Monday, April 18, 2011


It was described as a luxurious place that had won an architectural award. We were to stay in this refurbished house in the older part of Georgetown during our time in Penang. The address held a certain quaint and magically naive mystique - Love Lane. The name of this narrow road on local maps held an aura of onomatopoeic charm - Lorang Love. The Google Earth image spied the residence at the end of a row of similarly planned homes opposite a school and behind a cathedral. The reputation of this residence and the aerial view of the ad hoc brown roofs of this old town made it difficult to guess just what form this luxury might take. Two bold white stripes of what one assumed to be common walls marked this place as different even from above.

Arriving late in the evening only highlighted the uncertainty of our expectations with the ‘taksi’ weaving through the narrow, dim, almost grim, Dickensian lanes of what appeared to be neglected, grimy terrace houses covered with a jumble of graphics interspersed with ‘AWAS’ signs to highlight the caution required at the tight and cluttered places, and blind corners. Even the driver seemed to be in a state of disbelief as I explained where we wanted to go. There was certainly no Hilton or G Hotel in this area. It looked as though it was a backpacker’s paradise – cheap and makeshift. After confirming that the looming form to the right was the cathedral; that the terracotta-tiled roof illuminated in the near distance by our headlights was the convent; and that the classic ‘O&E’ of Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward fame was up the road to our left, I told the driver that this was the place. One can gather a lot of information from travel guides and the Internet. The ‘taksi’ stopped and let us out. So astonished was the driver – well, I put it down to this rather than laziness or carelessness as I had told him it was our first trip here – that he just stood there watching me remove our baggage from his boot. He drove off as the front door was opened by our anxious friend who was pleased to see us at this late hour. We had missed an earlier flight, a delay that only gave her more time to worry about the accuracy of the information she had given us.

Moving from the humid, still, tropical evening air into the air-conditioned interior was refreshing: but it was the white light and newness of this place that was most welcoming after the dim and doubtful trip through this World Heritage town illuminated with a droll yellow haze. We entered what we would call a small terrace house. The interior was indeed all smart and new – white, bright, crisp and clean, and extensively decorated with things oriental. Although tired, we lugged our luggage over the fish pool, up the stairs and into the upper level bedroom allocated to us and went down to the kitchen for tea and chat, to relax in the joy of arrival – happy being there after a tiring journey, at what would be home for ten days.

So this was the award winner. It was immediately clear that this old shop-house had been stripped out completely and fitted with a new exposed steel structure that supported three levels on freestanding circular columns set out as a grid offset about 1200mm from the thick sidewalls. The concept was clear. This arrangement of the vertical structural elements framed central spaces for living, sitting, dining and kitchen areas and gave long narrow edge zones for passage ways, storage spaces, and service areas - a laundry, a toilet, a kitchen and general cupboard spaces - on both sides of this linear slot-cum-house. The bedroom and study areas on the second level were located at either end of the building, separated by the main stair and the void over the fish pool with its timber bridge linking the lower living and kitchen areas. These upper private spaces were articulated within the structural grid in the same manner as those on the lower floor.

On the ground floor, the matt dark grey metallic paint of the exposed steel framing contrasted with the glow of the glossy, white terrazzo floor and the stark matt white walls and high ceiling. The upper levels were similar in expression with lower ceilings, but were less austere with their warm, polished teak floors. The only other colours in the building, apart from that of the decorative objects and wall hangings, were those of the dark green tiles in the fish pool and the bathrooms, and the black kitchen cooking/dining benches. I say ‘fish pool’ deliberately, as it was a large square mass of water self-consciously designed with a skimming border where water constantly overflowed from a perfect, ripple-free reflective surface into a lower, hidden wet recess that secreted pipes feeding pumps and filters all cleverly concealed under a display shelf below the stair. This was clearly a designer’s pool, lined with glass mosaic tiles, fitted with an extravagance of four underwater floodlights and occupied by the cliché eight carp, (I was told that nine was more auspicious), that swam in monotonous circles, possibly wondering just what these strange underwater objects were. One was unsure about what the fish thought of these lights, especially their blaze when switched on. There seemed to be a certain lack of any concern for the habitat that fish might prefer. There were no dark hiding places to rest in or to play around or through. Perhaps this is why these carp had discovered the enjoyment of surfing the edges, a risky ride that, a few days later, left one of the smaller, maybe less experienced fish in the lower perimeter pond for two days until it was captured and replaced with its colleagues – a tricky task that took three people a frustrating fifteen minutes to complete. The experience made one think that, what looked like the missing ninth fish, may not have been so lucky with its, perhaps, less than auspicious end.

