Design Prose

Women in Architecture: Kevin Mark Low

Posted in Architecture by designprose on January 8, 2014

This article first appeared on World Architecture News, here:

Q:What is the state of women architects in Malaysia. Is it culturally progressive or regressive for female architects to thrive?
Kevin Mark Low elaborates his stand below:
I do not believe one’s sex plays much of a part in one’s ability to thrive professionally in Malaysia, though it very well might in another country. Through my years working in Malaysia, I am quite glad to say that I have never experienced an intelligent statement, comment, or question by a female or male architect that was not given deep regard, and with that individual earning the greater respect of others. Perhaps the deeper aggression associated with men enables certain advances and opportunities denied women, but I believe that culture here has little to blame for.

Having taught at the University Malaya in Kuala Lumpur over the past ten years, I have found female students to actually have an edge over male students with respect to a quicker understanding of concepts, ideas and issues of content over those of form. I do believe women have it in them to be greater architects than men. However, I also believe women to be better nurturers than men, and when it comes to raising a family, a woman will make sacrifices few men would ever consider, let alone undertake. The fact is that many of us do grow up, get married, and ultimately produce children – if there exists fewer women than men in architecture performing at the very highest levels of the profession, I believe it is only because the very best women architects are doing their best work caring for their families as a sacrifice they cannot see any other way but make.

Please do let me try to explain further, as I didn’t think earlier that an involved discussion was necessary for the WAN interview – you see, I approach things from a considerably more biological and psychological perspective, which if you don’t mind, ill try to clarify. The human animal is, by and large, a predominantly sexually-driven one (yes, we can go on talking about the rationality and sense of self-awareness that marks human beings different from animals, but so much of what drives us is our sexuality – almost every experience of human want in life relates to our sexuality. Not sex, mind you, as these are two completely different things). As such, the individuals we each feel we are is very much a part of our perception of our own sexuality. And medicine has found that the hormones most responsible for determining our sexuality comes from the brain. I believe it is the combination of these hormones, and human perception of the physical sexual organ most acutely associated with each sex (from the very first moment we begin to grasp concepts of space and form) that has the male mind see itself as occupying space, and the female mind as being part of it – each incidentally corresponding to how the penis is an object in the space it occupies, while the vagina is that space within, which it has nurtured/created.

Of course there are many other specific biological, social and cultural mechanisms that determine how we each perceive and relate to the creative act, but by and large, the profound depth of that psychological difference between the sexes results in men arriving at the objectification of situations much quicker, reducing problems to tangible attempts at solutions faster, whereas women take greater time to understand the abstract and conceptual aspects of any problem set before them, before any attempt at resolution is made. I must emphasise there are obvious exceptions, as nurture plays an equally important part in how each mind develops, with special circumstances affecting how certain individuals might prove otherwise, but generally speaking, and certainly within the context of Malaysia, I have found my male students to arrive at formal solutions considerably faster than their female counterparts – merit of solutions however, happily notwithstanding. As an aside, I suspect the female aspects of my psyche are more dominant than my male side of things, possibly as a result of particular circumstances in my formative years, while it might not be wrong to say your male component is a touch stronger than your female side, for the same reasons. This might not impact our intrinsic sexuality, but it well makes us a touch different from the norm.

So men lean towards objectification and women, conceptualisation. An interesting addendum to this is the fact that form is intrinsically also easier to work with than concepts, due to their tangible nature. As such, not only does objectification happen quicker and easier for men, they are simultaneously helped with it through the pure nature of form itself. It should be remembered once again though, that being quick with form doesn’t necessarily mean being good with concepts.

For the reasons above, I believe that the male facility with objectification is what drives them quicker to some degree of recognition than women, as a pure default of the immediacy which form is assimilated, categorised and hailed, but also for the sad state of the world with its preoccupation with the iconisation and objectification of the same – a biologically male trait. And the fact that women are generally more inclined to engage conceptual issues (which take so much more time due to their richness) rather than immediately formal ones, simply means that they take longer and have to develop the patience to produce tangible solutions. Both very difficult tasks.

Which brings me back to the point I attempted to make in my earlier reply regarding women and children – you see, more women, for the reasons I have given as the nurturers they biologically and psychologically are, simply have the patience to do what men are less capable of – raising children – in sacrifice of their careers. The more involved reason I have provided here (which I had not described earlier in reply to your question, due to its length) is something I believe to be a lesser effect of the same biological and physiological tendencies built into being either male or female.

It isnt the system that limits the aspirations of women, it is firstly due to innate sexuality that certain roles are naturally assumed. After that, it is the system that limits content in preference for form. The unfortunate fact is simply that women are generally more driven by content, and men, at form. As such women are marginalised by default of the system, not limited by intention.

At its most profound levels of expression, form finds nurturing through issues of content, taking deep patience and time. As is most commonly evidenced however, form develops through the subtle aggression of objectification, requiring neither considerable effort of patience nor engagement of content, and can be accomplished within short turnover of time. The latter is simply what more men than women, identify with.


