Tatler Homes Malaysia
Director of HIJJAS Architects and Planners, Serina Hijjas on legacy, adaptability and sustainability
Director of HIJJAS Architects and Planners, Serina Hijjas, talks to Tatler Homes about legacy, the urgency of building sustainably and being adaptable, especially now
If one were to shortlist firms which have shaped Kuala Lumpur’s urban landscape, HIJJAS Architects & Planners (previously Hijjas Kasturi Associates) would be in the top three. The firm, which was founded in 1977 by Hijjas Kasturi, has designed iconic landmarks like Tabung Haji,
Menara Maybank and Menara Telekom - buildings encapsulating the spirit of the times they were built. The architect, who Habitus referred to as the region’s Harry Seidler, retired a few years ago and the firm is now steered by his daughter, Serina Hijjas and three other directors. At 16, Serina started doing odds jobs at the firm as a means to pick up some pocket money. After her degree in architecture from the Bartlett School of Architecture, and a three year stint in Foster + Partners, London, she returned and joined HIJJAS. “My father was one of the pioneer architects in the newly formed Malaysia , postindependence. When returning from graduating in Australia, he was a pioneer in modernism intersecting with cultural identity in his approach to the creation of his buildings. Quite synonymous with the epoch and very bold,” she reminisces.
“My generation pioneered the adoption of green, sustainability and reinterpreting cultural identity to the buildings starting from Telekom Malaysia, Securities Commission, Sasana Kijang to Menara 4G11, Shell and recently Celcom Tower.
The approach and drivers are not obvious
to anyone, to be the same as HIJJAS, not in architectural language or outlook but some of the driving ideas of the buildings with strong single form silhouettes, spatially memorable buildings ( iconic) both tall and small, have been consistent to both eras. The buildings that I have been fortunate to design have a finer, more articulate attention to details.”
Either way, for a medium sized firm to still be consistently creating monumental work for 45 years is quite an achievement, something Serina attributes to the firm’s openness of change and adaptation.
“The pressures are relentless, keeping inspired despite the various obstacles that come your way allows you to move and maintain forward momentum. But the construction industry has changed tremendously in 50 years, and opportunities for greater creativity doesn’t come easily due to commercial efficacy,” she muses.
The trend for inviting international talent or starchitects to design buildings in Malaysia began in the 2000’s but the firm’s track record has also been exceptional in that they’ve won out in tenders even
when up against these international heavy weights. Serina is philosophical about this, believing that collaborative architecture can be a rewarding way to practice. “We have strong talent locally but the voice isn’t heard as much in Malaysia as our GLC’S prefer to celebrate the international names for global exposure and presence. Unlike emerging Indonesian architecture which celebrates their local architectural talent as much as the foreign talent, Indonesians believe strongly in nurturing their own local/indegenious talent,” she opines. However she believes this will change in Malaysia as local architects prove to be just as conceptually strong and ideas driven, and when the standard of delivery matches that of international architectural counterparts from abroad: “We, Malaysians need to be confident, and celebrate our own uniqueness and strengths. The Japanese celebrate their own local architects and these architects in turn go on to become unique international stars globally. Until Malaysians win international awards, will they be good enough for our countrymen? I don’t disagree that we can learn from our foreign counterparts but if we can be seen as equal collaborators, you will get the best of both.”
HIJJAS’ work has always been defined by their innovative quality and the firm has been building energy efficient buildings even before it became a buzzword. Serina herself has been involved in the Green Building Index and Malaysia Green Building Council since the early years. “My first job in London opened my eyes to the world of energy efficiency and sustainability. It was a gruelling work environment, we worked 35 weekends in my first year, but it was the most exciting and exhausting experience that gave me an insight to the world of innovative building materials, experimentation, research, detailing and green holistic design,” she recalls.
“These ideas I brought home with me, I was taught to see the world of buildings through these lens. One of my first projects was Telekom Malaysia Tower, the first high rise energy efficient building with underfloor air-conditioning, passive design orientation and sky gardens operating at half the normal energy of any office buildings at the time. It was recognised as one of ASEAN’S leading energy efficient buildings in 2005, some 5 years before the start of green buildings in Malaysia.”
