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THEORIES OF ARCHITECTURE AND URBANISM
Behind every good architect lies layers upon layers of abstract thought, critical thinking and decision making in which determines his architectural opinions and decisions; that said is self-evident, but one can ponder and be intrigued by the notions of what lies beyond those layers of thoughts, the reasoning behind reason. In other words, do we not all experience both internal and external influences in our lives that mold and shape our worldview which in turn influences the way we wish to ‘deal’ with the world? That I think could be said for anyone, including architects and how life’s experiences determine their doing of architecture. The writings in this essay purport to neither boast nor criticize about an architect and their buildings, but rather to theorize or suggest certain ideas about an architect’s doing of architecture. More specifically, what is analyzed and discussed in the essay are what are termed ‘internal’ and ‘external’ influences on an architects design, that is the self of the architect which includes the architect’s childhood, education and working experiences, and other external contributing factors such as climate, theoretical discourses of architecture, clients, politics, etc. Through the study and critique of these factors could we undercover or discover an underlying theme, pattern or notion in the architect’s creation of architecture.
The architect to be analysed in this essay is the well-respected Ar Laurence Loh. Born in Penang in the 1950’s, Ar Laurence is known worldwide of one of the leading pioneers in architectural conservation and preservation of heritage. Graduate of the also world-famous Architectural Association in London, Ar Laurence is most famous for the restoration of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Penang. A member of various societies and public capacities for architectural heritage and conservation, Ar Laurence also currently runs a practice in Penang registered as LLA Arkitek Sdn Bhd which engages in both conservation and contemporary works. The project to be discussed here is the modern extension to the historical Penang Hill Lower Station at Air Itam.
Ar Laurence was engaged to design an extension to the historical colonial building of the lower train station which serves as the main entry point to the popular and historically important areas of Penang Hill, which was established as a colonial hill station by the British decades ago. What resulted was a modern structure of steel and fabric which replaced the old frontage of doric columns and arches. The two images below show the drastic change in character and sense of place before and after the modern extension was finished.
Before the conception of this essay, a thorough and full investigation into the internal factors of the self, as described in the paragraphs before, was already carried out in the categories of Ar Laurence’s childhood, education and working experience. Thus, the main aim of the section here is to explore, describe and analyze the second half of influences that is the external factors on an architect’s doing of architecture. Three separate factors were selected, namely the built form of the project, the influence of climate on the design and finally speculation on architectural theory that could have informed the development of the extension.
Built form, in the definition of this analysis, includes all existing buildings, new and old, that can be found on site at the moment. Therefore, as we can see in the analysis diagrams, it is key to point out that the historical structures of colonial architecture were very much preserved in their original state; materials, positioning of structural elements like columns, programme of spaces, etc. all seemed to have been maintained perfectly in place and no compromise was given in wake of the construction of the extension. Rather, it could be asserted that the extension was designed to focus on continuity of spaces, adding on additional room to spaces that originally existed in the station, and to also add on new programmatic and experiential spaces to rejuvenate the energy of the lower station, possibly to attract a greater number of tourist and visitors to come to Penang Hill.
This could be seen in the spaces that were extended and the spaces that were introduced to the site. For example, the old ticketing counter and waiting room was given a much larger space under the shade of the new steel structure, probably to accommodate a greater amount of people that were anticipated to visit the site. Also, being the key experiential space that drives the new energy of the station is the recreational area with the large volume of space as created by the eye-catching retractable canopy roof. The ample shade provided by the canopy and monumental sense of scale generated when standing under the roof structure helps to generate that new attractiveness that draws people to the site, a new character that didn’t exist before on site, in stark contrast to the open space typology of the old frontage of the lower station. Materiality in the modern extension also plays a crucial part in the generation of renewed interest in the site. The combination of steel and fabric in its structure and materiality greatly contrasts with the brick and concrete frame structure of the original lower station, creating an inherit attention-grabbing factor.
