Malaysian architect Kevin Low gave a lecture entitled Small Projects in Melboure on 11 September as part of the Australian Institute of Architects’ International Speaker Series, hosted by the ever-entertaining Stuart Harrison. Small Projects is also the name of Low’s studio, which has an almost exclusive focus on buildings of residential scale or smaller.
Founded in 2002, Small Projects has a growing body of work possessing exquisite yet honest detail: retractable windows whose only mark on their surrounds are fine tracks recessed into the floors and ceilings that support them; steel structure and door handles whose lacquered surfaces reveal untouched fabrication stamps; simple copper plumbing celebrated on rough canvasses of concrete and brick.
This attention to the art of making continues into Low’s intriguing practice of wabi sabi, where minor errors in construction are left exposed to recall the narrative of their creation. He spoke in depth about narrative, about what he sees as the opposition between form and content. Where architecture has form as its creative origin, form devoid of narrative is the result. Where architecture has content as its origin, form driven by narrative is the result. He illustrated: commercially available shower sets are shiny and symmetrical, aesthetically pristine, but one is drenched in cold water when reaching to turn on the taps; in contrast, Low offsets his taps from the shower head, letting the cold water splash freely at a safe distance. Form is made beautiful by the narrative of bathing.
Low’s works are raw, subtle and humble: honesty and simplicity are valued more highly than refinement; materials are left to express themselves without interference; formal compositions favour contextualisation over heroics.
What do I think?
Despite the quality of Low’s work, it is perhaps unusual that he possesses international fame. He has, after all, neither sought it nor worked beyond the borders of his native Malaysia and neighbouring Singapore. He is the exact opposite of the starchitect, with a deep interest in craft, climate and local culture. Firmly anchored to their place, his works have far more in common with those of our own Glenn Murcutt (whom he referenced on more than one occasion), America’s Tom Kundig or Switzerland’s Peter Zumthor.
Low reflects on his attitude towards work that “he climbs mountains not so the world can see him, but so he can see the world.” Despite having studied in the United States, Italy, Yemen, Spain and Bangladesh, he has no interest in populating the far corners of the globe with his buildings. Indeed, the body of knowledge he requires to execute his unique designs has taken a lifetime to accumulate: undertaking a project in any other country would require he start from scratch all over again.
Much like Murcutt, Low’s mode of practice relies on detailed understanding of construction techniques, available materials and precise dimensions of building sections. Also like Murcutt, and perhaps therefore, unsurprisingly, Low works alone. What started as a desire to not grow too quickly has become an ongoing force of habit. With neither staff nor family, Low has the luxury of hand picking his projects: he has turned down 10 commissions so far this year.
This statement was met by exclamations of disbelief from the Melbourne audience, which was populated by an unusually large number of established architects. For a design culture in Australia that at times values growth and productivity over all else, the idea that work can be refused, that growth can be resisted, was deeply alien. But for Low, whose humble bearing reinforced his monk-like attitude to work and family, it makes perfect sense.
What can we learn?
Low’s projects are, first and foremost, interested in first principles.
They enjoy a powerful connection with their tropical, southeast Asian climate. Gardens look through dining rooms into other gardens; courtyards are populated by dense forest plantings; swimming pools are left untiled to grow subtle layers of algae; vines grow on every available surface.
They are inextricably tied to the personalities of their unique inhabitants, narrative nestled within both the theatre and everyday routine of living. Boot prints are deliberately left in the polished concrete floor surface of a builder’s headquarters; a glass roof to a shed requires its users rake away accumulated leaves to control the entry of natural light; translucent roofs to living rooms permit trees to grow amongst the couches and coffee tables.
Materials are treated with honesty and respect, the effort that goes into their crafting rewarded by leaving them exposed. Low does not strive for the exactitude I have seen in the work of the Japanese greats, instead relishing the limitations of Malaysia’s construction industry. Making is to be celebrated; rough texture is all the better for the light and shadow it catches; there is no shame in errors.
We would all do well to take a leaf from Low’s book, to go back to basics wherever possible. Architecture is not about the assembly of mass-produced, highly machined products shipped in from all corners of the planet: why not examine what we have here and create something sublime from the opportunities we find?
Low commented during the discussion session after his lecture that the modern world wrongly assumes the client is the top priority of any project, that because he pays the bills, his interests are paramount. In Low’s opinion, the top priority of a project is the project. It takes a unique client to be at peace with this paradigm, but it is one I find inspiring: the buildings we design will outlast our clients as surely as they will outlast us. Between us, surely we owe it to the built environment to leave a lasting legacy of creativity, ingenuity and quality.