Designworks: Of heritage and modern design

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 19, 2020 - October 25, 2020.
LLA is responsible for restoring some of Penang’s renowned landmarks such as the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (Photo by Arkitek LLA)

LLA is responsible for restoring some of Penang’s renowned landmarks such as the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (Photo by Arkitek LLA)

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Arkitek LLA Sdn Bhd director Laurence Loh has always had an eye for heritage design and a heart for preservation. The 70-year-old is responsible for the restoration of some of Penang’s renowned landmarks, such as the award-winning Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and Suffolk House.

The Penangite addresses the level of awareness in warisan, or heritage, designs in Malaysia and the importance of preservation. “In the architectural and heritage circles, the level of awareness is adequate to high. In respect of the general public, warisan is a subject that everyone understands in one form or another, compared with 30 years ago,” says Loh, an Architectural Association School of Architecture (London) graduate, who has been in practice for more than 46 years.

“We are advocating that heritage be placed at the heart of sustainable development and relating our work and buildings to the sustainable development goals (SDGs) whenever possible, especially Goal 11 — making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable,” he tells City & Country in an email interview.

“Such buildings include the conservation and adaptive reuse of the UAB Building in Penang, which won the 2018 PAM Building of the Year Award and is the first heritage building in the country to be a certified LEED Gold building. Another building, the revitalised Chowrasta Market in Penang, is the first local-authority building to be Green Building Index (GBI)-certified. Incidentally, it also received The Edge Malaysia-PAM Green Excellence Award 2017.”

Established in 1984, Arkitek LLA has carried out key projects such as the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (2000 Unesco Asia-Pacific Award for Culture Heritage Conservation, Most Excellent Award; 2012 The Edge Malaysia Outstanding Project Award), Suffolk House, Stadium Merdeka, Cheng Hoon Teng, Governor’s Residency, Penang Swimming Club, IKEA Batu Kawan, Penang Hill Railway Station Extensions, Crown Logistics Warehouses, Sunrise Gurney, Aspen Vision City Master Plan & Development Batu Kawan and UAB Building.

“My management philosophy is to create architectural solutions that are a cut above the rest. I [advocate] strong, inclusive leadership that is guided by critical thinking to inspire teamwork and creativity,” says Loh.

Photo by Mohd Izwan Mohd Nazam/The Edge

“[Our aim] is to work at a rate that keeps ahead of delivery demands, to invest in developing human capital, research and development to keep ahead of the curve. This allows the practice to stay resilient, cohesive and focused on meaningful design directions that make a difference.”

According to Loh, the firm is also working on modern buildings. “An interesting project from several viewpoints is a multi-storey Urban IKEA Store under construction in Manila,” he says.

“It is the first of its kind for IKEA globally (five storeys with a basement shared with an office building). We had the rare opportunity to be part of the client’s global shift in terms of retail reconceptualisation and business development,” says Loh. “We have played multiple roles as pre-contract architectural consultant to conduct test-fit and support feasibility studies prior to the materialisation of the project.

“Our expertise was put to the test, as we were then appointed to be part of the team representing the client to conduct compliance checks against stringent international building codes and standards. This was made possible by available technology and remote working tools, creating an effective workforce within a traditional industry.”

Loh highlights another project that is in line with the firm’s preservation efforts: the Penang Hill Railway in Bukit Bendera, Penang. Sitting atop a 1.435-acre site, the building has a total gross floor area of 7,102 sq ft. “In [approaching] the Penang Hill Railway project, the firm viewed it as preserving a unique, cultural landscape and a celebration of Penang’s earliest engineering masterpiece, which was opened in 1923. The funicular is an expression of British urban planning morphology found throughout the former British Empire, with Penang having the earliest hill station in the colonies,” he explains.

From top: One of the firm’s preservation efforts is the Penang Hill Railway in Bukit Bendera; its top station and viewing decks were designed to enhance visitor experience and maximise views; the project has a total gross floor area of 7,102 sq ft and occupies a 1.435-acre site (Photo by Arkitek LLA)

In terms of the design, says Loh, the lower station’s state-of-the-art retractable roof reclaims the once-lost key viewing axis within congenial surroundings while resolving the need to manage large crowds and inclement weather. “The centre court features a sculpture designed with the clever use of recycled railway winches, cables and wheels artfully intertwined with modern blown glass,” he adds.

“The top station and its sweeping viewing decks [were designed] to enhance visitor experience, maximise views and resolve spatial needs with natural flows and minimal impact. Lush rainforest canopies have been retained, structures are modern, but minimalist and inserted into the greenery and contours.”

Loh addresses some challenges, saying: “When the Movement Control Order (MCO) was implemented, working from home was the new normal for us already. We realised that a small team was able to respond effectively to the demands of a major multinational client. Size is no longer a prerequisite for success in the international scene — it’s about understanding process and digital tools and systems.

“The biggest challenge will be to survive the post-Covid 19 era, which many are saying will be a state of recession or depression. The dynamics are very different from previous recessions, where there were always areas of opportunity within the mainstream economic sectors, whereas now there are no precedents to base our judgements on.”

Asked for his views on the prospects of architecture in Malaysia, Loh says: “[The calibre of local architecture] varies from mediocre to excellent. The prospects will vary from practice to practice. Those who are able to stay intact, reinvent themselves and compete in the global marketplace beyond Malaysian shores could survive.”