by Dr Paul McGillick
Photography by Masano Kawana
2013 Tuttle Publishing
EKAMAI HOUSE, Bangkok, Thailand, Chat Architects (p28)
Review by Joanne Goh | Images from the book courtesy Tuttle Publishing
Dr Paul McGillick is a writer and editor
based in Sydney. Specialising in
architecture, art and design, he is the
author of numerous articles, catalogue
essays and books, including 25 Houses
in Singapore and Malaysia for Periplus;
Concrete, Steel, Glass, a study of leading
Malaysian commercial architectural
practice Hijjas Kasturi; a monograph on
leading Australian architect Alex Popov,
and a history of Sydney Architecture.
Award-winning photographer Masano
Kawana is one of the most exciting food,
interior, and landscape photographers
in Asia. Born in Japan and based in
Singapore, Kawana has travelled, lived
and surfed throughout the region,
photographing a wide variety of subjects.
His book Shunji: New Japanese Cuisine
won a James Beard Award for best
cookbook photography.
nyone looking to find
glorified huts harnessing
wind or solar energy or
houses that eschew airconditioning throughout
will be sorely disappointed. Flipping through the book
for the first time, it is tempting to miss the point of the
book’s title. Sleek-looking, well-crafted houses abound,
and there is glass – a lot of glass. (There are, to be fair,
lots of timber screens too but that is not the point – yet.)
This is not a book about sustainable architecture – as
we traditionally know it. As editor Paul McGillick is quick
to point out in the introduction, the scope of this book is
greater than that of houses that ‘minimize their impact
on their immediate physical environment as well as
minimize their use of non-renewable resources (energy
and materials) in the building and running of those
houses – with the implication that they do so in a way
that still enables a comfortable way of life and provides
for the needs of a diverse range of inhabitants.’ Good
news for someone who has long tired of the fashion that
is Sustainable Architecture.
The introduction is key to a full understanding and
appreciation of the context of the book. From the onset,
McGillick carefully establishes everything that the book
is not before going on to expand on what the book sets
out to do. (‘Nor do I wish to comprehensively discuss the
recent evolution of the tropical Southeast Asian house.’)
Here he cites Robert Powell and Amanda Achmadi in
respectful deference to those, he shares, who are greater
authorities on the topic.
KUBIK HOUSE, Ipoh, Malaysia, Marra + Yeh (p50)
What this book sets out to do is to look at sustainability
in a broader sense. In the individual write-ups, or the
introduction, there are no traces of discussions regarding
the aesthetics of the houses. The beauty of the craft or form
here is distinctly not a subject of debate or discussion. The
book remains confidently and steadfastly focused in its aim
to discuss the context of present sustainability. Ecology,
McGillick posits, is the precursor of sustainability.
Sustainability here covers solely the home, and the
book explores how ‘architecture is responding to changing
demographics in Southeast Asian societies...Not only do we
all need a home, we all want one that will sustain us in our
chosen way of life.’ McGillick then expands on themes of
privacy and community – factors that are changing together
with urbanization and that are also unique to the different
Asian countries listed in the book. A number of the houses
selected are centred around providing for the extended
family whilst retaining a sense of privacy for individuals,
for example, the Batangas House in the Phillipines by
Archipelago Architects, as well as the Prachachuen House
in Thailand by Kanoon Studio. Looking at a sense of
community on a greater scale, there is also a house that
can be opened out to the street, a somewhat more radical
way of bringing back to life the nostalgia of a ‘street culture’.
HOUSE AT DAMANSARA, Kuala Lumpur, RT+Q Architects (p58)
On the other spectrum, there are also houses that are built
for retreat, such as the Cove Grove House 2 in Singapore
by Bedmar & Shi, and the Carphenie House in Malaysia by
Design Collective Architects.
A strong emphasis is also placed on the house as a
place of ‘refuge and prospect’, bringing us back to the
point of a dwelling being able to sustain the occupants in
a way they are most comfortable with. Many of the houses
have internal courts (arguably a very common yet infinitely
sensible feature), and where possible because of the
advantages of space and land, open out to beautiful views
of nature. McGillick stresses the importance this with regard
CAIRNHILL SHOPHOUSE, Singapore, Richard Ho Architects (p108)
BRAWIJAYA HOUSE, Jakarta, Indonesia,
Han Awal Architects (p136)
to ‘healthy living both in the physical and in the emotional with the tropical climate has been extended to
celebrating and enjoying the tropical landscape rather than
keeping it at arm’s length’.
There are, to be fair, references to recycled material
used, and interesting examples of ‘urban renewal’, that is,
creating comfortable modern dwellings in old shophouses so
they are not entirely torn down (Bangkok House in Thailand
by Scott Whittaker, Cairnhill Shophouse in Singapore by
Richard Ho Architects). Again, these are not given inflated
attention, but brought in as complementary asides to the
main issues of social and cultural sustainability.
However (and understandably so), not every aspect
is addressed, nor every question answered. It was
highlighted in the introduction that creating the illusion
of being a part of a landscape is ‘nowhere more urgent
than in an apartment’ but in the write-up of the Brookvale
Apartment in Singapore, there was minimal description on
how the apartment engaged with the landscape around
it. The perennial question of identity was also raised,
highlighting the propensity amongst (Asian) architects of
adopting an international style, where many homes from
Bali to Manila ‘inescapably reek of inauthenticity’. In the
Equilibrium House in Thailand by Vaslab Architecture, the
architect and his client were described as being fans of Le
Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, with the same ‘aesthetic
predisposition for clean, geometric lines and a fondness
for concrete.’ This is in no way saying that the Equilibrium
House is a product of the international style without regard
to any form of identity, but it does leave further questions
yet to be addressed on the extent of modernist influences
in Asian countries, and the limit to which it can be adopted
THE PARTY HOUSE, Singapore, W Architects (p128)
SENJAYA HOUSE, Jakarta, Indonesia, RT+Q Architects (p147)
HOUSE 2, TANAH TEDUH, Jakarta, Indonesia, Andra Matin Architect (p160)
BATANGAS HOUSE, Batangas, The Philippines,
Archipelago Architects (p174)
VIDAL HOUSE, Laguna De Bay, The Philippines, Renato Vidal (p182)
BANGKOK HOUSE, Bangkok, Thailand, Scott Whittaker (p34)
before a project runs the risk of losing its vernacular
identity. This is especially so in the context of globalisation,
which was also highlighted earlier.
Questions remain too regarding the ‘modified’
definition of sustainable architecture. The houses are
for individual clients and the furthest extent to which
communities are directly engaged includes the clients’
extended families and close friends. It remains highly
personal and unique to the individual. Perhaps, as with
the urbanization that McGillick discusses, this sustenance
also pays heed to a growing affluence amongst individuals
equipped with the means to establish and accommodate a
lifestyle that they aspire towards.
These questions bring us back to the beginning of the
introduction where McGillick owns that things are ‘a lot
more complex than is sometimes suggested’. Following
the neatly arranged introduction, I did wonder if it would
have been better to categorise the houses according to the
specific issues they addressed instead of by their respective
countries, but remembered that this book is not a definitive
compendium of the sustainable Asian house. What it sets
out to do, and has succeeded in doing, is not only make
a case for the suggestion of a new wave of sustainable
houses in today’s constantly and rapidly shifting context,
but to also serve as a springboard for further thoughts and
dialogue on the subject.