Designworks: Creating meaningful and relevant spaces

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 9, 2020 - November 15, 2020.

The MBO flagship cinema in Tropicana Gardens Mall, Kota Damansara has a dedicated pathway and elevator for wheelchair users (Photo by FEI Architect)

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An intermediate 2-storey residential house in Damansara Kim, with its concrete finishing and green, leafy plants, might seem ordinary to most of us, but this is where the FEI ARCHITECT team operates from, striving to achieve something that is far from ordinary.

The firm started as a design studio in 2014 and became a registered architecture firm in 2018. But being relatively new has not deterred it from taking on large-scale projects — whether on its own or in collaboration with other architecture firms.

Founder and principal Lam Shen Fei believes in designing meaningful spaces for the inhabitants and operators of a space while also meeting the client’s requirements in its contractual and operations brief.

“We do not go [into a project] with preconceived ideas of what we think the clients want — a number of architects tend to do that. For us, we see what the clients want and try to work towards their vision. At the end of the day, it is not so much of the architect’s vision,” he tells City & Country.

The two words that senior architect Tan Lai Gwan uses are “meaningfully caring”. “We have to be caring to the users. The clients’ money must be well spent and [the product] meaningful to them. In our case, we care enough to make it meaningful.” This belief is reflected in the firm’s projects, especially in those it recently completed.

Its latest completed project is the MBO flagship cinema and headquarters in Tropicana Gardens Mall, Kota Damansara. Covering 129,358 sq ft, the 12-theatre hall cinema was completed and became operational in January this year.

Lam says Tan has extensive knowledge in designing complex projects such as five-star hotels, casinos and F&B kitchens. This has greatly influenced the cinema’s design, in which the elderly and physically challenged are taken into consideration.

There is a dedicated pathway and elevator for wheelchair users, who can access the hall from the rear, where the highest row is. “When they can access the rear [area] rather than the bottom, they will be able to get [a better] view,” Lam explains.

The firm also used otherwise wasted space to design MBO’s headquarters. The inclined concrete slab below the seatings left a large idle space and it was converted into an office for more than 100 staff.

Lam says by having the office below the cinema, the office and cinema become intertwined, allowing easy access for film premieres, private exits for celebrities and movie test runs, as well as for using the theatre hall as office meeting venues.

“The client was very happy that we used the wasted space as it helped them save on their office space rental,” he adds.

Another project completed by the firm is the 19,346 sq ft outdoor multipurpose hall for SMJK Poi Lam in Ipoh. It is a significant project, as the firm did a lot of exploration and experiments on the design, says Lam.

“It is a very meaningful project for us, the school board and the students. For us, its significance is [in] the learning process,” Tan adds.

The multipurpose space contains the sporting courts —the volleyball and basketball courts — where meetings to celebrate festive seasons and various ceremonies are held as well, he explains.

Featuring bright and bold colour contrasts along an engaging curvature, the roof of the multipurpose hall transforms what could have been a typical outdoor pavilion into a charming structure that is both practical and aesthetically stimulating.

The firm tried to conform to Unesco’s standards for the restoration of Merchant Hotel even though Ipoh is not a Unesco heritage site (Photo by FEI Architect)

Lam says the team conducted a series of experiments to find the best method to construct the curvature roof without exceeding the budget.  In the end, the firm used a design approach based on the concept of a modular system that allows single-element mass production of a basic modular structure, which — through an array of angles and placements — create variety in the structure and curvature.

Using roofing sheets of varying sizes and colours supported by steel trussed arches, the “roof over” design contrasts with the warm monotone of the existing academic block. The flaps and gaps of the roofing arrangement cross-ventilate and allow airflow inwards into the interiors of the courts.

FEI ARCHITECT not only designs projects that are vibrant and striking, but also those that are on the opposite end of the spectrum — for example, a conservative heritage shoplot-turned-hotel.

The Merchant Hotel — a 3,066 sq ft, 2-storey heritage shoplot in Ipoh — was purchased by its owners in the early 2010s and left abandoned. Later on, the owners decided to turn the shoplot into a backpackers’ hotel because of the increasing demand for such accommodation.

Lam says the project’s direction is “honesty”. “It is not only what we say but also the expressions of the architecture materials. So, if an original timber is broken, then we will have to replace it. And we show what is original and new.”

The courtyards, sunroof, some timber beams and brick walls were the parts of the structure that were retained. The original structure had no concrete or steel works and these were incorporated later, says Lam.

“Some of the steel works are in red. It is honesty to tell hotel patrons and customers who walk in that these were attempts to strengthen the structure, as the old structure could not be retained because of safety reasons,” Tan explains.

Thus, half of the hotel’s structure is original while the other half is new. The firm tries to conform to Unesco’s standards for restoring heritage buildings even though Ipoh is not a Unesco heritage site.

A design approach based on the concept of a modular system was used to create the structure and curvature of the outdoor multipurpose hall for SMJK Poi Lam in Ipoh (Photo by FEI Architect)

“We had to make some changes to comply with the current safety requirements and regulations by the fire department. Yet, we still kept it meaningful and paid homage to the heritage requirements and conformed to the client’s requirements as well,” says Lam.

The hotel was completed early this year, but is not open for business yet as the tourism sector was affected by the implementation of the Movement Control Order in March. The lower floor is reserved as a retail space while the upper floor is the backpackers’ hotel.

All project designs are made possible through the clients’ input, site visits and multiple bilateral design discussions with the clients to formulate the desired outcome.

“We do not intentionally generate either common or matching physical looks for each design. Instead, we focus on generating design solutions for the living environment. So, each client becomes partners to the team in giving feedback and discussing objectives,” says Lam.

Each project, big or small, is distinctively crafted for the purpose of each client. “From the vibrant form — the colourful roof and striking cinema — to the conservative hotel, there is a human commonality between each design: the meaningful design that becomes relevant to the nature of its inhabitants,” he concludes.