A closer look at the variety of archives on display in the exhibition In Search of Southeast Asia through the M+ Collections.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
The BEP Akitek archive
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.