Malaysian Architect Serina Hijjas Discusses Legacy And Sustainability
If one were to shortlist architectural firms that have shaped Kuala Lumpur’s urban landscape, HIJJAS Architects & Planners (previously Hijjas Kasturi Associates) would be in the top three. Founded in 1977 by Hijjas Kasturi, it responsible for such iconic city landmarks as Menara Tabung Haji, Menara Maybank and Menara Telekom—each encapsulating the spirit of the times it was built.
The architect, whom 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 receiving her degree in architecture from the Bartlett School of Architecture, and a three-year stint in Foster + Partners, London, she returned to join HIJJAS.
“My father was one of the pioneer architects in the newly formed post-independent Malaysia. When he returned home after 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 sustainability and reinterpretation of cultural identity in the buildings evident in buildings from Telekom Malaysia, the Securities Commission and Sasana Kijang to Menara 4G11, Shell and recently, Celcom Tower. That said, some of the driving ideas of the buildings with strong single form silhouettes, spatially memorable buildings both tall and small, have been consistent in 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 an achievement, something Serina attributes to the firm’s openness to change and adaptation.
The trend for inviting international talent to design buildings in Malaysia began in the 2000s but the firm has won out in tenders even when they went up against these international heavyweights.
“We have strong talent locally but the voice isn’t heard as much in Malaysia as our GLCs prefer to celebrate international names for global exposure and presence. Unlike emerging Indonesian architecture which celebrates their local architectural talent as much as the foreign talent," she muses
However she believes this will change. “We need to be confident, and celebrate our own uniqueness and strengths. The Japanese celebrate their own 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."
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HIJJAS has 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. I brought home these ideas with me; I was taught to see the world of buildings through these lens," she recalls.
"One of my first projects was the 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 five years before the mushrooming of green buildings in Malaysia.”
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In the last decade, the adoption of green practices has gone mainstream.
“During this pandemic, I hope it becomes even more synonymous with the right way to create and make with less resources and with 100 per cent renewable energy. 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 realistically take another 10 years, we must make it a force in the building and consumer industry now,” she states.
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THE FAR PAVILIONS
This commitment to sustainability is showcased elegantly in HIJJAS’ design concept of the Malaysia Pavilion for Expo 2020 Dubai. Inspired by traditional lightweight Malay houses and rainforest treetops, the 'floating' 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," notes Serina. "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."
Having also designed the Malaysia Pavilion for the World Expo 2015 in Milan, Serina explains that a similar spirit runs through both: “Working with timber and steel as building materials for both pavilions stem from the idea of being able to disassemble and reassemble the pavilions. It optimises the sustainability and longevity of these temporary structures. The decommissioning of the pavilions is 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 well.
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 two years after the start of 2020. Being part of the creation of Putrajaya and listening then to the great Wawasan 2020, who would 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. It has forced us to reexamine how we work and how we create.”
The firm and Serina’s 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 and to be able to continue creating exciting buildings, big and small, that inspire, only means we will see more remarkable achievements from Serina,
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