Interview: Kevin Mark Low of smallprojects

Posted in Architecture, Built Environment by designprose on March 27, 2013

I recently had an opportunity to interact with Kevin Mark Low at 361 Degrees Conference. Kevin is a deepportrait-1-200x200 thinker and his approach to architecture is enthralling, this I say based  on detailed, well-thought out answers to questions I posed him on behalf of World Architecture News and his talk. Kevin Mark Low, an architect based in Malaysia whose work has gained global recognition, left his corporate architecture job to reclaim and pursue old dreams and established his practice, smallprojects in 2002, which he runs singlehandedly. He has since lectured internationally and conducted workshops and design critiques at various universities.

Q: What inspired you to be an architect? And growing up as a professional architect, whose work you looked up to?

A: Many things really – my mother who taught geography, encouraged my ability to draw, without knowing that some of the worst architects in the world draw beautifully and some of the best, awfully. My father, being more taciturn, didn’t appear to bother much with what I decided, but the important thing was their both supporting the decisions I made – especially my mother and whatever she saw in me at the time, which pushed me just that bit further.

Throughout architecture school and my working years, I found, I was less fascinated by architects than the specific buildings they did – over the course of my life, these were Cimitero Brion (carlo scarpa), Zimmerman House and Clooney Playhouse (Frank Lloyd Wright), Barragan House (Luis Barragan), Lunuganga and the Alfred Street house (Geoffrey Bawa), the Louvre Museum intervention (I.M. Pei), Exeter Library (Louis Kahn), the St. Louis Gateway Arch and MIT Chapel (Eero Saarinen), Casa En Valle de Bravo (Alberto Kalach), Chapel of Hope (Sigurd Lewerentz), Chapel at Ronchamp (Le Corbusier), Maison de Verre (Pierre Chareau), Commerzbank headquarters (Norman Foster) and the Cabrer house (Lacroze/Miguens/Prati). I feel that these architects built each work with a profound understanding of their specific context.

Of these, the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Luis Barragan and Geoffrey Bawa are the only three whose architecture consistently engaged the aesthetics of age in the way of time passing. Perhaps, this as yet undocumented understanding had the deepest impact on my own development.


Q. You mentioned something intriguing in your talk about natural state of ways and materials in architecture and your ongoing query on why buildings can be as imperfect as us human beings? Can you elaborate on it?

A: In the way sixty-year-old people look a touch strange when they try to look like sixteen-year-olds, buildings that attempt to defy the passage of time puzzle me. I have a greater affinity for architecture that looks its age, architecture designed with sufficient confidence such that the knocks and scrapes of its making and use add instead of detract form how it is ultimately perceived. There is something about the wrinkles and lines of an old face that is beautiful, that tells its own rich story of scars, tears, joy and pride. In the same way some of us age with dignity and grace, so architecture too can – the question is what one does to encourage the circumstances under which such gracious aging happens. As such, I select materials and engage methods of construction less for how they are able to hide inaccuracy or imperfection, growth and decay, or the ravages of use, than for how all these aspects find their natural place as part of the aesthetic character, the life of the building. Perhaps I can quote from a passage I had written in smallprojects (adaptus 2010) –

“The way in which I interact with my architecture is total; friends are made of contracts and contractors, of detritus, building culture, materials and their manufacture, the act of use, of maintenance and the tectonics of construction. As friends, they are less there for the act of building than for what they intrinsically are, evidenced in the final product; one chooses not hide the nature of one’s friends but to discover them over time. Design thus becomes less the act of showing than of revealing – that of the details of space and its assembly, of production, of weaknesses and strengths of materials, and the character of elemental finish. A construction effort observed to be less skilled through act or appearance is not always rectified, but is instead given integrity through the design of its relationship to its immediate physical context – the materials and processes of construction, each understood for their basic characteristics and specific applications, find expression in the tectonics of what is created. And the simple issue of time passing becomes natural; that familiarity and sense of scale that only comes with age guide my deliberations and decisions, as time has considerably less impact on the quality of light and space (as volume) than it does on the materials that reveal them. Architecture, as a process does not end when the building is done, it barely begins. People age, as do materials and buildings: I am predisposed not merely to make their transition as gracious and dignified as possible, but to reengage them in ways I never realised were possible.”

Global culture has become somewhat of a beast obsessed with the novelty of form. It has certainly grown past its previous romance with the spectacle of it, but the problem still remains that if the form of a work fails to excite or stimulate and present formal experiences in some fresh way, it warrants less attention. And a great part of this zeitgeist is driven by the immediacy, the instantaneous nature of the Internet – nothing is new or fresh if it is posted a day later. As such, we have evolved an architecture of the photoshoot, of work that has to be imaged as soon and as quickly as it is completed, an architecture intended to be experienced in completeness from the first day it is inhabited. For the work I do, it is not possible for me to think of architecture as ever complete with the completion of the contract – with something as dynamic, unpredictable, and human as architecture, as architects I believe we can only ever begin what time alone can complete.

Link to the full interview is here.