alan balfour
Architecture for a New Nation ::
Alan Balfour

Two distinct and related qualities are present in the architecture of Ken Yeang. The first is the ingenious and aggressive body language of the work as it struggles to reconcile the discontinuity between architecture form and climate. This anthropomorphism is consistent within the recent suite of towers; they seem like armored figures preparing for an as-yet-undefined task, somewhat uneasy with their ecological responsibility. The second, more potent but elusive, can be found in the way the work achieves a definition and a presence of a new culture.


In searching for an effective means of framing this second quality I was reminded of the young Eero Saarinen who was entering architecture with the emergence of the Finnish nation. Saarinen set himself the task of conceiving its future in architecture. He traveled across Europe experiencing the most potent work of the avant-garde, returning to Finland to construct a building embodying what he felt was the poetic promise of the new nation. He was informing his imagination to will through architecture a brilliant new reality, a vision that continued to grow as Europe struggled to recover from the First World War. It was finally realized in the creation of a vast ethereal tower, a man-made mountain that was to inspire a nation. The nation, however, was the USA, not Finland, and the symbolic content was to enhance the reputation not of a people but a newspaper, the Chicago Tribune.


An intriguing aspect of this comparison with Yeang is Saarinen’s ability to give form to the dreams of one culture that released hidden desires in others.


The evolution of Yeang’s architecture is embedded in the emergence of Malaysia as the distinct culture. On hundred years and more of imposed and quite alien voice of Malaysia after British rule more complex than freeing Finnish culture from the dominance of Russia. Southeast Asia has experienced various forms of European influence since the 16th century. The British established a permanent colony on the Malay Peninsula in 1826 that was not to be disturbed until the Second World War, after which continuing political instability led to British withdrawal in 1946. The Federation of Malaysia was formed in 1963. Ken Yeang was at school in England in the early 1960s and joined the School of Architecture at the Architectural Association in London in 1966, when its teaching offered the most compelling visions of the future, the technological fantasies of such figures as Cedric Price and the Archigram group. From the AA he went on to Cambridge and more specialized worry in the sciences and the environment, and from there to the landscape program at Penn with lan McHarg. These were the raw ingredients he took back to Kuala Lumpurthe heady visions of the AA, the determinism of Penn, and the environmental morality of Penn.

The spirit of Archigram even in Yeang’s recent work is neither a chance nor a casual presence, for Yeang continues to maintain strong links with London. All these influences are still present in the work and the imagination, yet transmutation has occurred in the desire to form a response to the nature of a Malay and Asian reality through the forces of climate. His analysis of the traditional housing of Kuala Lumpur, written in the last decade, and his distinguished history of Malaysian architecture, published in 1993, are the clearest evidence that the form and content of Yeangs’s work must be measured within the broader context of cultural politics.


The restoration of a regional and national identity after a century of British rule has specific targets: how to negate the presence of the British past; how to inflect architecture with modernist reason while detaching it from Europe’s tendency for symbolic abstraction; how to frame an architectural language witch, while showing an understanding of traditional values, would express the economic ambitions of the new nation. His towers as they ascend in Kuala Lumpur or Penang or Ho Chi Minh City seem, in their paradoxical mix of orders and desires to achieve of South-east Asia, their warrior-like stance ready to the economist revolutions of the new century.

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