sek san | undesigning architecture

May 26, 2017

words by: jay nichvolodov

We're in front of Sekeping Sin Chew Kee, just off Jalan Pudu, an old colonial row house in central Kuala Lumpur's Bukit Bintang neighborhood. Walking past a home gate and a breezy gin bar, up a steep metal ladder, we find ourselves in a wide open home. The design and minimalist decor mesh with aged timber and window-shutters overhead, our feet trod uneven, white-washed planks, found street signs adorn concrete walls. There's so much space, light and air amidst the brick and wood and metal. 

Interacting with Malaysian architect Sek San's work makes it clear that he's at home, at ease with himself. He is not out to impress anyone, nor to gloss anything over for what it's not. And so follows his architectural vision: celebrating and owning context, tradition and history in spaces in Malaysia - with all their imperfections.

The Sekeping properties are a long-term project of Seksan Design, the firm Sek San has been principal of for twenty-odd years. The series of ten homes across Malaysia reclaim historical buildings and repurpose them as boutique hotels. Don’t expect the frills a of an international firm; expect an unabashedly Malaysian experience, contextualized in original buildings. Expect an organic relationship with the past. Whereas tear-down projects have eviscerated the architectural soul, tradition and flavor of so many locations in history-rich Asia and beyond, there is a unique, down-to-earth quality to the Sekeping properties, an acknowledgment of - but also acceptance of - the past. Sekeping properties are rooted in the history that's shaped Malaysia’s people and cultures.

Above: Sekeping Sin Chew Kee

Rather than suppress and sever history, Sek San's work breathes with the past and builds confidently into the present. His projects come off a little like the antithesis to grand-scale, “urban renewal” internationalist developments by celebrity architects in big cities. Seksan Design's philosophical underpinnings create a vision that pushes against the gated suburban community dream; the air-conditioned identikit malls. Much of the inspiration for this work seems to stem from a dissatisfaction with subpar conservation and preservation of historical buildings - often on the part of government - and the general decline of community living.

Sekeping Sin Chew Kee (photos above) is a prime example. 

Design has been hijacked by the elites, the developers, and the very rich people... it becomes more material based, it’s about the surface, the marble, the expensive… We are trying to define design as wider, it’s about community, it’s about friendship, it’s about better living of life, it’s about happiness. It’s about trying to be less by being more.
— Youtube, 3rd World Aesthetics/////Ng Sek San 

The architect regularly mentions this concept of "Third World Aesthetics," a peculiar phrase to be sure. For ages, the trend among designers and architects (and clients) has been to modernize, to build with stainless-steel, to cover over faults and imperfections, to make identical, to glisten and shimmer. Sek San reclaims and uplifts the distinct look of things in the so-called “Third World”: where edges don’t meet, surfaces are uneven, materials are mixed and matched, contexts and traditions are worn on the sleeve. It is a process of undesigning design and architecture, doing away with the flash and glamour, focusing instead on enhancing what's already there.  

Many of the Sekeping buildings were set for demolition or reclaimed from decay, structures resigned to abandonment. These processes often lead to rebuilding, progress and new development - byproducts so many mainstream designers tend to claim. His clients are often are wealthy individuals and companies, no doubt, but Sek San sees himself as part of a larger project of redesigning urban ecosystems. You get the impression that he's out for collaboration between the private and public sectors, working towards a healthy, sustainable and all-round better Malaysia for its people.

Sek San has the larger picture in mind: do we want artificial forests of identical grey concrete, or would we like to build structures and communities and neighborhoods that reflect us (and nature) as much as we reflect them?  

Above: Sekeping Serendah

The vision points towards a reversal in the suburbanization of urban Malaysia, bringing people back into cities proper, enlivening and adding flavor and character to structures that still hold place in many memories. What's more, Sek San wants to see people live together again, not separated by security stops and gated-communities. He works to diminish the distance between people, and to gain community, trust and space again.

There’s something deeply unpretentious and honest about the Sekeping designs. These places are not trying to transport you anywhere. Instead they want to quietly remind you that you are not in a nameless high-rise or extravagant monument to development, but indeed in Ipoh, Georgetown, Penang - and there is nowhere else you could be. They own the context, the character, and those so-called imperfections. 

All images c/o Seksan Design