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Architect Wee Hii Min is one of the directors of Malaysia’s leading architectural practice, Design Network Architects, which based in the capital city of Sarawak; Kuching. This particular firm projects ranges from big to small, from local to internationally and has won numerous accolades and is recognized worldwide. Born in Kuching on the 18th November 1964, he is the child with a strong personality and has his own opinions in every detail. Architecture never crossed into his mind as an occupation to pursuit when he was young, this opportunity came when he was offered a free schooling in Architecture in Australia. He has an interest in sketching since young till now. This love of sketching has allowed him to form a group of passionate sketchers in Kuching and organize sketching events around Malaysia. The fascination of humanity and the importance of balancing the harmony between society and environment were develop during his education years. Architect Wee Hii Min struggled a lot during his first few years in Deakin University, Australia. As he couldn’t keep up with the pace of his foreign classmates in terms of verbally and practices, he got the grip of himself during his senior years by starting to work in studio where he can solve issues and discussion with his course mates. After spending quite sometime abroad, Architect Wee Hii Min decide to drew the curtains and returned home to Malaysia to expand his career in architecture. Before Design Network Architects, he worked for KDI for seven years where he was involved in all aspects of architectural practice and constructions. In early 2000, he decided to end his seven years affiliation with KDI architects and partner up with another 3 architects to form their very own architecture firm in his hometown. Throughout his life as an architect, he placed particular philosophy emphasis on architecture and its relationship to the local context, raw materials and a keen eye on construction details. One of the recent projects overseen by Architect Wee Hii Min, which has caught the eyes around the country and was awarded Gold in PAM 2013 Award under the sports and recreation category, is the Veil- Suited 3- storey fitness centre located in Kuching, Sarawak. This custom designed gym and health centre showcased the ability of doing more out of less and it showcased the skill and dexterity of Architect Wee Hii Min. This building is a good instance to understand the architectural theory that was practiced by Architect Wee Hii Min, where the building will be analyze on few factors, theories and etc.
The Veil- Suited located at Jalan Foochow, which is an outskirt of Kuching packed with residential sited there since 1970s. In 2000, the neighborhood has changed swiftly due to the road extension by the authorities, which the old residentials awkwardly transit to the commercial and industrial precincts. The site is an abandon piece of land, which is angular in shape and located strategically facing the main highway and a main axis, a cross junction where it connects the main city and the industrial precincts. The client sees the potential of the site and intends to invest to build a gym and fitness centre to contribute to the recent fast pace society, which is facilitated with varieties of gym equipment and able to accommodate at least 150 users per day. Seeing that the site is located at a dense neighborhood and facing one of the main axis in Kuching, the client wanted the fitness centre to be highly visible and contemptible and within the budget as most of the gym equipments are internationally imported, therefore is high-priced.
The front elevation of Veil-suited is facing the west, which in the current climatic condition in Malaysia, is a worse nightmare for the architect and users. In Malaysia, architects or designers tend to ignore or avoid the insistent climatic factor when designing a space. There are 2 main factors in designing a building in tropical climate; building orientation is critical before any spaces were form. This is to identify which elevation of the building should avoid with direct sunlight and vice versa. The reason Veil- Suited main entrance oriented towards the west is because Architect Wee Hii Min wanted to capture the attention of the passer-by from the main highway. Another reason where Architect Wee Hii Min belief that architecture should always respect the existing site context and eventually is not an ideal solution by orienting the main entrance of the building towards the residents at Jalan Foochow, this will interrupt their daily activities and harmony. After several considerations, Architect Wee Hii Min decide to ‘wrapped’ the building around especially the east and west with a shading device to control glare and saturate direct heat from entering the main spaces in the building, which also acts as a façade for the building as well. The sun shading veil or façade of Veil- Suited comprises of HDPE irrigation mats of varying porosity mounted on a mild steel grid. HDPE has the benefits of weather or UV resistant, poor heat conductivity and is light in weight. The deliberate economy finishes of the façade allows the whole building to lush and elegant. Another issue that Architect Wee Hii Min looked into is the noise produce from the highway, residential and also the usage of gym equipments from inside the building to outside. Human behaviours hold a strong factor to form a space. Such behaviour is uncontrollable and as an architect, it is critical to take it into account eg. The behaviour of a gym addict, the daily activities of a typical residential area, the traffic issue and stress a driver faces daily and etc. to solve the issue, a buffer zone was created in between of the façade and the building. The interstitial spaces between the glass and the sun shading veil helps to cut down the noise, and minimize even more of the heat and glare from the direct sunlight. The spaces were used as a service dock for window cleaning and maintenance services. The sun shading veil or the façade only envelop around the upper floors of the fitness centre which is the first and second floors is because Architect Wee Hii Min wanted the double volume height ground floor to be expose to the highway. The intention is to show the generousity of space and to allow passer-by to gaze through at people working out and etc. The second main factor in designing building in tropical climate is ventilation. The ventilation inside Veil- Suited is a traditional approach with a modern adaption. Architect Wee Hii Min uses the stack effect that can normal found in a traditional Malay house but with a modern twist where the feature staircase of building acts as a wind tunnel to reduce the humidity and heat. In order for the wind tunnel function effectively, Architect Wee Hii Min randomly placed pocket of air wells around the wall of the feature staircase. By doing so, the stack effect is much more efficient and sustainable.
