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A Deep-Dive into Architecture Archives From Southeast Asia

Colour slide depicting a large white building in a field under a blue sky. The building is narrow, long, and horizontal, shaped almost like a large cruise ship, with one tall white tower in the middle of the building.

Architectural Firm: Architects Team 3, Slide showing the building viewed from the bottom of the hill, Jurong Town Hall , Singapore, 1969–1974, 1974, colour slide. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Architects Team 3, 2015. © Architects Team 3, Singapore.

In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections contains the most extensive display of archival materials from the M+ Collection Archives to date. Below, Shirley Surya, Associate Curator, Design and Architecture, and Kevin Forkan, Archivist, go through some of the key archival materials included in the exhibition, highlighting the microhistories you can find if you do a deep-dive into the items on display.

The Geoffrey Bawa archive

Monochrome photograph of a Balinese housing complex, focusing on a pavilion set in the middle of a pond flanked by decorative statues. A man is standing in front of the stairs leading up to the pavilion, while another man is walking up the stairs towards the pavilion.

Geoffrey Bawa, One of the study photographs taken by Bawa during his visits to Bali, accompanied by Donald Friend and Wija Waworuntu, Batujimbar Bali, Bali, Indonesia, 1972–1975, ca. 1972–1975, gelatin silver print. M+ Hong Kong, Courtesy of Lunuganga Trust. © Lunuganga Trust

Geoffrey Bawa was a Sri Lankan architect whose resort design for the Batujimbar Estate in Bali set the tone for ‘Bali-style’ villa resorts up until the present day. You can see the Geoffrey Bawa archival materials in the first section of the exhibition, ‘Conditions of Place’, which looks at how artists and architects have responded to the specificities of their contexts.

Shirley: There is a myth that Geoffrey Bawa’s designs are based on instinct, and that he did little research as part of his design process. But while looking through Bawa’s archive in Colombo, I found research photographs taken by Bawa from when he was invited to Bali, by Australian artist Donald Friend and Indonesian entrepreneur Wija Waworuntu, to design the Batujimbar estate of villas in Sanur.

These were study photographs of traditional Balinese palatial and housing complexes that had never been published before. They informed Bawa’s eventual designs for the villas in terms of building typology, use of materials, and even placement of sculptures at the entrances.

Front cover of a paper booklet featuring an illustration of a village by the water surrounded by jungle above the words Batujimbar Bali. The village is populated by people, who spill out into the surrounding waters, pictured swimming, riding boards, or riding on animals. Animals like turtles, fish, and dragons are seen in the water.

Geoffrey Bawa, Sales catalogue with detailed drawings of villas, including those on Plots 6, 8, 10, 11, 12,13, 14, and 15, and a painting by Ida Bagus Nyoman Rai on the cover, Batujimbar Bali, Bali, Indonesia, 1972–1975, ca. 1975, printed paper. M+ Hong Kong, Courtesy of Lunuganga Trust. © Lunuganga Trust

Looking at some of the original drawings and illustrations in the sales catalogue for Batujimbar Estate, you can notice the difference in how Bawa designed the Batujimbar Estate and his designs for similar types of villa resorts in Sri Lanka. The pavilions are planned around bodies of water and each plot consists of a group of single-story pavilions set within walls, similar to Balinese residential compounds. But his arrangement is varied and asymmetrical, with different hierarchies of privacy, and modern amenities co-exist with the use of local materials like thatch or volcanic stone.

Pen and graphite drawing on paper of the floorplan of a house complex. Different buildings on the complex are spread out and interspersed with palm trees and leaves, connected by a walkway.

Geoffrey Bawa, Plan of the house on Plot 6, later owned by Ong Beng Seng, Batujimbar Bali (1972–1975), Bali, Indonesia, 1972–1975, ca. 1974, pen and graphite on paper. M+ Hong Kong, Courtesy of Lunuganga Trust. © Lunuganga Trust

We included these study photographs and a sketch to show Bawa’s observations and sensitive appropriations of the local. Although only three houses in the estate were built, Batujimbar shaped the scale and style of similar resort developments in Bali and beyond. The eventual ownership of houses on Plot 5 and 6 by hotel developers Adrian Zecha and Ong Beng Seng, respectively, could explain the influence of Bawa’s project on the conception of Aman Resorts and COMO Hotels and Resorts.

This is one of the key stories—what does it mean for a Sri Lankan architect to come to Bali to design something for Indonesia, and then have it affect how villas across the world have been designed? We wanted to highlight Southeast Asia as a porous region, with artists and architects from inside and outside the region influencing each other.

