a fake architect or the stage architect as she humorously stated it, her answer was, “Yes, size matters. Certainly in Malaysia in creating the national narrative it matters!”
"Yet, scale is not an absolute as two towers may be considered big for KL but for an architect working on five towers in China, size is relative."
She expressed interest in the idea of national narratives told through architecture and monuments.
To her, there is the "shock and awe" (factors) created by stage designs as seen in the Bergenz Festival Austria showcasing the world’s largest floating stage or the monumental heads (giant stone statues called Moai) on Easter Island.
"Such scale moves us," she observed.
“There is an actual yearning of wanting something bigger than ourselves that makes us construct something massive or monumental.”
Touching on man’s need to build and the temporal side of things, she said that she is more likely to celebrate impermanence as opposed to an architect looking at the physical permanence of space.
“It all comes down in the end. In theatre, it is obvious because it all comes down on closing night.”
Citing Rem Koolhaas’ notion of the anti-icon, she quoted him as saying we are as guilty as the next cosmopolitan city wanting to be on the world stage for the "shock and awe" qualities, so much so that the effect does not shock anymore.
She ended by questioning our fixation with notions of physical scale.
“Small spaces can be sublime. So can large and monumental spaces. As cities are expanding, perhaps we should concern ourselves not just with size but with returning the sublime to our Asian cities,” she said, introducing architect Ang Wen Hsia of WHBC Architects, KL on stage.
Mirth of the middle class
Complimenting Ang’s ability to bring a sense of connection to people’s houses using cross-ventilation features, Kukathas said she is a fan of her work including the ecologically-friendly Telegraph Pole House in Langkawi, the “houses” and even a "resort" she designed for dogs in Semenyih, Selangor.
“And, I like how she writes about it… All her interest in the marginal, overlooked and literally the underdog,” exclaimed Kukathas, drawing peals of laughter from the floor.
Growing up in a middle-class family, Ang shared that “middle” is pretty much an Asian thing and in response to the question, “Does size matter?” when it comes to different scales of projects which express different meanings, the answer is a bold and resounding “Yes!”.
“We are neither low-tech nor high-tech. We are in the middle. Therefore, are we stuck? I think that being an Asian in the middle is a good thing. We have constraints and limited resources which are especially true for small architectural practices. Like a cook with a limited variety of ingredients to create a meaningful dish, we have to look hard at whatever is available and be focused. It is exciting when we find a new method or detail.”
Drawing upon the analogy of skill and limited ingredients forming a hearty plate of char kuey teow that Malaysians can relate to, she posed these rhetorics: “Does small matter in this rapidly developing world? Should we try to make a bigger impact?"
"I say at the end of the day, regardless if the project is big or small, the challenge is to keep the attitude small and stay focused,” she said, expressing her excitement in designing small houses and working with the challenges of small boundaries while needing to focus on every detail.
“You just have to work really hard when the budget is so low. You have to understand living conditions and the small details to provide the best for the people,” she said. This to her is especially true in relation to low-cost housing projects with limited budgets whereby one has to work the hardest to fully realise.
Nashzelima Ngadmin, design director of Blu Water Studio Sdn Bhd, KL spoke on behalf of the firm.
“How can scale affect a person’s perception of design? When we design, we often try to use larger than life installations in order to create an emotional response in people.
"In addition, scale can also create a sense of realism. In one instance, we took a real life photograph and enlarged it to a human scale as an artwork feature. By using this scale, we can push design boundaries and also give energy and movement to the space."
At the same time, she said that when it comes to smaller spaces, one has to remember to design at a proportion that can be viewed at eye level.
Overall, her emphasis was that design must be done for human use, rather than just for the sake of making a statement. When it comes to size, it is not necessarily about how big or small it is, rather it is about creating an emotional response.
"By doing this, we are able to make a positive contribution to the community."
Establishing the differentiating point
The Design Roulette, forming a full circle, found its way back to Leon.
“In answering the question of ‘Does size matter and does size endure?’, I've (pictured) here, this haunting object of a little boat with gold in its mast, seats and rudder.
"It's a thousand years old, was made in Ireland and sits in a Dublin museum," offered Leon.
"No one who sees it can’t be engaged in the fragility of the endeavour, but at the same time, we like to look out to the sunset and ponder the meaning of it all.
"Invariably, when you work on something on a small scale and when you think about the world, when you actually think of it, you miniaturise it and we love it,” he reflected further.
"Architecture has a built-in intensity.It is the intensity of the architect that matters,” concluded the first player on stage and last person to present.
Pics courtesy of Asia Design Forum 2013.