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Eco Visionary

Ken Yeang is one of the world's leading green architects
Ken Yeang is one of the world’s leading green architects

With 40 years immersed in eco-architecture, Ken Yeang is regarded as one of the pioneers of green design. Yet as environmental issues climb the agenda, his ideas still pose a challenge to mainstream wisdom. The Malaysian architect discusses the evolution of his theories, the scope for sustainable skyscrapers, and why he feels the rest of the architectural community continues to lag behind.

Ken Yeang is contemplating a selection of pastries at London’s Claridge’s Hotel. Having vetoed our original meeting spot on the basis of a snoring patron, he has decided to set up base a little further down the street. Here, the noises are less distracting: a buzz of spirited chatter, and the clatter and chink of cutlery on china. The preserves arrive and Yeang becomes animated.

“Oh my God, rhubarb jam!” he says, as though greeting an old foe. “Rhubarb reminds me of school. I went to Cheltenham Boys College and we had it for breakfast. It’s put me off for life.”

It’s a disarming introduction to a man regarded as the world’s leading green skyscraper designer. Dividing his time between London and his native Malaysia, Yeang was cited by The Guardian as one of the “50 people who could save the planet”. He is both theorist and practitioner, both architect and ecologist; lecturer, author, planner and aesthetician to boot. I’d been expecting someone solemn and a little abstruse.

The Green Platform of the Solaris Tower, Singapore
The Green Platform of the Solaris Tower, Singapore

Tea and misunderstandings

This preconception doesn’t do him justice. Now in his mid-60s, Yeang is an affable and engaging character whose conversation bubbles over with anecdotes. He reels through his favourite London hotspots; occasionally launches into a joke. By the end of our meeting, I am privy to the only three places on Earth (Claridge’s, W London and Singapore Airlines first class) that can adequately boil an egg.

While these asides are certainly colourful, they can’t quite occlude his frustration. He feels that, despite the lip service paid to eco-architecture, the concept has been sorely misunderstood. And as we sip tea in this most English of institutions, it becomes clear that his particular censure is saved for the UK.

“Internationally, I now get an enormous amount of work through the internet, from people who truly want an eco master plan or an ecological design,” he says. “But the UK architectural community is quite full of itself about green design. Many of them are conversant with BREEAM, some with LEED, but most don’t understand nor value the ecological approach.”

Certainly when Yeang established his practice, Hamzah & Yeang, in 1975, it wouldn’t have been too great a stretch to call him a voice in the wilderness. Pioneer, provocateur and professional nonconformist, he flew the flag for green design in an age when interest was minimal. The broader architectural community, unresponsive to the idea of bioclimactic buildings, tended to regard him as a hippie.

Nearly four decades later, hippies are a historic curiosity and sustainability a mainstream concern. And yet Yeang doesn’t think matters have gone nearly far enough.

“Many British architects’ view of ecological design is either about carbon neutrality or what I call eco-gadgetry – using photovoltaics or recycling systems,” he says. “But you have to look at everything that we as human beings do and make in the totality of the biosphere. Not just what we build, but our activities, our transportation systems, our economies, our industries – and their effects on the natural environment.”

For Yeang, eco-consciousness is not merely a matter of decking out a wall in a double-skin façade. It runs much deeper than that: it means acknowledging the biodiversity of the building site, and heeding the wider impacts on the landscape. It means designing with seasonal variations in mind, viewing the wind and rain as allies rather than adversaries.

Most recently, it has meant incorporating natural habitats into a building’s design, as with the verdant Spire Edge project under construction near Delhi. In a field ruled by inorganic forms, Yeang aims to dissolve the bounds between buildings and biosphere.

“What if the urban environment becomes a living, breathing organism?” queried Brad Pitt in a broadcast for PBS series e2 design. “To Ken Yeang it is.”

Spire Edge Tower in Guragon, India
Spire Edge Tower in Guragon, India

Eco basis

Yeang’s guiding principles have been in place since the outset. Following a stint at the Architectural Association School in London, he completed a PhD at Cambridge University, which saw him develop a unified model for eco-design. This model was too abstract to gain much traction, but it laid the theoretical foundation for the rest of his career.

