Designworks: Where form follows function

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 15, 2021 - February 21, 2021.
Angkor Stretch is segregated in zones but visually communicated by voids and atriums and physically   linked by  bridges and ramps (Photo by Courtesy Of Keat Ng)

Angkor Stretch is segregated in zones but visually communicated by voids and atriums and physically linked by bridges and ramps (Photo by Courtesy Of Keat Ng)

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Keat Ng did not plan to be an architect. In fact, he decided to take up the profession just a week before sending off his university application.

“I was trying to decide between mass communication and architecture, but genuine interest related to architecture started to surface during that last week. I have since discovered that mass communication and architecture are very much interlinked and share many qualities,” says Ng. 

Ng registered his practice, KKNG Architect, in 2002 but started running it only in 2010. 

“I had, by then, gathered enough confidence and understanding, especially after working on the Qatar National Library. There was high complexity in design, detail and management, such that I felt it was the right time to contribute to the architectural landscape in Malaysia and the region.

Looks good, functions well

In 2014, Ng was commissioned by a prominent Cambodian brewer — Cambrew Ltd — to design an integrated hub for an administrative, warehousing and logistics facility in Phnom Penh. The building is called the Angkor Stretch. 

“This was the biggest job I had in my portfolio in terms of scale. I must give a lot of credit to the client. The boss said there were two schools of thought — to build something and carry on with life; or to build something aesthetically and functionally driven to ensure it would be a piece one could be proud of,” he says. 

Ng notes that, with such diverse functions, not only is the spatial design crucial to the brewer’s workflow, but the efficacy of vehicular circulation within the whole complex is equally vital to ensure synchronisation and synergy. 

Ng: We ought to be less dogmatic and fixated on stances and egoistic design philosophies, as there is more than one way to skin a cat, figuratively speaking (Photo by Kenny Yap/The Edge)

As it is near the Phnom Penh International Airport, the complex is restricted by aviation guidelines on height. This means the components of the transitional and main warehouses, vehicle depot zone, workshops, canteen, accommodation and management office had to be laid out in a continuous curvilinear manner. 

Ng says they are segregated in zones but visually communicated by voids and atriums and physically linked by bridges and ramps. 

In the centre is the Central Garden, which is planted with local trees and envisaged to mature in two years. The garden also serves as a recreational and event space, aside from being an enviro-sponge oasis of the complex.

Ng decided to use glass for the walls of the plaza and concourse on the ground level that look out onto the busy thoroughfare of Russian Boulevard, linking them to the lobby and Central Garden and beyond. 

“Russian Boulevard [which links the airport with the city centre] is similar to our Federal Highway. It’s a long stretch of road and there is no greenery at all.

“The ground floor of Angkor Stretch is transparent and, when people drive by, they can see the inside all the way to the Central Garden. Of course, they are not expected to slow down, but at least there is that daily relationship with greenery,” says Ng. 

The open concourse can be used to hold events and exhibitions, whereas the Events Annex, which is located towards the topmost end of the stretch, has a self-sustaining structure vertically stacked that links the events foyer on the ground floor to the tavern on the first floor and the rooftop bar. All this enables the staging of multiple activities simultaneously, says Ng. 

Meanwhile, the facilities block comprises accommodation units and is linked to the tavern as a chill-out unit. It also has a gym, cafeteria, lounge, changing rooms and workshops to service vehicles. 

According to Ng, the form is the result of a study of the workings of speed and velocity along the length of the façade through bending, diverting and distorting to accentuate the elongation. This also makes up the abstract metaphor of the “sky” carried by the five pinnacles of the building — exemplifying the iconic ancient complex that is its namesake through modern interpretations. 

He adds that the whole block was designed to enable cross-ventilation during frequent power cuts, and the airflow is unhindered because cross-ventilation to the shorter section of the building is efficient, with minimal structural resistance.

Ng also incorporated the concept of his Venice Biennale 2012 exhibit called Refraction.  “The abstract model was about liquid hallucinating — how the perception of a space can make you dizzy.” 

This is achieved with the distortion of walls and spaces, and the insertion of bridges and spiral stairs between blocks to enhance that dizzying effect, which Ng believes increases the fun element in the complex without being too distracting. 

Aluminium lattices inserted into the upper rectangle of Wrap House enhance privacy after dark (Photo by Kenny Yap/The Edge)

Giving new life to the generic

Last year, Ng took on what he calls one of his most democratic jobs. “Everyone in the family had a say — the client, his wife, grandmother and three children. It can take a bit of patience and, sometimes, I had to put my foot down,” he laughs. 

The goal was to introduce freshness and verve to a generic middle-lot bungalow in an upper-class neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur. The house was distinguished by its façade of multiple gables at different levels, without adequate overhangs to accommodate the erratic tropical weather. 

Ng says the makeover project, called Wrap House, isolated roof gables that were redundant. The gables brought unnecessary interruption to internal spaces because of oddly placed slanted roof beams, hindered views at eye level and obstructed proper natural cross-ventilation. 

The redesign realigned the spatial structure, with the minimalistic rectangular frame — resembling a wrap — as a unifying factor and the internal ceiling lifted to facilitate airflow and channel natural light, says Ng.

The whole wrapping frame merges the extended rectangle frame on the upper floor with the outline of the most prominent front gable extruded to form a car porch, resulting in an illuminated void above. The frame also acts as an overhanging shade to areas of the house, which used to have a high degree of exposure to the elements. 

Aluminium lattices with proportions similar to those of traditional Japanese Machiya townhouses were inserted into the upper rectangle to enhance privacy after dark and address environmental concerns. 

Ng stresses that efforts to make the Wrap House stand out do not alienate it from the neighbourhood, as the gable roof was retained in deference to its surroundings and the sliding doors on the ground floor were widened and raised to reduce the distance from the lawn and garden, encouraging connection to the neighbours.

Inside the house, doors separating the dry kitchen, living room and dining room were removed to enable a seamless flow and visual connection to the exterior, with a full view of the rear garden.

After more than a decade of running his own practice, Ng believes that while dialogue and communication between all stakeholders of a project are always integral to its architecture, the architect has to have an open mind and facilitate the process. 

“I am more open about materials now and experimenting with more geometric shapes, and enjoy working on vernacular-centric projects. In short, we ought to be less dogmatic and fixated on stances and egoistic design philosophies, as there is more than one way to skin a cat, figuratively speaking,” he concludes.