Case Study of Architect Abdul Harris Othman

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  1. Introduction

Abdul Harris Othman was born in Pokok Sena, Kedah on 4th April 1957. He grew up in Jitra, Kedah and started to pursue his study in Australia in 1975 after he won the Colombo Plan Scholarship. He returned to Malaysia after 10 years to serve the country. He has designated as Principal architect of KLCC and the architect of record for Petronas Twin towers in the year of 1992. Armed with these experiences, he established his own architectural practice with the objective to provide world-class architectural and urban design services.

Designed by Abdul Harris Othman, the Serendah House is located at the Serendah district, Rawang in Malaysia. The house attempts to create a new genre for residential architecture that meets the modern contemporary needs of client but at the same time presents the country heritage and identity. This house has nominated for several awards globally such as the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for 2005-2007 cycle and the ARCASIA Gold Medal Award 2003

This paper attempts to convey an understanding of the architect’s architectural theory through the observation and analysis of Serendah Houe. Using this architecture as primary text, this project is to analyze and examine the Serendah House in relation to its relevant architectural theories, social, cultural and intellectual context.

  1. Analysis
  1. Climate

The Serendah House is located at the edge of a golf course, adjacent to a forest reserve. Situating in the midst of a forest hill, the design has a great potential in integrating the climatic factors into its spatial and massing planning.

First and foremost, the major spaces in the house such as the main deck, living and dining area and the master bedroom are designed facing to west to capture the green view and the beauty of the sun set. We have known that the long façade of a building facing to east and west will increase the heat gain of the house. However, the west side of the selected site is surrounded by abundant of trees. The architect used the advantage of the site to orientate most of the major spaces facing west to frame a romantic view to the house. Due to the ideal geographical contour, the trees surrounded also act as the shading devices for spaces like master bedroom, verandah and the main deck. For the façade facing east which is not covered by trees, the architect has minimized the openings to reduce heat gain into the house.

Despite the aid of the existing trees, the design of the roof structure with deep roof eaves, grilles, louvers and operable folding door at the façade also provide shade over sun yet allow indirect natural light to penetrate the interior spaces. The living area, dining area, main deck, verandah and master bedrooms are also designed to be open or with large openings to catch the prevailing wind, thus the house gets excellent ventilation. The house was designed around the natural contour and existing trees. Variety of openings, windows timber grilles, roof gaps and louvers that positioned to be facing the prevailing breeze provide maximum cross ventilation while the hot air will be drawn upwards, to be dispelled through the wind tower. The rooms in the house are stacked up not only for the purpose of stack effect ventilation but also to reduce the impact to the forest. Sometimes, the house will get too windy at the hillside during night time as the main spaces are facing the optimum wind direction. The surrounded trees are happened to be the natural windbreaker at this point.

Besides, the architect has intelligently integrated the benefit of the site contour in planning the drainage of the house. The wide overhang eaves help to shed the rain water and the deep angle roof directs the rain water to the perimeter without the use of gutters into the forest, reduced the impact of construction to the surrounding forest.

The architect has designed a roof garden annex with a studio space below it for the house. The green roof is not only a great cooling device for the studio below; it is also an approach in returning the green land to the nature.

  1. Client

The client of the Serendah house influenced the design of the house physically and spiritually. The client, Nor Aliza Abu Bakar is an artist with strong sensitivity to her Malays tradition and Muslim roots, a modern yet dynamic business woman. To make this architecture more interesting is that the client also happened to be the wife of the architect. Both of them shared a lot of similarities that influenced the design of the house. The intention of the design intention is to create a separation between the “real world ” and the “illusion”. According to the perception of the client, her ‘real world’ is her private world and mother nature whereby the ‘illusion’ is referring to the mundane, public, work, chaos and daily grind.

In achieving the concept of the client, the entrance door, tower and walls at the form a symbolic and physical boundary between the two worlds. The heavy mass entrance tower contrasts with the light and airy ambience interior, providing a feeling of entering the private realm for the client. The openness interior spaces that exposed to the beauty of the nature blurred the boundaries between inside and outside, so the client can be in touch with the nature peacefully, reminding her fleeting presence in this planet. In order to enhance the major spaces quality, the private spaces that dominating the private activities of the client such as master bedroom and studio for the client are exposed to the luscious greenery views. As the client is an artist, she is able to work in her studio that surrounded by greenery view, as a way to get inspiration.

The privacy of the client is concerned while planning the layout of the house. Due to the topography contour which is at the edge of a hill side facing the jungle, the client can enjoy different layers of forest view while standing in different position in the house. The upper part of the house offers a spectacular distant forest view and it is continuously cooled by the prevailing breeze, depicting a relaxing ambience while the private spaces such as the master bedroom and studio are positioned at the lower ground exposed to the nearest forest views, offering the closest real nature image to the client. Thus, the noise from the exterior, public and semi-private area of the house at the upper ground floor level (entrance level) can be minimize to the minimum through the well-designed spatial layout , meanwhile it meets the concept of ‘real world’ and ‘illusion’ by the separation of hard and soft landscape, public and private area .

To complement the identity of the client, the architect borrowed the spaces such as ‘serambi’ the verandah, ‘pangkin’ the raised platform and ‘para’ ventilated kitchen shelves from the traditional vernacular kampong house into the Serendah House. The reason of doing that is because the architect and client both have a common understanding towards their culture and background. Hence the design of the house must be relevant to their Malays culture yet meet their modern lifestyle and needs as to provide the sense of belonging.

