Rethinking architectural design
Architectural marvels, they are all around us whether we acknowledge them or not. Some travel long distances just to behold the ingenious of a building big or small. These structures began as an objective, whether to provide a solution to a problem, satisfy human needs, or simply for aesthetic reasons. For BC Ang of WHBC Architects, the construction of a building isn’t about making the trendiest new apartment or the biggest shopping mall; but about designing something that will benefit and respond to the need of the community.
BC is the epitome of the term ‘home grown’. He finished his studies at UTM before establishing the company with his wife and business partner, Wen Hsia. They operate from their home-cum-office with their trusty sidekick and furry friend named Abu. There’s something unconventional about the down-to-earth couple that reflects in the work they put out, and we’re honoured to witness a little sneak peek behind the masterplan.
What kickstarted your interest for architecture?
My father used to make toys for primary schools, and these toys would make a noise when you get the right answer. He had a workshop at home and I would watch him as he worked. He could fix anything! That inspired me to want to make things as well and when I grew up, I had to think about what profession would be the most suitable for that. Buildings are the biggest man-made things out there and I wanted to be a part of it. Initially I didn’t even know what design was, but there’s something about working with your hands and eyes that really drew my attention.
You work with your wife Wen Hsia, who is also an architect. What determines whether or not someone will make a good partnership with you; and how do you reach a professional decision as husband and wife?
It’s important for partners to discuss the idea objectively. It’s not about what we like or dislike - it’s a very objective analysis of the problem. Once you’re able to approach it objectively, it’s easier to take on the task at hand. The difference when working together as husband and wife is that we can speak truthfully and openly with each other.
What is the process like from ideation to construction?
It’s very much like making everything else, whether it’s a pair of shoes or a mobile phone. First of all, you identify what the client needs; then you look at the land they have and the advantages and disadvantages that comes with it - where the sun rises and sets, and how the wind flows. We will also need to consider the kind of workforce we have, understanding what local materials we have in relation to the client’s budgets as cost is a key issue in a lot of our decisions. By looking at the factors at hand, we’ll analyse the situation which can be complex at the beginning (as most designs are) but eventually we’re able to narrow down a solution that will tackle all of the problems at one go. Only after those steps have been considered that we are able to commence construction. I think the key word for us here is ‘appropriateness’.
How does appropriateness affect the way you work?
As a designer, you may like a certain look or form but to question to ask if it is appropriate to the project in terms of costs, workforce, client’s requirements, climate, culture - it’s multilayered. If you look at the traditional Malay houses, you’ll see that they’re built on stilts for proper air ventilation, made from timber, and have a vernacular roof so that rainwater can trickle down fast enough without collecting at the top. These are all built in response to our local situations. We should always ask ourselves whether it’s appropriate or not; sometimes it’s not! We look back on our work and learn from previous problems. Just by observing the structure of the Rumah Melayu, it can tell you how architecture should be. A lot of the things that you see have a purpose behind them. In our world today, we’re fed with a lot of images constantly and because of that, our desires keep changing so how can we root ourselves in the ‘where’ and ‘what’ that makes us who we are?
People tend to overcomplicate design, but you break it down and make it so simple to understand.
I was taught in design school to make it as simple as possible. Back in university, my tutor drew this diagram that begins with a singular point (the problem) and looking at that problem, you analyse it by splitting it into multiple points. The key as a designer is to synthesize the multiple problems into a singular solution. That’s when you know your design has done its job.
How do you find the purpose behind your projects, apart from solving problems?
Unfortunately, we live in a capitalist society. There are people out there who are unable to afford houses. You hear politicians talk about building 500,000 houses or architects that promise to build houses in ten days but in actual fact, are we questioning the basis of the system they’re living in? We tried to figure out what was the origin of the issue and the answer is money. Basic human needs are food, shelter, and clothing; so what if the government gives each Malaysian a land the size of 5,000 square feet from the time they are born, and when they die the land is returned to the state? We did a research and by taking into account Malaysia’s population of 30 million at the moment, and by applying this idea of receiving lands as our birthright, we would have only used up land the size of Johor. In other words, we are not short of land - that’s just speculation.
It was interesting when he pointed the word ‘appropriateness’. Too often buildings get caught up in the complexity of its design that it loses its functionality - something we learned after speaking with BC. Their designs are dedicated to enhance one’s living with homage to the local culture. Furthermore, they’re working towards an improved built environment. It’s reassuring to know that there are professionals like them out there who are genuinely concern for sustainable living.