The Architects Team 3 archive

Lim Chong Keat: Building Singapore and Malaysia
Lim Chong Keat: Building Singapore and Malaysia
3:44

Lim talks about some of his most important projects and also speaks of the mutually reinforcing relationship he had with Buckminster Fuller during his time in Southeast Asia.

Video Transcript

LIM CHONG KEAT: I think actually I belong to the whole generation from this country that went overseas to become professionally competent, so as to be useful at home. Although we were British subjects, we were part of the world to be relevant in our own country.

So working on residences was actually a very important total experience. We were able to practice our own ideas about architectonic building, where structure, form, function, and the use of materials were very clear.

The conference hall competition was the first major truly open competition. It was very obvious that everybody had to go for it. We actually deviated from being just a conference hall to really becoming a concert hall. The public spaces, exhibition spaces, the whole parade of visiting a building, were part of the inspiration.

It was very unusual that a mosque was part of an open competition. The fact that it was actually awarded openly to, in this case, architects who were not Muslims. It was becoming for the early days of the nation. It began like that, with a very open society.

The MSA building on Robinson Road, it was really our first major urban project after the conference hall. It was there that we began to innovate about the urban form, the idea of the podium, the roof garden, and solar shading consideration for tropicality in the design.

When we designed bank buildings, like the UOB and DBS, it was very definitely in an urban context, where you had to take part in the urbanism and the controls. The context was very well studied and hopefully provides a lesson of that era.

The competition for Jurong was a target project for almost all the firms in Singapore. The first thing about the shape was actually two blocks which formed a shape with a hole in between. The essential feature mentioned, about a clock tower, become almost like, I suppose, the periscope of a ship or submarine, and it had to be high enough to be seen from everywhere.

Bucky [Buckminster Fuller] is more than a futurist, he's a humanist. By chance we met. In fact, I can say that I was one of his closest friends in the last decade of his life. The relationship with Bucky of course taught me a lot of things. The philosophy was actually the most important impact. The idea of the world for you and me, an integrative world, sharing the world. His geodesics of course was another area of synergetics that we shared, and I went about recreating some of them in the dome form. The most significant one was the bamboo tensegrity dome in Bali, which we built for his birthday in, was it ’77? But I think the exposure, the empathy, the actual livingry of people, his experience with us, was very meaningful to him.

The key thing about being a Malayan or Malaysian architect is not so much what you did, but your integrity. The quality of your work, not the style, not the stylism. Your architecture has to have an integrity and hopefully an originality. But my inspirations were universal because I had an international background and I saw its relevance, but without being derivative, without being stylistic, following fashions and so on.

Architects Team 3 (AT3), previously Malayan Architects Co-partnership (MAC), is an architectural firm co-founded by Lim Chong Keat whose work in the 1960s–’80s played an important role during the nation-building period in Singapore and Malaysia. You can see the AT3 archival materials in the second section of the exhibition ‘States and Powers’, which features works made in response to post-colonial independence and contemporary statecraft.

Kevin: The sheer volume of nation-building architecture produced by AT3 in that incredibly constrained time period is striking. These are the people that, essentially, built the city we know today. It must have been exciting, if not a little unnerving, working at that pace in Singapore at that time.

Shirley: The value of the AT3 archive lies in the diversity of its materials and breadth of projects undertaken by the practice, and its predecessor MAC, in the first two decades after Malaysia and Singapore gained their political independence. Showing them all at one go emphasises the firm’s role in the urban transformation of Malaysia and Singapore. Their designs for the most politically and architecturally-significant buildings, such as the Development Bank of Singapore HQ and Jurong Town Hall, reflect the state’s bid for modernity through investments in financial services and export-oriented industrialisation.

Monochrome photograph of an architectural model of a high rise building connected to a flat, white building complex and surrounded by another high rise building on the left, a small high rise building on the right, and a small flat self contained building in front.

Architectural Firm: Architects Team 3, Study model of the DBS Building with adjacent towers for wind-tunnel testing, Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) Building, Singapore, 1969–1975, 1973, gelatin silver print. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Architects Team 3, 2015. © Architects Team 3, Singapore

Kevin: Archival materials are often shown in isolation, displayed just like artworks. What Shirley and the exhibition designers have done here with the archives table, assembling this mass of materials, really gives a sense of what an archive actually looks like and contains: some visually-interesting photographs, of course, but also text-heavy documents and incredibly ephemeral material.

It’s also interesting, though, to view these archives in a museum exhibition context where the essentially ephemeral, like a postcard, is selected, elevated, and encased in its own little Perspex box. That’s one of the joys of working in a museum with curators: they create stories by selecting and elevating things that wouldn’t otherwise occur to me.

