Design Prose

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.