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Ideas, Form & Construction

by Ar. Dr. Eleena Jamil | Eleena Jamil Architect


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The architecture profession has its basis in the craft of making. Architectural designs are created in close association with actual physical construction at the site. Before the modern era, it was carried out without drawings and was considered a manual occupation. 


In making a traditional Malay house, for example, a traditional tukang or craftsman was the master builder, acting as an architect and a maker. The tukang worked with a team of apprentices and were assisted by local community members. They practiced a highly ordered building process occurring between the framework of rituals and local beliefs. The tukang was well-versed in putting together a house using an interlocking timber jointing technique known as tanggam. He was also a master carver and understood aesthetics. He worked closely with the local environment and had a deep knowledge of materials and where to source them.


The tukang is seen as practicing a craft based on a specific relationship between thought and the realities of making, where ideas, forms and their execution are seen as a single organic process. Like many other kinds of craftsmen, they learn their craft through rigorous apprenticeship, often from a very young age. Being fully immersed in the process through the years, they developed manual dexterity and an intuitive sense of their tools, materials, structure, proportion, and aesthetics, making them holistic building experts.


This close connection with the making process existed in the architectural profession until the modern era asserted specialisation and consequent separation of design from physical building activities. Today, architects work in isolation, away from the construction site, instead of directly immersed in the materials and making process. They work in their practice studio and communicate with people who build through drawings and specifications. With its growing emphasis on intellectualism and theoretical thinking, architectural education has created an additional distance between the architect’s studio and the construction site, diluting the principles of craft in the architect’s work.


The architectural design process has changed considerably with technology. With computer modelling software, it is now possible to design a complete building in a matter of weeks. Built into this software are standard building element catalogues where three-dimensional walls, doors, windows, roofs etc., can be quickly added to make a building. Visualisations are accessible at the click of a button, absolute and realistic, with extraordinarily little room left to the imagination. This way of working has a trickle-down effect when turning designs into physical buildings. It encourages the quick assembly of standardised and modular components in construction to minimise the demands of a complex construction process.


We love working with materials in their natural state, and this usually means raw materials: raw concrete, clay bricks, wood and bamboo. We tend to collaborate with the materials, working to their unwritten rules instead of imposing preconceived ideas or unnatural appearances on them. We like each material to retain its individuality and the physicality of the installation to be fully expressed and visible. These materials are scarcely available in prefabricated modular forms. Their application is based on the craftsperson’s talent, stemming from use in vernacular architecture, where they were often built using local knowledge and skills. 


The contemporary architectural profession and the construction industry indicate that this way of working is a thing of the past, for it adds time and complexity to projects. On the other hand, we find the approach enriching and adds value to our architecture, where the relationship with the construction team is more collaborative than that of exerting our full authority to direct and control the performance and output of their services.

In our work, tectonics are often on display, rendering our buildings legible in what they are made of and how they are made. This vision presents a challenge in the construction process as things need to be right from the start. This usually requires the structures – concrete, steel, timber, or bamboo – to be impeccable in their execution and workmanship, and all the engineering services to be meticulously coordinated. There are no opportunities for plaster, veneer or cladding to cover up a mistake or a mess from lack of coordination. 


We design by conceptualising through sketches, model making and drawings. These have the dual purpose of facilitating the design process and communicating ideas to others, in this case, the craftsmen and builders who will execute our design. Working closely with the people who make our buildings, taking time to explain our intentions, understanding their skills, and respecting their advice can lead to the whole construction team being satisfied with seeing a difficult job well done. It is not uncommon for working methods to change halfway through construction and for design details to be rethought and redrawn after discussions with the construction team on the best ways to achieve desired results.


It seems trite to mention that we should treat builders as part of a family working together to make a good building. Still, the reality is that there is a significant divide between architects and the people who realise their architectural intentions. Architects are trained in studios, lecture halls and, more recently, through online sessions, far detached from the practicalities of a building site. 


Despite having little fundamental knowledge of building construction, young architects graduate with a higher professional status than that of a contractor. It does not help that most of our construction sites are manned by foreign migrant workers who are paid questionable wages while working and living in poor conditions. These consequently lead to poor and sometimes almost non-existent relations between the architect and construction team. Very often, the whole team is represented by a single person, known as a supervisor, who mediates between the design team and the builders.


A construction site consists of many tradespeople working in a small community within the confines of temporary hoardings. They are carpenters, bricklayers, tilers, timber and bamboo joiners, general forepersons and others, with expertise and knowledge from repetitively working their craft and honing their skills. The deep understanding of their craft and materials and pride in their work allows the successful collaborative exploration and experimenting of architectural ideas and visions. As such, they deserve our respect and faith, and they are the ones worth talking to and whose advice is worth listening to.

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