Designworks: Where substance equals style

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 1, 2019 - April 07, 2019.

Marra and Yeh founded the architecture firm in 2000

-A +A

Sydney-based Marra + Yeh Architects specialises in creating buildings that are tuned to their environments. The practice, founded by Ipoh-born Ken Yeh and Carol Marra, an Argentinian from Buenos Aires, started in 2000 in Seattle, Washington, and relocated to Australia in 2005.

“We are licensed in the US and Australia, and we have partners that are licensed in Malaysia and Singapore,” says Yeh in an email interview. “The size of our team varies between one and seven, depending on the complexity of the projects we are working on.”

Yeh travels frequently throughout Asia to meet clients and check on the progress of projects. As architecture is never a solo endeavour, he also collaborates with other professionals in the industry to expand the practice’s reach. “There’s a community of committed partners that we have been blessed to collaborate with continually. This allows us to make architecture almost anywhere.”

So far, the duo has had projects in Australia and Asia-Pacific. “We take on any project that aims to create spatial magic. We have done large master plans for cities as well as those for skyscrapers, university buildings, mansions, huts, furniture and hardware. The diversity of our projects allows for a Renaissance approach and, thus, a more holistic approach to solving our clients’ problems and elevating our projects to an art form,” Yeh remarks.

At Marra + Yeh, the substance of a design is also its style. “In our very hurried world where knowledge is consumed and regurgitated in fragmented and superficial ways, we make a purposeful and deep effort to really understand the situation and circumstance of each piece of architecture that we have been entrusted to create,” he says.

“Architecture is essentially a craft … a useful craft, which takes an enormous amount of study, careful practice and sophisticated collaboration. We want to be always making useful, beautiful and, hopefully, spiritually uplifting spaces for the psychological and physiological comfort of anyone who gets to experience these spaces.”

As an architect, Yeh notes that the challenges that he experiences are no different from those of anyone who is committed to doing cultural-related work. “The weakening of skills among craftsmen, the underinvestment in the making of efficient buildings and the lack of commitment in creating spaces that become architecture are but a few of them.”

In the future, the architects hope to take on more cultural and educational projects. “Amid our myriad of interests, we have twin commitments to culture and education, both in our professional and personal lives,” says Yeh.

He quotes a statement by Mexican architect Lui Barragan: “If there are many equally valid technical solutions to a problem, the one that offers the user a message of beauty and emotion — that one is architecture.”

Ultimately, Yeh hopes that the architecture created by Marra + Yeh will be loved and cared for by those who use them.

We take a look at two unique homes designed by the architects.

 

Abbotsford House

Located in Sydney’s inner suburbs, the Abbotsford House afforded the architects the rare opportunity to build a sustainable house on an empty site.

After inspecting the existing built environment, they decided to address the orientation, views and topography, as well as the relationship between land and water and a collection of interconnected spaces defined by details.

The 300 sq m house on a 600 sq m plot comprises an en-suite master bedroom, en-suite guest room, three children’s bedrooms, a family room with a balcony and a garden, garage, kitchen, dining room, living room and bathroom.

“As William Blake’s poetry reminds us, ‘to see a world in a grain of sand’, to take notice of the small, the subtle, the unapparent … this house speaks through its details, materials, craft and colour. It invites occupants to touch and feel, to inhabit in both intimate and communal ways, pausing and perching, connecting to ground, water and sky,” the architects’ project brief reads.

Making use of the natural topography, the house is divided into a series of interlinked platforms, providing privacy in a seamless way. It focuses on layers of relationships — from house to site, room to room, and occupants to building. Materials and craft are expressed through a series of furniture pieces commissioned specifically for the project.

To ensure comfort in all seasons, the house opens up to the north and east to capture the sun in winter and the breezes in summer. At the same time, the design also forms a barrier to the south and west to keep the cold winds and heat at bay.

The L-shaped house is designed to be protected from the extreme climate. The stairs inside the building act as a solar chimney to regulate its internal temperature as well as provide ventilation.

“We took into consideration the confines of the site as well as the budget of, and suggestions made by, the clients. The house is both about family and familiarity for the clients. In their words, ‘From the day we moved in, it has felt like we have always lived here’,” according to the architects.

 

Stiletto House

Located in Ipoh, the Stiletto House, as nicknamed by its owners, is a reinterpretation of the traditional Malay house. It was built primarily with materials sourced locally — including clay bricks and aerated concrete blocks, hardwoods, steel and marble — and using non-traditional construction methods, with steel being its primary structural component.

The 250 sq m development on a 900 sq m plot has a main house with a living room, dining room, indoor and outdoor kitchens, a master suite, and study and TV rooms. It also has a guest house with two self-contained bedrooms as well as a garage and workshop.

The main house was deliberately sited on the edge of a slope, providing its occupants with distant views of the surrounding hills. To create a “desa” (rural) experience within the confines of the single plot of land, the buildings are located close to the boundaries of the land, with each having its own private realm that encloses a communal garden. The architects set out to create a feeling of ruralness, of buildings located among lush tropical landscapes, and of meandering through the countryside.

Marra + Yeh updated tradition with technology by creating long, slender cantilevered steel forms to protect the home from sun and rain. The house was also designed to be energy and water efficient and to produce electricity.

The residence is built along the east-west axis to minimise sun penetration. Similar to a traditional Malay house, the stilts provide an added advantage when it comes to high velocity winds, allowing its occupants to do away with air conditioning in the living spaces.

The shape of the roof creates a single water collection point and maximises the exposure of the solar panels to the sun while also hiding them from view. The roof was also designed to provide an unhindered view of the sky and hills from the first-floor mezzanine. Meanwhile, a long overhang shades the building all year round.

A large deck on the north side of the house is bounded by a grove of trees and the building’s walls are angled outwards, creating a low pressure zone to ventilate the dwelling.

“The connection between the buildings is through the landscape, highlighting the interplay between culture and nature, buildings and landscape, not only visually but also physically,” the architects say in their design brief. The house is owned by two retirees who plan to spend a significant amount of their time at home.