  1. Theories

Based on The Phenomenon of Place by Christian Noberg-Schulz, architecture should have the ability to make the environment meaningful through the creation of specific places. (Norberg-Schulz, 1995) The Serendah House can be defined as a meaningful place for the client as it is her escape route for her daily hustle routine. The architect has designed according to the human experience instead of barely functional arrangement of spaces. The client’s needs, her backgrounds and her idea have been taken into consideration in creating a piece of architecture that belongs to her but not only a conventional house.

The ‘genius loci’ of the Serendah House introduced the spirit of a Malaysian house that situated at the hill side exposed to the forest views. The architect fully utilized the advantage of site in creating the spiritual place for the client by open up the view to the tropical lush greenery, bring in the mother nature into the house. One of the master jury from Gold Medal, ARCASIA Award 2003 has explained that :

“This house has a strong physical presence. But at the same time it has blended harmoniously with the hilly nature of the site and surroundings…the sensitivity towards different spatial elements are all manifested into a wonderful expression”

The Serendah House enhances the spirit of nature setting, denotes a life to the hilly side by inserting the client’s experience into it. In order to create sense of place for the client, the architect has meticulously positioning every spaces in the house based on the climate, social and cultural context. The distant hills and greenery provide visual pleasure while the breeze gives relief from the energy saving sapping humidity of the city. The silence of the forest is a great aid for relaxation. The architect has successfully gives the space a specific character. When the client lives inside, she will be able to orientate herself, and has identity herself with the environment. The client is able to orientate herself, has identity about how she is in the place. As an artist, the house is designed in such way that allowed her to engage her own ‘private’ world closest to the Mother Nature. The client herself stated that the house has a harmonious balance and deal with paradoxes. It is universal yet personal, not intrusive and not overwhelming. She is satisfied as the house met her needs both spiritually and functionally.

Based on the Prospects for a Critical Regionalism by Kenneth Frampton, hybrid world culture will only came into being through a cross fertilization between rooted culture on the one hand and universal civilization on the other. (Frampton, 1995) Thus, in denoting a new genre of Malaysian housing architecture, Harris has blended the country heritage identity into the design while adapting the contemporary social needs of a house. He believes that a good piece of architecture in this era should be able to speak a local yet universal language.

For Serendah House, it deals with the paradoxes. From the transformation of the rigid concreteness at the entrance tower to the interior dynamic spaces with openness plan reveal the combination of the approaches of the architect in combining the vernacular and modern architecture together. The use of concrete structure for the tower and main structure reveals the universal language for contemporary architectural materials while the timber structure represents the tropical culture setting of the house in Malaysia.

Critical regionalism suggests the use of local materials and craftmanship, and responsiveness to light and and climate. In this case, the architect has extensively used the local materials such as chengal timber,,resak timber, belian timber shingles wood, and sand stone slate floors to showcase the presence of the house in response to the tropical setting. He has the architect has intelligently integrated the local materials with modern housing architecture that response to climatic factors. The penetration of natural light and cross ventilation through the timber grilles, lourves and folding door show the integration of basic fundamental elements principle of the particular site in further enhancing that the design is a site-specific architecture. The house is not intended to merely denote the vernacular; it does combined interaction of climate, culture and craft that express the critical regional identity.

  1. Discussion and Conclusion

Serendah House has no doubt in representing its designing architect, Abdul Harris Othman. Overviewing from his childhood background, educational exposure and working experiences, the award winning Serendah House shows his architectural perception and theories towards architecture today. From the analysis of the external contributing above, the approaches of the architect in designing the Serendah House have been implemented thoroughly from climatic aspect, the needs of clients, contextual and senses aspects. It is definitely a country house that represents the Malaysia context architecture yet not abandoning the knowledge that he learned from the West about the modern architecture theory.

The house might have paradoxes in combining the modern and vernacular architecture. At the first glance, one might feel it looks too traditional or symbolical to Malay’s vernacular architecture while most housing these days have taken the modern contemporary theme to their home renovation design and the traditional elements of the country are barely visible except in the types of decorations used within the home itself in Malaysia. The form of the roof of the Serendah house is mainly influenced by the architect’s background that exposed to a lot of cross culture tradition such as Bidayuh and Thai. Through his extensively travel experience, he also aware the transformation of modern architecture and the importance of cultural identity of a country. His sensitivity towards cultural context inspires him to come across with a design that fulfills the modern and cultural heritage identity. Our own nation tends to neglect the own unique identity by putting the postmodern design concept without considering whether it is contextually suitable or not. In fact, architecture in Malaysia or in tropical regional context should be integrating the modern functional design yet combining with the local context identity.

The hybridization of the functional modern design criteria and the spirit of the contextual site should be further enhancing in the housing architecture in Malaysia. The form of the Serendah House might be not as appealing as other housing design, but its signification evokes the spirits of the tropical lush forest Malaysia context that able to remind one’s presence in the planet when you been to the house. Harris has taken a great initiative in bringing a new generation of Malaysia residential architecture which can be identified globally as a great piece of Malaysia Architecture but not merely a great piece of architecture. The concept of genius loci is exellently adapted.


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