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Eleena Jamil on Architecture and Sustainability

Interview Date: 11-10-2015
(More interviews from this person)

VIEW the entire interview on VIDEO!

Nowadays, every major city has a selection of high-rise buildings to take pride in. How have they affected the profile of the city? What does the future have in store for these gigantic constructions?

There is a place for high density buildings such as high-rise buildings in south-east Asian cities. However we have to be careful that these high-rise buildings don’t sweep away existing parts of the city which are important both culturally and socially. A lot of cities need to build high to maintain a high density. This fact is driven by the commercial aspects as well as the rising lent values. It is important to create a balance between high-density areas in the city and leaving something as it is, leaving some of the important parts of the existing city untouched. They are part of the culture and of the whole history of the city.

A debatable opinion has emerged that great cities worldwide have started to look alike. Are they really losing their local character? If so, what has led to this? Where does contemporary architecture stand in this matter? Is critical regionalism a thing of the past?

There is a tendency for modern cities in south-east Asia to look alike because there is this generic tower being built a lot around the cities. However, there are exceptions. There are some high-rise buildings which really respond to the local culture and climate. What you get is a tower that looks like it belongs to the city. Therefore, we have to be careful to think about how we respond to the climate, because a tower in Europe should not look exactly the same as a tower in south-east Asia. As a result it is very important being sensitive to what is exactly around you, in particular the climate and the culture.

What in your opinion are the main issues that the local authorities have to face when it comes to the urban environment? What is the role of the designer-urban planner towards them?

It is important that the local authorities when they approve new developments in the city they do not sacrifice green public spaces for people to use. Also, they have to manage planning in a way that still allow people to walk and cycle in the city. By experiencing Kuala Lumpur, the city is very much driven by the need to travel by car. So, it is a vehicle-oriented city. Creating a balance and allowing the city to grow in a sustainable way is the key factor.

Every human’s need is a place to live and a roof over their head. Is decent housing for all an achievable concept in today’s society? What are the projects that seem to work and what are the plans that failed in your opinion?

It’s possible to provide housing for all but we have to be careful about the size of the housing that is enough to accommodate an expanding family, housing that can accommodate different demographics in the city. What you get at most times is high-rise housing coming up and they are designed to cater to a certain demographic meaning those that are single or a couple. There are families that have to move to the suburbs away from the city because there is no suitable housing for larger demographic groups. In Kuala Lumpur we have schools in the city closing because most families are moving out of the city to the suburbs where there are bigger houses, more amenities and better schools. We can create good and decent housing for all kinds of groups of people in the city as long as we cater the needs of all these different groups.

One of the main concerns of citizens around the world is for their town to provide them safety. What could be the proposals of an architect in order to achieve security in the urban environment?

One of the best ways to increase this feeling of safety in the city is to have good urban design. By having this, you create a lot of activities in public areas so there’s a lot of natural surveillance. When there are a lot of people walking in the streets, cycling there are a lot of activities in the urban area. This fact creates natural surveillance and everybody feels a little bit safer.

Over the past years we’ve had projects that derived from local initiative and lead to the revitalization of certain parts of a city, such as the meatpacking district in New York or Belleville in Paris. But how can we prevent gentrification in cases like these? What are the options?

It is true that urban revitalization often creates gentrification. It’s very difficult to balance social aspects of urban environment. One of the ways to do so is to create housing for rental within these urban redevelopment areas so that lower-income people could actually rent at a lower rate and to encourage them to live within these areas of urban development. Additionally, it would be useful to create opportunities for small enterprises to set up in these newly developed areas.

At the end, can you please provide your personal proposal for 10 buildings (constructed and visitable) which you think as the most important worldwide that someone must visit anyway?

Number one would be the Marina Bay Gardens in Singapore. In Kuala Lumpur anyone should visit the Petronas Towers and the gardens at the foot of them which is amazing and surrounded by many tall buildings and it’s like a city park.  Number three would be the London Eye, I’ve never been there but I would love to go. Afterwards, it’s Louis Kahn’s house in Philadelphia, called the Esherick House. If I had the chance, this would be the house I would live in. Then, Robert Venturi’s Mother’s House which was the topic of my PhD and a really amazing building, a little bit complex though. It looks simple on the outside but is in fact really complex. Going on, I would suggest Peter Zumthor’s Thermal Bath, the Therme Vals, I’ve never been there but I would love to.  Then it’s Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier and the Helsinki Museum of Contemporary Art by Steven Holl. I believe everyone should visit Penang City in Malaysia because the whole city is a UNESCO heritage site and there’s beautiful colonial architecture. Lastly, the Guggenheim Museum in New York by Frank Lloyd Wright.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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Eleena Jamil

Eleena Jamil

Country: Malaysia
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Eleena Jamil is the principal of Eleena Jamil Architect (EJA) – an architectural practice based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Eleena studied at the Welsh School for Architecture in Cardiff University, United Kingdom and subsequently completed her MPhil degree focussing on urban housing and PhD degree with a thesis titled  ‘Rethinking Modernism: the Sugden House and the Mother’s House’ with Professor Dean Hawkes.

EJA was set up in 2005 and has since been growing steadily with an expanding portfolio of work that has won international accolades and has been exhibited in numerous countries. The ‘Millennium School Project’, a bamboo classroom prototype in the Philippines, was featured in the ‘Design for the Other 90%: Cities’ (2011) exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, New York and was shortlisted at the World Architecture Festival 2010 in Barcelona. The practice has also been awarded first prizes and shortlisted in numerous international competitions such as the ‘Flood Resistant Housing’ organized by RIBA (2008) and ‘Moving Schools’ (2011) and ‘HOME: Elderly Housing’ (2013), both organized by Building Trust International. In June 2013, Eleena was invited to present her work at the ‘SMART CITY: THE NEXT GENERATION: Focus Southeast Asia’ symposium in Berlin organized jointly by Aedes, ANCB: The Metropolitan Laboratory and the Goethe Institute. In 2014, EJA has been invited by the Dutch-based Global Art Affairs Foundation to participate in the TIME-SPACE-EXISTENCE exhibition which is a collateral event of the Venice Biennale 2014 and her Bamboo Playhouse project has been shortlisted at the World Architecture Festival in Singapore.