Siblings Alan and Tina Lau are established architects who run a practice together and are very passionate about what they do. In our second Spotlight feature, they explain what design means to them, and discuss the opportunities for design and architectural growth in Kuching.
After Primary 6 at Lodge, Alan completed secondary school in Singapore before moving to Perth, Australia for his foundation year. He had always been interested in graphic design and the field of humanities, and he performed fairly well in the sciences. His decision to pursue architecture was borne out of his attempt to combine the two spheres: “in my naiveté, I came to the conclusion that ‘science + art = architecture’.” Upon starting his course at the University of Western Australia, however, Alan immediately realised that the concepts of architecture were far more complex than he initially assumed:
It was so much more than the simple making of picturesque buildings that photograph well. Over and above practical issues of providing shelter, satisfying clients etc., it calls into question the relationship between us humans and the environments we live in. How do we mediate between the two? Architecture is living, expressive, functioning art built out of whatever materials we deem suitable. Design is the magical, logical and irrational process by which we negotiate our place(s) in the world and respect the particular environments which allow us to thrive.
Like her brother, Tina had been drawn to the arts from a young age, and her love for drawing was something that was nurtured by her parents and even her teachers in Lodge. This unfortunately fell by the wayside in the face of her academic studies as she grew older. After Form 3 at Lodge, Tina finished the rest of her secondary schooling in Perth, and was having difficulty deciding on a career path before Alan gave her the push she needed: “I was faced with a few options that somehow didn’t seem to feel right no matter which course I chose. It was Alan who encouraged me to choose design and after seeing what he was doing in architecture, I decided to follow in his footsteps. I haven’t looked back since and I’ve never regretted that decision to pursue architecture.”
After his architectural training in Perth, Alan worked in Singapore for nine years, five of which were with architectural firm WOHA and saw him involved in prominent projects such as Alila Villas Uluwatu resort in Bali and Parkroyal on Pickering hotel in Singapore. He was starting to wonder what his next career step was going to be, which was about the same time that Tina and her husband Jeffrey, also an architect, decided to move back to Kuching. Tina had been based in Melbourne with Lyons Architecture, working primarily on tertiary and research facilities including The Melbourne Brain Centre. Returning to Kuching felt like a natural move on her part, as she and her husband wanted to reconnect with family. The timing was fortuitous, and the three of them saw it as a unique opportunity to pool their skills and experiences together towards making a name for themselves.
In 2011, Alan, Tina, and Jeffrey, along with two other partners, set up Integrated Design Consultant (IDC) in Kuching. Running their own architectural firm has been a learning curve in itself; as Alan describes it, “It’s like learning to walk. You can’t learn it by studying it, only by doing it, and by falling down everywhere.” Managing and looking after staff of their own has also been a challenge, and they have tried to create an environment that is both creative and conducive for work. In fact, designing and executing the current IDC workplace was one of the highlights for Tina since coming back to Kuching; the designs and ideas which emerged out of the project was a reflection of their design ethos and sensibilities, and their workplace also helps show potential clients what their own buildings and spaces could feel like.
Kuching has proven to be fertile ground for the siblings to further cultivate their abilities and enrich their experiences. According to Tina, “It has been very humbling to work within our means, whether it means a smaller budget or the lack of skill available for certain trades.” That has not deterred them though; as Alan puts it, “Kuching might not be the biggest or most cosmopolitan place in Asia, but we believe that big things always come from small beginnings.”
Indeed, IDC has been growing from strength to strength in the last five years. The firm embraces a wide variety of projects, from single residential interiors and units to multi-housing developments and large commercial complexes. In 2013, IDC garnered a Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia Award for Excellence in Architecture for their work on KTS Garden, which involved relocating a disused factory building to a new site and transforming it into a high-end restaurant cum function hall.
Alan is especially proud of IDC’s upcoming project Eden-on-the-Park Residences in Kota Samarahan, a senior living community which will provide for the needs of seniors at all stages of their lives in one integrated development, from active retirement to nursing home care. This integrated model aims to be the first of its kind in Malaysia, perhaps in all of Southeast Asia, and will hopefully change the landscape of healthcare and residential living in Malaysia for the better.
What Alan enjoys the most about being an architect “is watching good ideas materialize as good work. Even if it’s a small but well-designed bench, if you’ve gotten it built, you’ve made the built world just that little bit better.” Both Tina and Alan share the ethos that what they do needs to be meaningful. Tina asserts that “architecture and interior design is about creating and sculpting spaces that enable the end user to live, work and play better. Our built environment plays such an important role in our well-being, and I am deeply moved and humbled every time I hear how our clients are able to use their spaces or buildings to better effect.”
In the end, architecture is about people, working with people, making spaces for and about people. The ‘myth’ that architects are either “egomaniac giants imposing [their] artistic will using the client’s money, or servants blindly carrying out [the client’s] will” is one that Alan is keen to dispel: “Our preferred working method is to collaborate with our clients. Obviously, the more the client is invested in the design process, and the better we architects understand them as people, the better the result will be.”
Tina also disagrees with the typical misconception that architects only know how to spend more money than needed: “Architects are trained to consider all of the factors in order to design, plan, coordinate and execute a building. In fact, it may be even more costly to build something without an architect on board. A lot of the times, we’ve had clients who have come to us after realising that they don’t have enough knowledge of the building industry and they’ve underestimated what needs to be done.”
Given that there are so many misconceptions of the industry, or even just a simple lack of understanding of what architecture truly constitutes, Tina’s advice for current Lodgians interested in the field is to reach out to an architectural student or a practising architect, and “just start talking to them about their experiences and what you’d expect from studying architecture as well as being an architect.” Alan agrees that “it is important to get a clear picture of what [architecture] actually entails before you jump in with both feet,” and adds that architectural students would benefit immensely from interning in an architectural firm.
Finally, we asked Alan and Tina what it is like working with a sibling. Tina’s response is that “it’s awesome. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think a mutual respect and understanding for each other’s strengths and achievements goes a long way first and foremost. We also have the same vested interest at heart, which is to make sure our practice flourishes and continues to grow. Alan and I also have very similar beliefs and design approaches, so it makes it much easier for us to discuss and critique each other’s work.”
Alan shares that “it has its ups and downs. If you have serious disagreements, you have to handle them carefully, because at the end of the day, you have to sit down to dinner with each other. But it’s also comforting, because you know you’re working with people who have your back regardless of the situation.”
Alan and Tina, thank you for your insight into the field of design and architecture – we hope the next generation of architects from Lodge will be inspired by your remarkable achievements and take your advice to heart!
Written by Jane Leong
Photos courtesy of Integrated Design Consultant