The identity of Malaysian Architecture has yet to define till this present day. There’s many reason why is not define yet and Architect Wee believes that the best way to portray a good building in Malaysia is by applying the several factors of critical regionalism while designing. This theory has been practice in Malaysia for quite sometime and several buildings have succeeded to embrace both local and foreign concepts within itself to develop a contemporary culture, that can locally represent. Critical regionalism tends to be mistaken as regionalism, which specifically on local architectural tradition. Paul Ricour mentioned that critical regionalism is about the philosophy of proportion, a continuation of tradition and modernization at the same time. A building shouldn’t be an individual freestanding object on the site but to take the context and boundary into consideration which the Veil- Suited has achieved that, where Architect Wee Hii Min orientated the main entrance differing from the residential to reduce the traffic flow and paying respect to them. Geographical factors such as, topography is crucial as well in critical regionalism. For instance, the site has a terrain slope from the front to the rear and Architect Wee Hii Min took the advantage and the terrain was carved to create a sub-basement car park, which gave the impression of elevating the building onto a platform especially when viewed from the highway next to it. In addition, the angular shape of the site are ‘borrowed’ to shape the building whose sculptural form appropriately its small stature. Architect Wee Hii Min believes that by doing so, abandon space will be reduce. Critical regionalism also emphasizes on the ‘local tectonic form’-the honesty of the material and the accessibility of retrieving it. Throughout the design process, Architect Wee Hii Min prioritize the client’s brief which is a building with low budget but yet able to withstand the weights of the gym equipments. The approach of the tectonics of the building is more to rugged aesthetic or commonly known as third world aesthetic. By doing so, services such as finishing can be reduce and because of the strategy location where the site is near to the industrial precincts, transportation and supervision can be done easily by the client as well as the supervisors. Last of all, light is a crucial geographical factor to be considered as well. Architect Wee Hii Min took the disadvantage as a challenge by having the main entrance facing west and ‘wrapped’ it up with a sun shading veil but there’s another feature of the building which took the advantage of the direct sunlight into good use. A clerestory runs along the perimeter of the roof, which is flanked by a wide gutter and a service corridor at the roof level. The clerestory allows sufficient soft light into the space core and group workout.
FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION (FUNCTIONALSM)
Functionalism is a difficult theory to achieve as it is being criticized being literal in architecture. Louis Sullivan ever coined the famous phrase ‘form ever follows function’ to sum up his belief that a building’s size, characteristic and etc should be driven according to the function of the building. This is one particular theory that Architect Wee Hii Min has held firmly on throughout his career. In Veil- Suited, the ground floor was designed as a double volume space to accommodate a mezzanine floor for juice bar and supplements area. Architect Wee Hii Min’s intention is to create a very inviting space for the visitor and to interaction purpose when they approach the information counter. Architect Wee Hii Min put in consideration about marketing purpose to allow the program to be sustainable and the client able to make profit out of it. Second floor as well was designed as a double volume with a mezzanine floor to maximize the daylighting. The passive quality of the space has highly increase and the intention matches the program fro the second floor which is for core workout purpose such as yoga, pilates and etc. the feature staircase in Veil- Suited serves an important role as well, which acts as a wind tunnel to allow the odour smell to be released as the building is fully air conditioned.
Architect Wee Hii Min has overseen quite a number of projects and the adaption towards Malaysia’s culture, typography and climatic has grown decisively. This interest of balancing the harmony between society and environment that he has adapted since young holds a crucial factor in transforming him into a better architect. The understanding of materials and the proportion of the usage and space is an experience to gain for a period of time. To allow the spaces in a building to speak by itself is not an easy task but through the understanding of human behaviour; to do less and to enhance the spatial quality of the spaces through lights or typography of the site context is a good focus to allow a building to sustain and shine.
1. Sullivan, Louis (1924).Autobiography of an Idea. New York City: Press of the American institute of Architects, Inc. p.108.
2. Architect Wee Hii Min. – Personal interview with Architect Wee Hii Min, May 2104.
3. Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance”, in The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture (1983) by Hal Foster, Bay Press.
4. Resume and Portfolio of Design Network Architects (DNA) www.designnetworkarchitects.com
5. Architecture Malaysia (AM), Volume 25 issue 6, pg 63- 67.