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Building the Scaffolding: A Report from DOMA Initiatives’ First Annual Conference

An architect’s job is demanding enough as it is. After a hard week of site visits, client meetings, and hard graft in the studio, why would she devote her precious Saturday to sitting in a sealed auditorium, listening to a group of other architects talk about their work, when she could be catching up with loved ones? Similarly for an architecture student; after pulling a couple all-nighters to prepare for a crit session, why would he rise early on the weekend instead of spending the morning snug in bed?

Despite such competition on a midsummer Saturday, DOMA Initiatives, Malaysia’s new non-profit charitable architectural foundation, attracted a full-house to their first annual conference, ESC: 2018, convened in partnership with the Association of Consulting Architects of Malaysia at Taylor’s University Lakeside Campus. DOMA Initiatives’ stated aim is to “promote and encourage good design and practice in architecture”; a key aspect of this is the organisation of public events like ESC:2018, which bring international talent into direct contact with Malaysian audiences.

The full-day program offered presentations from five accomplished architects and designers, grouped under the theme “Try and leave this world a little better than you found it”, a quote from Boy Scouts founder Richard Baden-Powell. With one participant from South Korea, two from Thailand, and two based in Singapore, not to mention geographically diverse personal, educational and professional pedigrees, the conference offered fertile ground for discussion of commonalities and diversities amongst built environment practices across the massive and varied territory of Asia.

Jun Sekino shared a review of the range of buildings—mostly houses for private clients—in his eponymous Bangkok-based practice’s growing portfolio. Sekino was joined on stage by two members of his team, who took turns describing projects, with a focus on client needs and attention to design details. A project that showed interesting potential for how the practice might expand beyond residential work was a school built for Design for Disaster in the north of Thailand, which uses of low-cost, light-weight materials to create a graceful space for learning and recreation.

Minsuk Cho, principal of Seoul-based Mass Studies, interwove his extensive experience as exhibitor, curator and commissioner of architecture for international events with examples of permanent buildings, both institutional and private. Typically embracing hybrid programs, these projects included a home built around a vast private library, a university dormitory complex, and a competition-winning proposal for a film complex in Seoul. Cho’s discussion of his contributions to multiple Venice Biennales and the Expo 2010 in Shanghai revealed how temporary architectural projects can have lasting implications for larger political and diplomatic dynamics, specifically in the case of the relationship between North and South Korea.

Adopting an infectious attitude of keen curiosity about Bangkok, Chatpong “Chat” Chuenrudeemol took the conference audience on a tour of his hometown’s various vernacular structures, with detailed analysis of the social systems and aggregate user needs that create and change them over time. Chuenrudeemol shared a number of CHAT Architects’ own projects that draw direct inspiration from the studio’s ongoing research into these “Bangkok Bastard” typologies; houses and hotels whose designs seek to playfully blur lines between public and private, new and old.

The lone engineer amongst the day’s speakers, Web Structures founder Dr Hossein Rezai adopted a wide-angle perspective in his presentation. After a quick review of his firm’s many engineering achievements—including a number of structurally complex towers—Rezai exhorted the audience to consider the broader context in which design is practiced, including the need to address urgent challenges such as social inequality, mass migration and climate change. He shared an optimistic assessment of the potentials of computational design, in which machines might act as collaborators with, rather than competitors against, humans. Left implicit were direct links between specific projects shown and the global issues raised; had time allowed, it would have been useful to gain more insight here.

The day’s final speaker Richard Hassell, co-founder of WOHA Architects, shared some key principles governing his practice over two decades of work. Drawing from WOHA’s publication Garden City Mega City (Pesaro Publishing, 2016), Hassell made the case for new architectural typologies to meet the challenges of climate change in rapidly urbanising regions. These typologies are three-dimensional networks that layer dense structures with spaces of greenery, social encounter, and energy generation. Hassell also described internal metrics that WOHA have developed to assess project success on their own terms, measuring each building’s green plot ratio or food self-sufficiency, for example.

The day’s presentations ranged widely: from Sekino Architects’ beachfront villa to Mass Studies’ biodiversity bank in the DMZ; from CHAT’s revamped sex hotel to WOHA’s self-sufficient tropical new town; from the ingenious hand-splicing of bricks in Bangkok to the labour-saving potentials of computational design in Singapore. Similarly, the scales of the practices: spanning from just 6 years to nearly 25 years old; from portfolios concentrated within a single country to large-scale projects around the globe. This diversity precluded any easy generalisations about a singular Asian architectural community.

To attempt a few observations nonetheless: All of the presenters foregrounded the needs, desires and habits of their architecture’s users, be these the clients commissioning it or the publics inhabiting it. And they all actively engaged with the wider social and environmental contexts of their projects, albeit to different degrees. In the closing round table discussion, the participants seemed to agree that issues of scale, speed and governance were different for them working in Asia, than in Europe and the United States. Some confided that they’d felt their work was misunderstood by some Western-centric architectural critics; a justification for the value of new Asian institutions of architectural culture.

Diversity is an asset for any cultural endeavour. ESC:2018 treated its audience to live presentations from impressive and accomplished practitioners from wide-ranging backgrounds. Except for one thing. There are many talented female architects working in Asia whose experience and insights would enrich such conversations and ensure that the rising generation of Malaysian architects benefit from a full spectrum of role models. I look forward to future DOMA Initiative events that have a gender-balanced line-up, and encourage readers to contact the DOMA team with suggestions of world-class Asian architects—female and male—who you’d like to see in their program.

ESC:2018 was a significant milestone on DOMA Initiatives’ journey to create a critically rigorous, world-class platform for the discussion of architecture and design in Malaysia. It is remarkable that the organisation has come so far powered mostly through the volunteer work of passionate people. To ensure DOMA Initiatives’ long-term sustainability, it is crucial that more built environment companies and architecture aficionados join the foundation’s pioneering group of sponsors and donors and contribute funds to support its future. Beneath the magic of any cultural project, there is a machine, and its engine cannot run on passion alone.

Another metaphor came to mind during our conference discussion, inspired by some of CHAT Architects’ work in Bangkok: If architectural practice is like a building, the socio-cultural matrix—critical publications, conferences, exhibitions, and so on—that enables the exchange of ideas both practical and philosophical, is the scaffolding around it. Scaffolding must not be confused with billboards: shiny surfaces bearing idealised images for quick consumption. Scaffolding enables access to a building during construction; it shelters a nascent building from the elements until it is robust; it prefigures the shape of what is to come. Let’s build this scaffolding together.

Sarah Mineko Ichioka leads Desire Lines, a strategic consultancy for environmental, cultural and social-impact organisations and initiatives. Before relocating to Asia in 2014, Ichioka was Director of The Architecture Foundation, the UK’s leading independent architecture centre, for five years. | Twitter @sarah_ichioka | Instagram @sarahmineko

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