Moving on, we now turn our attention towards the climate factor, and how it has affected the design of the extension. As mentioned before, the original structure consisted of a large open space or gathering area in the centre that was open to and exposed to the elements. It is commonly known to all that Malaysia is a tropical climate with many days of sun exposure and sometimes it could get extremely hot and the heat could become unbearable. The large canopy roof structure added provides that much needed shade from the searing rays of the sun and also from bad weather. However, other than that, the design doesn’t seems to have much more consideration towards climate, due to the glaring fact as exposed in the analysis diagrams of a lack of good cross ventilation in the side. Though there is provision for hot air to escape through the stack ventilation effect, there isn’t good cross ventilation through the building, due to a lack of openings on both windward and leeward faces. The modern extension does nothing to solve this issue; it doesn’t allow for new openings, nor does it construct architectural elements like wind walls to catch prevailing breezes into the space. Prevailing winds from the northeast
have a much more difficult time getting into the space, obstructed by solid concrete walls with very little openings for natural ventilation.
Thirdly, in the final factor of the three external influences, the architectural theory will be discussed. It mentions about three different architectural discourses, namely retinal architecture, the learnings from Las Vegas, and capitalism in architecture. As implied in the context of the built form influence, the architecture of the modern extension has a certain capitalist flavour to it, in that it generates a new energy of place to draw the attention of people to the old site of Penang Hill, bringing in business and an economic boost to the place. At first glance, it could be said that the clients have the say in the decision making of the design stage, and as Michael Sorkin mentioned so truthfully, architects are typically bound to the whims of their clients. Is this so in Ar Laurence’s case? If one looked at the case from the surface, it would be a reasonable conclusion to come to.
So far, we have explored some external factors that could have affected the design of the extension to the lower station of Penang Hill. Some of these reasonings may have implied the notion that Ar Laurence may have sold out to capital greed and rather than uphold his own principles of maintaining a conscience in architecture, he was to succumb to the demands of the client over maintaining a quality of architecture that matches his standards. Others point in the opposite direction, showing the quality of Ar Laurence and what he is known for, that is the preservation of heritage, seen in how the extension does not overwhelm and engulf the historical colonial building, but to a good degree built in harmony with the site and its surroundings. Such contradictions exist in the same design, but could it be that these contradictions were made consciously? As he has mentioned before, Ar Laurence does not sell out for the sake of money in his architecture, for he does not see architecture as a means of becoming rich. However, if such is true, then why would he agree to designing a modern extension at a historical place that is not only so out of context for the site, but which is designed with a commercial eye to it, that is to design something flashy in order to attract more business? Why not do what he does best and preserve the original historical structure or restore it to its former glory instead of merely maintaining its physical form for the sake of sentimentalism? What does it mean to purposefully contradict oneself, and what how does it play out in the public eye? What could be the consequences of that, especially since Ar Laurence is an established and respected public figure?
Dealing with the public is something Laurence has always had a deviant way of dealing with. As with some of his other conservation projects, he has mentioned that he conserves not to merely protect the memory of the place and of its history, but in preservation comes waves of change. Now, he defines ‘waves of change’ as change in thought, change in opinion, change in the minds of people in how they perceive and value their heritage and traditional values. Here again we see the contradiction that so glaringly purports to inform the design of the extension to the lower station. How can preservation lead to change? It could be interpreted that Laurence utilizes the modern extension as an attraction of the visual sense to capture attention and draw people to the space, due to the conquering eye playing the hegemonic role in architectural practice above all other senses. The extension contrasts and stands out in the originally historical and natural context, emulating the symbolism and decorated shed effect as talked about in Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas. This could answer for the reasoning behind the commerciality of the space. It’s not that Laurence got muscled out by the client or fell to his own greed for money, it is that he utilized seeming contradictory practices to get people to visit the space. This leads us to our next point, in that the place that Ar Laurence is trying to lead people to is one that is strongly related to the spirit of place, the history of Penang.
Perhaps, in my opinion, preserving the original structure in the wake of a modern extension leaves a curiosity in people, it creates an internal dialogue from which questions of pondering are born, constantly asking what made the historical structure such an important consideration to have been preserved? This relates back to Ar Laurence’s statement of preservation for change, in that the creation of dialogue in the public realm brings more attention towards architectural heritage. But in our modern day and age, that is a hard thing to achieve. Ar Laurence’s solution? Subversive methods of using flashy architecture to bring focus to the history and values of place.
In the end, it is theorized that Ar Laurence, through seemingly contradictory and subversive methods, aims to generate a public opinion on his attractive and out of context modern extension of the colonial buildings found at the lower station of Penang Hill, in order to bring attention towards the historical values of place. In the end however, what matters is that the extension acts as a supercial method of attracting people to the place; the original building is still fully experienced once the users go past the front facade and initial spaces, drawing more people to experience history and their heritage.
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