Two people hold up a perspex-encased poster showing the cross-section of a high rise building. The words ‘DBC building, Longitudinal Section’ are printed in the upper left corner of the poster.

Architects Team 3, Longitudinal section, floor plans, and a schedule of area for the DBS Building, Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) Building, Singapore, 1969–1975, 1975, lithography on paper. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Architects Team 3, 2015. © Architects Team 3, Singapore

Shirley: We also chose to display a couple of books that were part of AT3’s library. There’s a booklet introducing Singapore’s public housing published by the Housing and Development Board in 1961—before the country’s independence in 1965. There’s also the book Village Housing in the Tropics, with Special Reference to West Africa by Jane Drew, Maxwell Fry and Harry L. Ford (1947) which was considered an influential text that formed the conception of ‘tropical architecture’ in the ’50s and ’60s.

Front cover of a book featuring an orange and green illustration of a village surrounded by fields with a palm tree and greenery in the foreground. The title ‘Village Housing in the Tropics with special reference to West Africa’ is printed at the top of the cover, with the words ‘Lund Humphries’ printed in the bottom left corner.

Jane Drew, Maxwell Fry, and Harry L. Ford, Village Housing in the Tropics, with Special Reference to West Africa, London: Lund Humphries, 1947, printed paper. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Architects Team 3, 2015. © All rights reserved

The BEP Akitek archive

Front cover of a book featuring a black and white illustration of an airport surrounded by forests, fields, and mountains. The words ‘Lapangan Terpbang Antara Bangsa, International Airport Kuala Lumpur’ are printed in the bottom right corner.

Architectural Firm: Booty, Edwards & Partners (later BEP Akitek), Book published at the airport’s official opening, with cover illustration by Kam Pak Cheong, Subang International Airport, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1962-1965, Kuala Lumpur: Federal Department of Information, Federation of Malaysia Government, 1965, printed paper. M+ Hong Kong, Courtesy of BEP Akitek. © BEP Akitek

Kevin: Booty, Edwards & Partners (incorporated as BEP Akitek in 1969) is one of the oldest and most prolific architectural practices in former British Malaya and Borneo. The BEP Akitek archival materials are also in the ‘States and Powers’ section of the exhibition.

Shirley: We chose to place materials from BEP Akitek’s archive next to Architects Team 3 to highlight the difference between the two firms, but also how both firms have contributed to the architecture of post-independent Malaysia and Singapore. Originally founded in 1919, Booty, Edwards and Partners is an inherited colonial firm led by British expatriate architects, until Malaysian architect Kington Loo became Partner. Architects Team 3 (originally Malayan Architects Co-partnership), on the other hand, was set up by young returning Malaysian and Singapore architects trained in the US and the UK in 1961.

Monochrome photograph of a low building with a white pointed roof next to a white tower surrounded by palm trees and a forest.

Architectural Firm: Booty, Edwards & Partners (later BEP Akitek), Brunei State Mosque (now Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque), Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, 1953–1958, ca. 1958, gelatin silver print. M+ Hong Kong, Courtesy of BEP Akitek. © BEP Akitek

Kevin: Despite the different backgrounds of the firms, the similarity of how they designed for the tropics can really be seen in their designs for private residences in the late 1950s to ’60s, on display in the exhibition in the form of photographs and drawings. There, you can see examples of how the houses were enveloped for natural illumination and cross ventilation through the use of slated timber screens, grillework, and overhangs, to create shaded transitions between inside and outside.

Shirley: BEP Akitek’s archive also has text-based documentation. It includes a transcribed discussion on ‘What is Malayan architecture?’ amongst a group of influential architects in Malaysia, including Kington Loo and C. H. R. Bailey who were part of Booty, Edwards and Partners, as well as German architect Julius Posener who founded the architecture programme at Kuala Lumpur Technical College. It was a very important topic reflecting a national consciousness after Malaysia’s attainment of ‘Merdeka’ (‘independence’ in Malay).

Text printed on paper with the header  Discussion on “Malayan Architecture” held 5th October 1960. There is a list of people present for the discussion, followed by a transcript of the beginning of the discussion. The text has been edited with a blue and red pen, crossing out and adding certain words to correct the grammar.

Architectural Firm: Booty, Edwards & Partners (later BEP Akitek), Draft transcription of the discussion ‘What Is Malayan Architecture?’, held on 5 October 1960 between R. Honey (Chairman), C. H. R. Bailey, A. A. Geeraerts, Hisham Albakri, Kington Loo, J. Posener, F. Sullivan, and T. A. L. Concannon, 1960, ink on paper. M+ Hong Kong, Courtesy of BEP Akitek. © Booty, Edwards & Partners

That discussion—which was later published in the journal PETA published by the journal of the Federation of Malaya Society of Architects—can be read in full on the iPad next to that document. It shows that identity is a complex issue, and not easily formalised. The dialogue signalled a period of openness to multiple perspectives on architecture and cultural identity before the politicisation of a ‘Malayan’ style, which would shape the country’s architectural production in later years.

