Tropical modernism: A comparison of two approaches

Residential / Sep - Oct 2018

Tropical modernism: A comparison of two approaches

by Assoc Prof Dr Zalina Shari

The living room pavilion of Ray of Light House is separated from the courtyard by a full-width reflecting pond. Rainwater spouts are provided to channel water run-off from the roof to the pond.

‘Suryamzhu’ Ray of Light (RoL) House is a single-storey, 520-square-metre house, built on an approximately 1,000-square-metre site in a suburban setting of Bukit Gasing, Petaling Jaya. Window House, on the other hand, is a three-storey, 900-square-metre house, built on a hillside plot of around 800 square metres, located on the fringes of a reserved forest in Kuala Lumpur.

Both of these private properties are categorised as modern tropical houses but they adopt different approaches. There are three tropical modernism approaches relevant to RoL House and Window House: organic in context with nature; minimalist in structure, form and massing; and neo-brutalist in materials and appearance. These approaches are strongly influenced by the three masters of modern architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright in 1900s, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the 1940s, and Le Corbusier in the 1950s, respectively.

The emphasis in both houses is on passive design, achieved with form, massing and spatial layout; as well as a particular aesthetic derived from their palette of materials. It is not the intention of this comparative article to suggest the superiority of one house over the other as both houses have distinctive characteristics that meet the clients’ needs or preferences.

ORGANIC TROPICAL MODERNISM APPROACHES

View of the open living area of Ray of Light House; the simple off-form concrete columns and ceiling become the frame to this indoor/outdoor space

ROL HOUSE

The blending of RoL house with the site and the nature around it is unmistakably inspired by Wright’s principles of organic architecture with the following four characteristics.

First, the house is horizontal in elemental composition and building proportion. The flat, spreading roofs with generous eaves, on the whole, contribute to the emphasis on the horizontality of the earth and a blend of nature, architecture and site.

The house’s plan consists of a group of three single-storey pavilions wrapped around a rectangular green open courtyard in a U-shaped configuration. These pavilions are accessed off the open-sided circulation walkway. The green courtyard is the focus of the house, and the design encourages air movement, passive cooling, and harmony between nature and the built environment. The house is entered from a car park at the southern corner.

To the left is the south pavilion, containing the maid, kitchen and dining spaces with two bedrooms at the end. Beyond the dining room is a Y-junction—left to the guest bathroom and right to the two smaller bedrooms.

Turning to the right while still on the main circulation corridor, one passes along the west pavilion of main bedroom suite, before crossing a little bridge to reach the northern living-room pavilion, which is the climax of the journey.

In essence, visitors must traverse the entire house, shifting axes, before arriving at the living room pavilion or the large entertainment deck at the rear of the site. Forming the full width of the site, the living room pavilion is separated from the courtyard by a full-width reflecting pond and built to cantilever out over the lower-level pool area. The floor area of the house seems to be just the right size for a small family. This house has a persuasive tranquillity and calmness that embrace the family and visitors from the moment of entering.

Second, the presence of extending terraces: some open, some roofed over to make the connection between inside and outside more seamless, obvious and pleasurable. Undoubtedly, the prominent aspect of RoL House is the use of landscaping (including water elements) as the integral design element.

According to the architect, functionally, landscape controls the microclimate; spatially, it helps to create a seamless continuum between the interior and the garden, and encourages outdoor living; and psychologically, it creates a living environment that stimulates the occupants’ and visitors’ senses (seeing, touching, smelling, feeling and hearing the sound of nature).

The living room pavilion is extremely open with pausing places for contemplation in nature: one sits at the introspective hinge point of the house, between the nurtured landscape of the courtyard and the greenery beyond. There are subtle differences in scale as one moves around the house, and the house is simultaneously introverted yet extroverted, in the sense that it reaches out to embrace nature.

Third, openings are grouped together rather than treated as individual holes cut into walls. In fact, the house clearly demonstrates the designer’s philosophy that a tropical house is a room without walls, which has only columns and a roof to give shade and shelter. The porosity of the envelope diffuses the architectural boundaries, allowing the house to fully utilise air movement and become subsumed by nature.