The two, third-storey loft areas at each end of this thirty metre by five-and-a-half metre house were different in character. One had the true feeling of a loft with an open barn-like space complete with exposed old roof beams in its ‘cathedral’ ceiling. This mezzanine was accessed via a stepped stair that one had to stride up awkwardly and carefully, one riser at a time across split treads – a compact but less than comfortable solution for access to this level. The other space was fitted out as a bedroom approached via a steel circular stair with triangular teak treads. This space had its own ensuite that opened out to a roof terrace filled with potted plants. Air conditioning units and water tanks were discretely tucked away on roofs and behind screens. These are essentials for this hot humid tropical region – maximum 31 degrees, minimum 31 degrees - with a questionable water supply that travel guides issue warnings about.

Though narrow, it was indeed a very large home. It referenced the traditional shop-house by placing the pool in the location of the customary air well, with an open space above that was framed with internal wooden louvre shutters on three sides at the upper level, and a full height, Renzo Piano-styled louvred, external glass wall on the side street. As with the traditional house, this air well zone was a core central area that flooded the place with light and ventilated the adjacent areas on all levels. There was a feeling of space and depth in this tiny terrace house. The added details of the scary glass floor under the steep loft stair, the airy risers of the main stair, and the large sliding interior partitions all subtly facilitated the openness of the interior with its long vistas up through the three floor levels and along each of them. One felt that the jury had been rather harsh in its comment that the place was ‘cold’, but it did have the nous to recognise the quality of the design concept and detailing by awarding it what looked like a reluctant meritorious mention.

Yet living in this place involved something else that jarred. While one could appreciate the idea and the fineness of the parts and their careful articulation and references, the experience of these things seemed to relate more to one’s own sense of cleverness – and that of the architect - than anything to do with the enhancement of ordinary living. One was always self-conscious about this recognition and the reading of the place and its parts. The ideas and their resolution were clever and refined in an elegant manner but they did not reverberate with the body in any way that could enrich. One felt like a performer – with qualities of an intruder/observer - climbing the stair and admiring the structure of its truss-framed stringers (and other details), but there was nothing more. One was left ‘appreciating’ things in this house – feeling knowledgeable for recognising or decoding the intent. While the brain was always active, a void remained between body and soul that left feeling stranded in a misguided nothingness. Why was this?

Maybe the shower /toilet arrangement in the main bedroom (the one we occupied) could help us understand the circumstance. This bedroom was large and spacious with a freestanding bench fitted with two hand basins dividing the area for the bed from the bathroom zone. Cupboards stretched endlessly with flush anonymity (where did I hang my shirt?) along the western sidewall in conformity with the broad concept of the structural articulation. The wall on the opposite street side behind the cathedral had openings for light and ventilation. These faced east and required heavy screening to avoid an early rising. The southern (the sunny side in the northern hemisphere) wall was full-height glass that opened out to a small plant-filled courtyard with a chuckling feng shui water trickle that could be equally enjoyed from the dining area below. This eating area had a similar full height glass end wall. The tiny piece of green space was a refreshing break from the whiteness of the enclosed, narrow house and overcame any potential claustrophobic feeling.

In the bedroom, the shower and toilet spaces in a recess opposite the basin bench, were lined with the same dark green glass-mosaic tiles used for the fish pool. These service spaces were separated by a full-height, frameless glass wall, with each space having a full-height, frameless glass door opening out into the rear bench portion of the room. It was an unusual arrangement that might have looked spectacular in a magazine, but one felt rather odd when using these areas. Was it the same experience as the carp in their sparse, flash pool? Who knows? All one can say is that there seemed to be more attention given to being smart and different than to understanding how folk might feel in these spaces when being used for the necessities of normal daily life that do not seek out any unique pose or special self-conscious re-enactments for the benefit of others.

Architectural minds have been brought up with the understanding that things hold qualities. One might assume that the frameless glass walls are interesting perhaps just because they can be like this in their unusually different application. Perhaps this is why they can be seen to be good, or can be rated as such by others who are stimulated by this unusual, perhaps unique, divergence. But is it just too smart; too clever? The question for us is: is something right or good just because we can do it? Should we do it? This is the better question. Architects can be just too intellectual in their search for what is seen as the struggle for originality. More attention needs to be given to how people feel in places rather than to how different things can be. Frank O. Gehry comes to mind here – oh! My experience of, let us say, a door, places me in a relationship with the door. Something happens between me and the door – or window, or space. Architects have been taught to dismiss such things as an individual’s private feelings – as purely subjective, speculative and untrustworthy. Science and rationalism appears to have made this aspect of life an unreliable guide – too personal, random and unique: not able to be proved; illogical. So it is that when confronted with the door, we prefer to use words that give all of the qualities we feel to the door itself, putting the individual’s feeling to one side as irrelevant and emotive nonsense. Is this why the clever manipulation of things is seen as the designer’s task?