Buckminster Fuller and Southeast Asia

Photograph of a group of seventeen people posing on a beach in front of a small domed structure made out of a geometric plastic framework and canvas stretched inside it.

Architectural Firm: Architects Team 3, Slide, group photograph outside a geodesic dome, visit to Singapore by R. Buckminster Fuller, October 1974, colour slide. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Architects Team 3, 2015. © Architects Team 3 Pte Ltd, Singapore.

Little is known of American architect, inventor, and philosopher R. Buckminster Fuller’s involvement in Southeast Asia, where he spent a great deal of time in the ’70s and ’80s before his death. His interactions with architects in the region are reflected in the archive of Sumet Jumsai and Architects Team 3, mostly presented in the section ‘Transnational Flows’ in the exhibition.

Shirley: Buckminster Fuller was friends with both Bangkok-based architect Sumet Jumsai and architect Lim Chong Keat (co-founder of Architects Team 3), so we were glad to find slides and photographs documenting Buckminster Fuller’s activities in Southeast Asia in both architects’ archives. They gave a fuller story to the exchanges and built projects that reflect a mutual reinforcement of physical and metaphysical principles for social good between Fuller and architects in the region. This is especially shown in documentation of the Campuan World Meetings in Bali and Penang—informal think sessions co-organised by Fuller and Lim between 1975 and 1983.

Photograph of three people in conversation with each other, sitting outside on chairs in front of a round glass table. The glass table has a thick book on it with the title ‘Critical Path’.

Sumet Jumsai, Photograph, Buckminster Fuller seated in conversation with Sumet Jumsai and Lim Chong Keat during a Campuan meeting, Penang, Malaysia, May 1981, chromogenic colour print. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Sumet Jumsai, 2018. © All rights reserved

Kevin: You’re actually seeing two different meetings, with records in two different archives. The slides from the AT3 archive document another kind of gathering in Singapore, where Fuller worked with architecture students to build geodesic structures to emphasise the principle of achieving maximum volume with the least elements. Other photographs and slides also show how such domes were incorporated into several projects by both Lim and Jumsai, including the Bangkok Science Museum by Jumsai and KOMTAR by Lim, as homage to Fuller’s radical notion of building, rather than simply a replication of form.

So by combining and displaying records of various meetings found in different archives, you can get a better sense of the totality of the relationships that happened across various sites and people.

Photo taken from high up, depicting a large group of people gathered together and posing in and in front of a small domed structure composed of a geometric framework of bamboo.

Sumet Jumsai, Gathering in a geodesic dome during the second Campuan World Meeting co-organised by Lim Chong Keat and Buckminster Fuller in Bali, 1977, chromogenic colour print. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Sumet Jumsai, 2018. © All rights reserved

Shirley: We’ve also digitised Sumet Jumai’s notes on his lecture ‘NAGA-Memories in Design from 20,000 BC to the Twenty-First Century and Beyond’—based on ideas espoused in his influential book Naga: Cultural Origins in Siam and the West Pacific (1988)—to show how Fuller’s theoretical reconstruction of maritime prehistory and nautical cultures of the West Pacific region informed Jumsai’s similar conception of the region.

Lecture notes written in blue ink on a white piece of paper with the title ‘Memories in design, From 20,000 BC to 21st century and beyond @ The Martin Centre, 7 Nov. 2001’. The notes comprise the beginnings of a lecture exploring cultural artefacts from the end of the Ice Age onwards.

Sumet Jumsai, Notes from a lecture, 'Memories in Design, from 20,000 BC to the Twenty-first Century and Beyond', given at the Martin Centre, University of Cambridge, UK, 7 November 2001, ink on paper. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Sumet Jumsai, 2018. © Sumet Jumsai

Kevin: These examples of how Southeast Asia has influenced Buckminster Fuller’s thinking, and how Fuller has shaped the practice of architects in Southeast, have been relatively unexplored and unpublished.

Shirley: So we’re glad to have the opportunity to display documentation of these exchanges in the form of projections alongside the models, drawings, and photographic documentation of the architects’ built projects.

In Search of Southeast Asia Through the M+ Collections can be seen at the M+ Pavilion from 22 June to 30 September. As told to Ellen Oredsson. This interview has been edited for clarity. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

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