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Serina Hijjas on Architecture and Sustainability

Interview Date: 25-11-2015
(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?

I come from a growing city, Kuala Lumpur, a city of about seven million people. That population has doubled in about 15-20 years. So it is expected that the city will grow even more. If I talk about Kuala Lumpur as a growing city in the densities of high-rise buildings, what is needed is to look back at itself and restructure and reorganize the city because of the new densities. The city cannot cope right now in terms of water, traffic or housing. It happened so fast and no one was prepared. Now we are trying to fix the work of the past years but we also have to prepare for the next. As a result there are so more things to do. What is really interesting is that we actually build mini cities within the city because the existed infrastructure cannot cope. So the new pockets are now looking to create better infrastructure in order to absorb the densities of people that are coming into 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?

A lot of cities are beginning to look alike because the same mega architects putting down their iconic languages into every city’s fabric. It is a problem if we take a look at Singapore, Beijing, or Shanghai where the cities have grown very quickly without not too much of the old remains to give the city an identity for itself. The works we are expecting to see now are about marrying global with local to a site and have to do with adopting some of the essence of the place. It’s important in my opinion that whoever works or contributes to the architecture of a city should really live in that city to offer something truly belonging to it and has its own sense and identity.

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?

If I take the Kuala Lumpur experience, I think we haven’t really changed our model of public housing. We still have very small spaces and we are not looking at the external spaces and the environment and landscape to inform us how to change that. There aren’t enough social spaces. Especially in public housing where a family of four would be living in a place that is probably not much bigger than a carpark grid. That’s a very confine space for a family of four. We need to look at the social aspects and I also have a fond belief that high-rise public housing is needed for the densities of cities but we need to start investigating smaller scales, making living spaces seem like pot spaces in the sky and introducing more social spaces for them in order for that to be successful. I know that Singapore has done public housing that is 50 storeys high and links in with a bridge but in the end of the day that public housing looks like a big wall. There is a lot of relationship to the ground where people actually live most of their time and only go upstairs to sleep. So we need to look at the groundscape as much as the middlescape in terms of creating more social places for public housing.

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?

The key to security in the urban environment is basically leaving the spaces to the community. It has to be a lot more open in order to make people feel they live on the ground and making the security more “visible”. The problem is not making that sense of place in a community space because who is looking after a person is the people surrounding the place. So the challenge for architects is to make a sense of place that the community believes they belong to that place. As a result they would form the safety and security of that space.

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?

I don’t think we could stop gentrification. The goal is to have mixed mode of living and not having the gentrified in one area or the less fortunate in another. We really have to find a way to weave those two societies’ obligations into common areas. We are not able of stopping gentrification but at the same time everything starts form the experimentation and then slowly becomes gentrified. So if you realize a certain place becomes gentrified then it becomes the next community you move out to and you start to bring up that community as well. It’s basically spreading the minorities as much as it causes gentrification.

How are the developing countries handling the design programs that are offered to them? How are the opinions of the authorities, the architects and the citizens combined and merged into one design?

In developing countries most of the programs are developed by developers and not by the community, the artisans or even the statutory people. They are led by developers because they are moving fast and it’s a catch-up with the rest to get into those spaces. So it’s not led by other ideas in these developing countries at the moment. They are basically attracted to what is new rather that what is better for the community.

Seeing that new technologies have become an essential part of architecture design, what are your feelings on open source software systems used in urban planning?

Everyone should be mindful about the type of software they use. Software like Space Syntax are designed to examine how people use the space. If you are looking for software that is basically provocative of spatial design in terms of creating parametrics, it’s exciting and graphically interesting for the architects but it’s not by the urban setting. So there is a danger falling in love with the picture compared to the content.

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?

It would be interesting to see Le Corbusier’s housing in Marseille (Unite d’Habitation) because as a public housing broke a lot of grounds, it was very innovative and it’s something you can learn from. I like the housing by Safdie for the Montreal Olympic Village because the relation of staking and scale is very interesting. Pompidou is an intriguing building in terms of something iconic within the city fabric that is low scale with an open plaza and attracts many people to the building. You would realize that most of these buildings are older than new because most new buildings that I have seen are not related to the urban fabric so well. In this stage most of us are interested in seeing buildings that do this.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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Serina Hijjas

Serina Hijjas

Country: Malaysia
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Director of Hijjas Kasturi Associates Sdn with over 20 years of experience in the field of architectural planning & design. Graduated from Bartlett School of Architecture and University of Sydney joined Foster & Partners in London for a three year stint before returning to Malaysia. Serina Hijjas have been active in the area of Energy Efficiency and Sustainable design since her formative years in architectural practice in London. Awardee of three Asean Energy Efficiency Awards: – the 55 storey Telekom Malaysia Headquarters Building (2005); First Runner-Up Securities Commission HQ (2003) and First Runner-Up Putrajaya International Convention Centre (2007). Works extends to Ericsson Building, Putrajaya Lighting and Water masterplan, AIMST University in Malaysia, Shell Headquarters and Celcom Tower.

Currently the firm is working on the first LEED gold accredited office tower under construction in Kuala Lumpur at KL Sentral and is a founding member of the Green Building Index(GBI) and is part of the GBI Accreditation panel. Ar. Serina lectures on Rethinking Sustainability and is a working member on the formation of the Commercial, Residential and Township Green Building Index tools and reference guides for Malaysia.