The qualities of the renovated shop-house in Love Lane can all be appreciated on the level of the thing itself holding quality. One can sense how the architect’s mind has laboured over ideas, concepts and details. All of this is admirable and praiseworthy; but the experience of this outcome is hollow - shallow. The work is academic in approach, leaving one to reminisce on outcomes rather than enjoy any resonance within the living depth of the body. One might be puzzled here and ask: what are you talking about? It is that feeling of being at home in a strange, never-before-entered place; of sensing a rightness, a comfort and fit for the body – a natural ease – all without knowing. This experience is not only one of domesticity. Gaudi’s work has it. Cathedrals have it, but this does not make it special or uniquely different, for great things only. Tiny cottages can have it; streets can have it too. It seems to have something to do with the attitude of how things have been made - intention.

While one is sneered at in the profession for using such language, one might dare to say that it has to do with the love and care that has gone into the shaping and making of a place or an object for others to use. Understanding qualities as residing in things alone directs an architect ‘s (designer’s) attention to the thing and its logic and articulation. This strategy may indeed give beautiful pieces that are all very carefully made and resolved; but it ignores how one might feel in this place or with an object. Federation Square in Melbourne comes to mind here. Is this the enigma the jury sensed when it said the Love Lane house was ‘cold’ - emptiness? Until feeling is again the core of a designer’s attention, it seems that we will be left like the carp in a void of cleverness, sitting stupidly in a glass-walled bog wondering about the mind that made this place – wondering just what one is supposed to do in this situation, sitting as it were recklessly on display in a shop window. Showering has the same challenge in this approach too. Why? The very odd thing is that both of these spaces appeared to lack the very basic ventilation they require. It looked as though there was so much self-praising pleasure taken in the effort of using frameless glass, glass tiles and slatted-teak floorboards in this different context that the simple basics seemed to have been overlooked.

Living design needs to become more than stylish and distinct. Struggling for the unique outcome does not make someone or something creative or original – just different. The context of things original lies in knowing their origins and working with an understanding of what these mean. It is just too easy to be flash and slick in an unusual manner, displaying diverse images to glossy advantage for the admiration of a quick, coffee-table perusal. This style of design leaves one as an actor performing in the glow of a stage-like place. The promenade down the corridor; the stroll across the bridge; the recognition of the detail and the reference; the rocking up the loft stairs that pass over the glass floor; and the rising up the open main stair that glides over the light and space above the pool - all of these become a private delight to be cleverly aired in dinner-table boasting as name- or experience-dropping. These encounters all encourage one to feel special – ‘How great I art!’ – rather, one might hypothesize, like the feeling of driving in a blazing new red European convertible – open - through a crowd of gob-smacked admirers; or indeed, quite the opposite: making one feel foolish and inappropriate as one struggles with awkwardly-sized and heavy luggage, sweating, up what is asking to be seen as a set of singular delights. One is left feeling just not good enough for such special places – or too good for outsiders to be seen as equals – as ordinary fellow human beings.

We have much to learn. It is too easy to bestow apparent meaning onto things and then to play with these as though we are playing with meaningful meaning meaningfully. We are certainly playing with ideas and outcomes, but by ignoring the body in all of its complexities and emotions – its feeling and sensing and more – we force our selves apart, outside of any field that can easily and happily accommodate these subtleties and their unique sensitivities. We need design, but a design we can live with and be enriched by. Design that makes us feel smart and special only plays fashionable games with our egos, encouraging us to feel unique, better than others, as a star; a hero who can look down on others – or as the one looked down on, just out of place in the design. Our age is one of super heroes and lustrous stars, with special places shaped for them – distorted and different in a unique way that can be published to enhance their separateness in all things, leaving outsiders to pander for such luxuries and to feel less relevant in this unquenched desire or in the enforced presence of a superior self-consciousness. The twin-edged sword of alienation creates either heroes or vassals.