In the last decade, the adoption of green practices is finally starting to become main stream and spoken and adopted into the design and construction of new buildings more than ever. From food and fashion, to cars and buildings, and even the Malaysian stock exchange, are measuring our acts of sustainability. The architect believes building green is urgent, particularly now. “During this pandemic, I hope it becomes even more synonymous with the right way to create and make with less resources and with 100% renewable energy - from our food production to consumables. We need to reduce significantly to combat climate change. The impetus now is to move from Green Buildings towards nearly nett zero emission buildings. Although this may take another ten years realistically, we must make it a force in the building and consumer industry now,” she states.
THE FAR PAVILIONS
This commitment to sustainability is showcased elegantly in HIJJAS’ design concept of the Malaysia Pavilion for
EXPO 2020 Dubai. Its concept is inspired by traditional lightweight
Malay houses on stilts of the past and the understory of rain forest treetops. Floating above the ground, the pavilion adopts the term “touching the ground lightly”, a metaphor for the pavilion’s low carbon footprint. “It was in the spirit of low carbon and nett zero carbon that the Malaysia Pavilion was created.
To be environmentally responsive to sustainability and showcase Malaysia’s aspirations at a global level. The Pavilion is recognised at EXPO as one of the leading sustainable pavilions,” enthuses Serina. Interestingly, HIJJAS had also designed the Malaysia Pavilion for the world expo 2015 held in Milan and Serina explains that a similar spirit runs through both: “Working with nature, Malaysia’s greatest asset is probably the underlying similarity in both the Milan and Dubai Pavilions. Working with timber and steel as building materials for both pavilions stem from the idea of being able to dissemble and reassemble the
pavilions. It optimises the sustainability and longevity of these temporary structures.
The decommissioning of the pavilions are as important as the making of them.” As with all global events last year, EXPO 2020 Dubai was affected by the global pandemic and is slated to proceed later this year. The construction of the Malaysia pavilion is ongoing and Serina reports that despite all these challenges, construction is progressing: ““We are fortunate to work with a local team of architects and consultants in Dubai who are the force behind its construction. The pandemic has affected delivery time and the entire Dubai EXPO 2020 has been shifted to open in October 2021. The challenge is travelling and that that the pandemic is not contained to any place or time.” she explains.
While the pandemic continues to shape and change everything in our lives, Serina is realistic but steadfast about its impact. “All of us are affected, and we will only recover 2 years after the start of 2020. Being part of the creation of Putrajaya and listening then to the great Wawasan 2020, who would of believed that Vision 2020 would be such an eye opener with the outbreak of the pandemic,” she says. “It has taught us to be more humble, sensitive to people and to the environment that surrounds us. It has slowed down everything ,and scaled back growth - but it has forced us to reexamine how we work and how we make.” On a more personal note, Serina’s experience of the pandemic thus far has been one of learning. “The first lockdown was full of uncertainty and fear of the unknown. Lining up for food, wearing masks, and the silence during the day and the night was both peaceful and strange. But we began to notice that we worked longer hours and meeting virtually became ever consuming, “she says thoughtfully. “For 2021’s MCO, we worked both from home and at the office as part of essential services. We have been fortunate to keep busy but for the young ones in my family who have been unable to attend university and interact with other students, the pandemic has taken a toll on them. We have also found a stronger focus on home improvements as we spend more and more time at home and notice all the small things perhaps as a means to focus on other matters other than the pandemic.” Although the road to recovery remains unclear, HIJJAS is going full steam ahead with exciting projects including the TNB Research centre in Bangi, a new film centre, a pharmaceutical plant and a few other conceptual works that Serina hopes will materialise when the industry begins to recover. The firm and Serina’s deft adaptability will no doubt see them through this difficult period.
Indeed this wholehearted embracing of change continues to motivate her: “People unafraid to create change inspire me, small innovative discoveries inspire me, essentially science and nature inspires me in making places and spaces.” This along with her hopes of empowering younger architects in the firm to have a voice and to be able to continue creating exciting buildings that inspire, whether big or small. Considering her remarkable achievements thus far, there’s no doubt that she will.