It’s not every day you get the opportunity to meet someone whose work has contributed and impacted not only the global architectural industry but also Mother Earth itself. And for someone who is nearing his 70s, Dato’ Dr Ar Ken Yeang is presently still very much engrossed in his endeavour to employ biophilic principles in his work.
Seated across his work desk, it felt like I was at the core of the architectural universe. Apart from the entrance and windows, all four walls of his office are filled with books of various forms and languages, either being slotted amongst the already jam-packed cupboards or piled up to knee length on the floor. The space reminded me of my university professors and I have to admit that this is somewhat similar to how I have visualised the workspace belonging to the father of sustainable bioclimatic buildings.
Like many who appreciate intelligence and wit, Ken sure enjoys a good pun. “If there is such a term as ‘starchitect’, why is there not a ‘moonchitect’? Why be a star when you can be the moon?” As if it came straight out from the pages by Lewis Carroll, it took me a second to understand what he truly meant. Jokes aside, this green architect is chatty and inquisitive about everything. Ten minutes into our interview, I became the interviewee. Surprised by this turn of events, I cheekily reminded Ken the purpose of today’s meeting, to which he replied with a hearty laugh. “You’re too rigid and disciplined, Ee Vonne. You must learn to relax and just enjoy the company.” With that, he gestured to me to proceed.
“The goal is to start designing buildings in a way in which biodiversity can be enhanced”
It’s heavily advertised that green architecture and design are the waves of the future. and living in the era of the “iconic” building, architects everywhere are exhibiting much more innovative, creative and aesthetically powerful uses of greenery in their work each year. What are your thoughts?
I find the whole idea of “iconic” building silly. One should always design as the way one would, whether it will be iconic or not. I designed my own house in 1985 and even though people presently refer to it as an iconic building, the Roof-Roof House was used against me back then. Many would ridicule my design in front of my clients and go, “Look! This is what you get if you use Ken Yeang’s architect!” Fast forward to today, the same architects are now saying that my design is, in fact, a climate-responsible architecture presented ahead of its time. But the truth is simple, I’d just designed it the way I wanted it to be. Humans are fickle-minded creatures. So never design iconic architecture for the sake of it.
What are the common misconceptions regarding ecological architecture that limits the pursuit of developing green buildings?
Well, I can name you a few but let’s focus on the most common fallacy. Should you ask any architects today, they will claim that they do green buildings but from my experience and point of view, the majority of them are ignorant and have failed to understand what ecology truly means. And it’s difficult to explain this to our clients. Mind you, some of these architects are world-renowned and who am I to tell them what is and isn’t a green design?
Perhaps you would like to elaborate more on “what ecology truly means”?
You see, there are several eco-designs which are essentially pretentious greenwashing. But there is a difference between using greenery in architecture and being “green” in the metaphorical sense of the word. Green design has everything to do with nature yet there are those who only link it with technology such as energy efficiency, low-impact building materials, recycling systems and what have you. These cause confusions. Everything we do takes place in nature and nature is all about ecology. And contrary to popular belief, the presence of foliage plays little to no significance to a sustainable way of building and living. Imagine this: if you are to surround yourself with plants but live the most egregiously wasteful life while doing it, can you truly say that you’re embracing the green lifestyle?
You mean the technology used in a “green” architecture may not positively contribute to the natural environment?
It may or may not. For a building to be designed with ecological benefits, it must encompass the whole industry. And it includes the characteristics of the site in which the development is located and the ecological features. We need to integrate everything that we make and do on the natural environment in a seamless and benign way. Innovation is just part of it. If we can blend nature and urban environment together, there will be no pollution and waste.
I see your point but why is it important to connect architecture and nature?
As the modern world becomes more urban and more densely populated, buildings and cities are built to meet the constantly growing demand. The goal is to start designing buildings in a way in which biodiversity can be enhanced. Also, the scale and context of the green movement should not be limited to architecture alone, the design of the entire communities, towns, cities and regions should be put into consideration. It’s worth remembering that green architecture and design aren’t meant to be decorative; it’s to complete an ecosystem.