To supplement natural ventilation, ceiling fans are placed at various areas to generate internal air movement and improve air distribution, hence increasing comfort conditions. However, one may wonder to what extent the balance between views to the landscape and the desired levels of privacy is ensured, especially for the semi-indoor bedroom suite.

Finally, the pavilions consist of broad, open, one-room-deep spaces to ensure cross ventilation, maximised views to the inner courtyard and greenery beyond, as well as visual depth and complexity. Generally, the house has minimal internal partitions that could block air movements. Fixed panels and folding doors of steel mesh open out on three sides of the kitchen and dining spaces, regulating breezes from the north-east and south-west for cross ventilation.

Everywhere, there is an interesting interplay and layering of sliding and folding glass doors, of contained and open spaces, and of filtered light that results in a rich ambiguity of indoor and outdoor areas. Here, there are no dark sections as the floating roof planes of the pavilions are built higher than the linked walkway’s, creating a gap that acts like a light-shelf to admit light deeper into the space.

Despite the fact that the spaces are arranged horizontally and asymmetrically (more than one axial line), thus making the house seems like it is creeping over the whole site, it only occupies half of the site. The use of hard heat-absorbing surfaces on the ground is kept minimal to allow the site to be predominantly green, reducing the local air temperature and minimising the reflected glare.

The deft insertion of solid and perforated brick walls; solid and glazed ceilings; a ground landscape of grass, paving, pebbles and stepping stones; and inclusion of vegetation creates an exterior environment of rich tactility, warmth and visual variety.

WINDOW HOUSE

Contrary to the organic tropical modernism of RoL House, Window House is quite the opposite. The house may not conform to Wright’s organic architectural principles per se, but it still adopts the passive design approach in its own special way. Below are the four non-organic approaches of Window House and the rationale and values behind them, where appropriate.

First, the three-storey house is monumental in scale and proportion, hence seemingly emphasising on verticality rather than lying low and being humble with nature. Outside, although the design of Window House has an intriguing blend of surface tangents and blocks, punctuated with opportunities for light and air, it stands in stark contrast to nature.

Arguably, the colossal image of the house may complement the surrounding hilly context, on which the house is located. Inside, the large entrance foyer is connected to a hall that leads to a lounge, living room, dining room and kitchen, with the staircase in the centre of the plan. Upstairs, the first floor holds five bedrooms, including the main bedroom suite. Two more bedrooms occupy the top floor together with two recreational spaces. For this reason, the house can be deemed as too large for a family of four. In fact, the gross floor area of Window House is twice the size of RoL House, despite the fact that the former’s site is smaller than the latter’s.

Second, the solid geometric form without extending terraces however, makes the house more introverted rather than extroverted, despite the availability of serene views of the wilderness outside. Characteristically, the mass and solidity of Window House’s envelope clearly differentiate the boundaries between indoor and outdoor spaces.

Interestingly, however, its architecture still allows the occupants to be connected with nature. Rather than designing spaces that are reaching out to embrace nature, as evident in the RoL house, nature is brought closer to the indoor spaces instead. This is done by inserting pockets of landscape at varying heights between the outer concrete shell and the house, making the space in between as a series of semi-indoor gardens. This strategy seems to work well with the owner’s family who lacks interest in outdoor living and prefers indoor experience in expansive indoor spaces.

Third, windows are individual holes cut into the walls, which is against the organic principle of grouped openings. Specifically, square windows are ‘punched’ through the outer concrete shell that wraps the house from east to west. But these windows are designed differently depending on the function of the internal spaces i.e., to admit filtered daylight, to frame certain views, to capture breezes from certain direction, or to achieve all of the above.

The result is openings in varying sizes at carefully chosen locations, either glazed or left uncovered. Daylight through these windows establishes a vivid interplay of light and shadows internally. Triple-volume voids or gaps are created between the outer shell and the internal rooms to reduce heat gain and glare from the intense eastern and western sun. Furthermore, since the perforated shell is an additional outer layer of the house, it functions as the first layer of thermal protection. It also acts as a ‘curtain’ to control the family’s privacy as the house is in close proximity to its neighbours.