It is the sense of contentment and humility that needs to become sought for in our work, an inclusiveness of things special and ordinary that can make us feel at ease, at home, not constantly struggling to be something else. The biblical (gosh, in an architectural text!) sense of always being content needs more attention and care in our work (as does just how this might be achieved) that should dismiss things smart, clever and different for their own sake (art for art’s sake – well, the artist’s sake?), for it is in this way that we can once again find our own origins remote from things that are cleverly entertaining and amusingly distracting, removing one’s attention into the field of fantasies and dreams and of endless and unobtainable whims. At the centre of this issue lies the core wish to be rational, to dismiss things emotional and spiritual – to be objective, ‘scientific.’ We can only continue to do this at our own risk. Placing qualities onto things to avoid the challenge of the recognition of our feelings engages us in that quirkiness of the cliché circular question: if a tree falls in a forest when no one is there, does it make a noise? If a door is left unseen, does it have any qualities? Qualities arise amid things and people – in the space between. Each brings something to the encounter that is neither one nor the other. We can rattle on rationally about many things, and win arguments too – like politicians who can always be right even when obviously wrong – but if we neglect the subtle and emotional, vague and logically uncertain parts of ourselves, then we will be less. Our bodies know this. Why do our brains ignore it? Possibly because it requires rigour, care, love and honesty – qualities that are rarely seen in our competitive, protective, indulgent and self-interested profession.

Stepping outside in the morning light on our walk through Georgetown to breakfast at a street corner, the example of other possibilities was before us. Row after row of identical shop-houses used for all differing purposes stood gathered together to form the street, with each house participating in its civic duty to provide a portion of the network of public covered footpaths - the five-foot ways - that make Georgetown so attractive, certainly not slick or smart. There is co-operation here, and humility, rather than egocentric competition. It gave richness to this place that felt familiar when seen for the first time. Divergent uses oozed contentment and ordinary, happy satisfaction. It held meaning with a resonant depth and significance recognised as World Heritage. Strolling down the lane the contrast with the alternative architecture was blatantly obvious. Here, boldly raising their distant heads above the modest, friendly – some might say ‘grubby’ - patina of the repetitive shop-houses were the tall buildings of modernism, each trying to reach higher than the other; each seeking a bolder, smarter presence than the other; each seeking to be more clever than the neighbour. Here difference was highlighted in the new as something tangible and stark that contrasted with the gentle, cerebral and emotional qualities of the old. We do need to attend to matters subtle and caring before we destroy every existing example of what is possible when these concerns are properly attended to – with buildings that stimulate us to sense what things ‘original’ really mean and how this experience can change place and people. It involves things personal and private – things, (dare one say it?), spiritual.

Louis Kahn spoke of the way intimate immaterial visions become manipulated as material hard facts to eventually be experienced by others as things intimate and immaterial. The Buddhists tell the tale of rational man who sees only the finger that is pointing to the moon, never the moon. Is this our material game that seeks only material gain, where we see our challenge only as the manipulation of things and never the vision that lies beyond in origins – in meaning? Ours has become a demeaning world.

Frank Lloyd Wright knew about origins and it shows in his work in the way that Kahn has described above:
The artist is in no trance. His dream finds its work and finds its mark in the Eternity that is Now. Life is concrete – each in each, and all in all although our horizon may drift into mystery. In harmony with principles of nature and reaching Life-light, only so are we creative. By that Light we live, to become likewise. And all that need ever be painted or carved or built – are significant, colourful shadows of that Light.

Frank Lloyd Wright - from his essay accompanying the Wendingen publication of his work (quoted in Roger Friedland & Harold Zellman The Fellowship Harper Perennial New York, 2007: p.110).

We did go to the G Hotel on the tourist-crowded northern beaches of the island, just a few kilometres out of Georgetown. The hotel was explained to us as a ‘designer-hotel’ – worth seeing. Its smart, double-height, overly-self-conscious lobby space with crafty languid lighting and superficially sensational detailing, had split-levels defining sitting areas that were filled with designer benches, designer chairs, designer tables and designer lamps, all assembled to look like a showroom attended by uniformed stooges, with guests and visitors parading and performing for each other’s benefit that was never recognised or acknowledged. On my way out I noticed on the directory board one bar space called – well, what else: The G Spot. I noticed some couples seeking this out, or hoping to. G-whiz! It says it all. We returned to Georgetown with a sigh of relief. Home again – a phrase that has become almost a cliché as words, but remains rich in meaning as an experience. Experience is the core of living design – its quality is the measure of all making.

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