By Mariam Mokhtar
An Ipohite, Kenneth Yeh, has done Malaysia proud. Last month, the husband and wife team of Kenneth and his Argentinian wife Carolina Marra, founders of their architectural firm ‘Marra + Yeh’, won an award from the Architectural Review (AR), a leading London publication and critic of global architecture.
Their winning entry was the ‘Shelter @ Rainforest’ project, a building deep in the forests of Sabah which provides accommodation for the manager of a forestry company, his family and their visitors.
Both Yeh and Marra, are based in Sydney but Yeh divides his time between Australia and Asia, including Malaysia, where he has various commissions. They travelled to London to receive the award, at a ceremony on June 26, which was attended by architects from all over the world.
Two-hundred entries for 2012 were judged by a distinguished international jury consisting of Brian Mackay-Lyons (Canada), Sofia Von Ellrichshausen (Chile) and Peter Salter (UK), and chaired by Catherine Slessor. Slessor who is also the editor of the AR said, “[Marra + Yeh]’s project clearly stood out and the jury found it both impressive and convincing.”
Yeh told the Ipoh Echo that he never intended to be an architect. He had harboured designs to be a Naval Architect but his parents objected to that choice of study. “My parents said that there is ‘no future in designing belly buttons’. Today, I take revenge on my parents by designing my buildings to look like boats or ships.”
He studied at the University of Texas at Austin, and trained under the Architect, Peter Bohlin, but is disappointed that the School of Architecture which he attended is not recognised in Malaysia, despite being ranked #2 in the US.
His first job was the design of a Palm Oil refinery, for a company in Ipoh. Now, from his Australian base, he travels extensively around Asia. Every 2-3 months, finds himself in Ipoh, to visit his mother and for work: “I have a couple of houses in Meru Valley Golf Course.”
The talented designer lives in an old converted biscuit factory, with a courtyard garden containing mature trees of avocado, magnolia and Australian hardwood. He described his home, as “a nice juxtaposition of old and new.”
News about the award had taken both Yeh and Marra by surprise. “The house (for the project) we designed is a very humble dwelling. Of course there’s also a satisfaction in being acknowledged for such work and for all the effort in the three years that it took to make it happen,” said Yeh.
A delighted Marra said, “The AR has held architects to a pretty high standard for a long time, they had top notch judges and the competition is tough, so to be given an award is quite an honour.”
When asked about the working relationship of a husband and wife team, Yeh said, “Two heads are better than one!” but declared, “Sometimes all we talk about is architecture. That can be both good and bad.”
The hands-on approach during construction is part of Yeh’s work philosophy. He also does research to understand what is unique about the place and the people involved in a particular project. “We then design a building that responds to the situation, it is not preconceived,” he said.
For their Sabah project, they used a four-wheel drive to visit small villages in Sabah to learn and understand the traditional buildings of the Rungus and the Muruts, and see how they had evolved over time and how they are used within the traditions of the local communities.
The Shelter @ Rainforest project is made from timber to create a low-cost house which uses solar electricity, biogas and rainwater. A feature of the design is that indoor temperatures may peak at twenty-six degrees celsius at noon, which is around eight to ten degrees lower than the outdoor temperature.
Although he was nostalgic about Ipoh as a place, he confessed, “I am worried about it as an Architect”. He was full of praise for another of Ipoh’s famous architects: “B.M. Iversen is the only famous Architect from Ipoh. I admire his work as it has an evolution about it. It evolved over time to accommodate the extreme tropical climate and the growth the buildings had to accommodate.”
“His buildings gave Ipoh a distinctive character, different from Penang and Malacca. There was a Tropical Modernism coupled with sophistication. He was ahead of his time and still is. His buildings are destroyed because the developers and owners of these buildings often do not know how to appreciate them. This is a tragedy.”
Yeh said that Ipoh had an ownership problem created initially, by the excesses of the ‘80s and the ‘90s which helped create many uncompleted housing estates, especially in the outer suburbs.
“Secondly, rent seeking coupled with the unjustified conservative banking culture produced a small class of landlords and a rapidly growing class of renters. This does not bode well for Ipoh as the bulk of the citizenry are not invested in Ipoh through property and are in fact getting forced out of the property ladder,” he said.
“This is a recipe for inequality and at some point this inequality will produce social explosions. We are already seeing this in the very high density, low cost and not well thought of developments in KL.”
He stressed the importance of preserving Ipoh’s old heritage buildings and laments the loss of much of our roots and history through indiscriminate demolition. “The quick answer is good regulation, enforced properly. The long-term answer is reviving the economic health of Ipoh and educating the public on what good architecture is. If people are proud of their town or city they will not stand idly by and watch it being destroyed.”
His advice for anyone pursuing a career in architecture was sobering: “It is not a career but a way of being. If you are not passionate about it, do not enter it as a default choice of hedging one’s bet between the arts and the sciences.”
Yeh said, “I would like to thank the staff and writers of Ipoh Echo for their work in fostering community through this paper. It is important work that rarely gets acknowledged.”
Ipoh Echo would like to congratulate Kenneth and Carolina, and thank them for sharing their views on architecture.