Lastly, the floor plates are thick and squarish with spatial planning consisting of strictly defined rooms grouped vertically. Although the concrete shell of Window House is open at the north and south ends, the compartmentalised planning may reduce the efficiency of cross ventilation throughout the house and minimise the direct contact with nature. It also potentially creates dark central spaces but these are avoided by the use of skylights to allow daylight to reach the central stairwell.

The issue of cross ventilation may induce the necessity of mechanical solutions to improve thermal comfort. Environmentally speaking, it is better for the spaces to be grouped vertically rather than creeping over the whole site like RoL House, so that more ground area can be left as green spaces. But this is not the case as most of the site area of Window House is built up and most of the leftover spaces are covered with hard surfaces.

MINIMALIST TROPICAL MODERNISM APPROACH

ROL HOUSE 

Simultaneously, RoL house embraces Miesian minimalism in its form and massing through the display of the following qualities: minimal rectangular boxes enclosed by floating roof slabs; simple geometry of open plans; layering of interior and exterior spaces with maximum transparency; floor-to-ceiling glass sliding or folding panels; and exposed structure grids. The house is also a description of large glass areas that can be completely opened, adding to an appreciation of the house as linked to transparent or open pavilions.

WINDOW HOUSE

Contrastingly, Window House does not consist of the simple, transparent and open geometric form of Miesian minimalism. Rather, the house is designed as a series of stacked solid rectangular volumes covered in an angular or telescopic formed concrete shell tapered at the front, widened towards the forest at the rear of the house, in both plan and section. Although this tapering may give the entrance a more human scale, the overall scale of the house is still enormous.

Exterior view of Window House

NEO-BRUTALIST TROPICAL MODERNISM APPROACH

ROL HOUSE 

Instead of adopting Miesian minimalist steel columns and beams with glass walls, RoL House employs the aesthetic of Corbusien neo-brutalism through its use of rough concrete and brick surfaces left untreated or unfinished. The structure is made of rectilinear flat off-form concrete roofs held up by off-form concrete columns, resulting in long continuous spans and open interiors. The designer used fair-faced bricks for a series of enclosing walls—some perforated, some completely solid. The dramatic cantilevered roofs and the juxtaposition of solids and voids create a sculptural presence. The restrained palette of materials creates a calm, uncluttered ambience. The structure, walls and floors are left unfinished, creating honesty in the materiality.

WINDOW HOUSE

However, Window House may not represent the neo-brutalist group of tropical modernism. Although the outer shell is made of raw concrete left unfinished, the surface is relatively smooth, whilst the rest of the walls are plastered over and painted. The predominance of concrete and rendered surfaces means that much of Window House architecture is concerned with mass, which is in contrast to RoL House that is lightweight and relatively ephemeral. The front porch may soften the form’s solidity as it is covered by an exposed structure of lightweight steel frame with steel mesh and glass top to give a minimal profile. The interior material palette combines concrete with light and dark woods, the walls with black metal frames.

Project Name ‘Suryamzhu’ Ray of Light
Location Bukit Gasing, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia
Completion Date 2017
Site Area 993 square meters
Gross Floor Area 520 square meters
Number of Rooms 10
Building Height 4.35 meters
Client/Owner Kamala Devi Somasundram
Architectural of Record Arkitek Seni Integrasi Puan
Design Consultant John G N Bulcock (Design Unit Sdn Bhd)
Main Contractor Indacon Sdn Bhd
Mechanical &Electrical Engineer Perunding Eagles Engineers Sdn Bhd
Civil &Structural Engineer Isaacom Design
Images/Photos Lin Ho Photography (photos); Design Unit Sdn Bhd (architectural drawings)

Project Name Window House
Location Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Completion Date December 2017
Site Area 813 square meters
Gross Floor Area 900 square meters
Number of Rooms 7
Building Height 16 meters
Architectural Firm Formzero
Principal Architects Lee Cherng Yih
Main Contractor Jaya Bintang
Images/Photos Ronsee Lee (Twins Photography); Formzero

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