Early projects included his own home near Kuala Lumpur. Deriving its name from its dual roof, the ‘Roof-Roof’ House (1985) is elaborately experimental: it features an umbrella-like structure that serves as an environmental filter. Meanwhile, the swimming pool functions as an evaporative cooling device, and the doors welcome in the morning sun while blocking out the scorching rays at noon. In many respects, it is the prototype for ‘passive mode’ design – a low-energy building that optimises the climactic conditions at hand.

Ingenious though this might seem, it wasn’t till the late 1990s that many of his peers took note.

“I was treated like an outsider by a lot of people,” he recalls. “Professional engineering support was not there. But then something happened, and all of a sudden, the engineers that used to be second fiddle in the architectural orchestra became the soloists.”

With technical support increasing, the range of possibilities broadened. Yeang turned his attention to deep ecological design, specifically high-rise towers, which he felt were in dire need of greening. Tall buildings face challenges: they require up to a third more energy, not to mention greater structural support. And with little bulwark against the forces of nature, any optimistically positioned flora and fauna may struggle to survive.

As green as possible

Yeang is no idealist in this regard. When asked how close he is to realising the idea of a green skyscraper, he gives the less-than-affirmative answer that there are shades of green. For a building to be totally eco-friendly, all its constituent parts would need to be recyclable and reusable, with the connections mechanical rather than molecular.

“A new building should be DFD – designed for the disassembly – so from day one you’re designing buildings you can take apart and put together again,” he explains. “In nature everything’s recycled, whereas our human systems are what I call ‘throughput’ – you take it, you use it, you throw it away. The problem is because the Earth’s a closed system, there is no ‘away’. The waste has to go into a landfill and at some point in time you run out places to put the used material.”

Still, within these constraints he is confident his work is as green as can be. Particular innovations include the ‘ecocell’, a shaft in the built form, which brings vegetation, sunlight, harvested rainwater and natural ventilation all the way to its innermost quarters. Then there is the so-called ‘vertical linear park’, as characterised by the Solaris Building in Singapore. This lofty office development features a spiral ramp, 1.3km in length, which is covered in plants and loops around the façade like a lavish green ribbon.

Another recently completed project is the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital extension in London. Masterminded by his UK practice, Llewelyn Davies Ken Yeang, its numerous eco-friendly assets include a green sedum roof, a glazed façade to maximise natural lighting and two specially designed units for cooling and heating. Demonstrably, eco-design need not be confined to tropical climes.

“Any day I’m working on maybe ten to 20 projects at different stages of development, but with every project, we try to advance green design with ideas,” says Yeang. “Sometimes if I’ve done ten projects I’ll put them together in a book because each concept relates to the others. The book makes the ideas tangible and gives solidity.”

Great Ormond Street Hospital extension
Great Ormond Street Hospital extension

Radically holistic

Yeang is a big-picture person, taking relish in the underlying principles as opposed to individual examples. In his 2009 book Ecomasterplanning, he laid out four critical eco-infrastructures that should be addressed whatever the project: human behaviours, cleantech engineering, ecology and water. Installing a token automation system won’t suffice if your wastewater management isn’t right.

This approach is holistic in the proper sense of the word, meaning no single facet should be addressed in isolation. It requires that the planner eschews the window dressing of ‘eco-gadgetry’, instead envisioning each building as a living system.

“Holism is a biological, organic property that you cannot find in a machine,” Yeang points out. “With a machine, if you replace one of the parts it doesn’t affect the whole machine, but when you take something out of an organism and replace it, the whole organism is affected systemically.”

Loosely speaking, he feels that a building should be treated less like a standard skyscraper and more like a giant tree. It’s a radical way of seeing the built environment, but as urbanisation intensifies and tower blocks proliferate, a radical solution may well be what is called for. The idea of ecomimesis – the urban landscape emulating the natural one – is beginning to shift from hippie fantasy to actionable reality.

As we leave Claridge’s (Yeang setting off for his nearby UK residence) I imagine a London constructed in this way: all verdurous tower blocks and climate-responsive façades, with the city’s famed greenery extending upwards as well as outwards. It’s far removed from the elegant stucco architecture of Mayfair, but it could prove a fertile vision for the future as environmental concerns take centre stage. Whatever else transpires, Ken Yeang will surely go down as the person who dreamed it up first.

This article appears in the latest edition of LEAF Review

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