Book of the Month: Malaysia’s Beautiful Terrace Houses Embrace Climate Change

Robert Powell The Tropical Malaysian House. Music Press Asia

Environment Series: Professor Robert Powell and Lin Ho’s Terrace Transformations In The Tropics explores how the ubiquitous Malaysian terrace houses have embraced sustainability and climate change through the designs that work together with the tropical climate.

Architecture in Southeast Asia has been given a renewed perspective by Professor Robert Powell, a prominent international academic. His professional background in architecture had resulted in a prolific publishing career focusing on books about Southeast Asian architecture. Powell’s journey in Asia began in 1984 after he took up a lecturing position at the National University of Singapore.

Powell recalls the time he first set foot in Southeast Asia. A fresh graduate of architecture, he arrived in Sulawesi, Indonesia, to help set up a wildlife nature reserve, and eventually ended up staying in the tropical rainforest for five months. Falling in love with this part of the world was just the beginning of a life-long obsession for tropical living.

Passionate may prove a word quite inadequately expressed of Powell’s dedication to documenting Malaysian houses. It culminated in the publication of The Asian House and The Tropical Asian House – published by Singapore and UK publishing companies. Local publishers in Southeast Asia were reluctant in the beginning. But a meeting with the publisher of Atelier International and Malaysian architect Dr. Tan Loke Mun, would soon mark a new beginning for Powell.

[The living area of the Cloister House in Johor Baru by Formwerkz Architects. The timber ceiling overhead adds warmth to the interiors while beyond and to the right are two of the 12 courtyards in the house. — LIN HO]

Increasingly, a new generation of architects designing houses for well-travelled middle class in Malaysia began to emerge. Malaysian architects have been giving internally dark and poorly ventilated terrace houses new leases of life. Powell’s book The Tropical Malaysian House won the acceptance of many regional enthusiasts hungry to test design boundaries that would unsympathetically capture the very essence of tropical living. No matter how inadvertent Powell’s intentions are, the book became such a success that another, its second volume, was quickly rushed for publishing in 2020.


But what truly constitutes a tropical Malaysian house? While Powell believes that it certainly has everything to do with climate, materials and the culture that surrounds the household. Its lifestyles no longer evolve within the boundaries of a race or cultural group.

“In that book [Vol.1], I basically tried to identify what was meant by tropical. I used a model devised by Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, who listed twelve attributes of a tropical house that included not chopping down trees, having an open-to-sky living space and cross-ventilation, minimal use of glass to reduce solar glare, and so on,” Powell said.

[Lin Ho and Robert Powell. Image courtesy of Atelier International]

One such example is the Boyan Heights House in Kampung Git by IDC Architects. Located 30km southwest of Kuching, near the Kalimantan border, the design is typical of a Bidayuh longhouse. It incorporates lofty living, dining and kitchen spaces – similar to a traditional Melanau bilik – with openings at the very top of the external walls to promote cross-ventilation.

The dwelling overlooks a wooded valley and is set against a backdrop of limestone mountains. The owners also make the effort to replant native trees such as meranti, kapur and nyatoh around the house.

Through the 26 houses featured in the second volume — the houses are in KL, Selangor, Penang, Batu Pahat, Johor Baru, Pahang, Negeri Sembilan, Melaka and Kuching — the professor has comprehensively examined not only architectural themes of topography, sustainability, ecology, materials and design but also, most compellingly, cultural influences.

[The Planter Box House designed by Formzero made it to cover of Robert Powell’s The Tropical Malaysian House (Vol.1)]

“Be it the architects, designers or house owners, there’s a rich mix. You don’t just say Chinese, or Indian, but it’s the Hakka, Hokkien or Fu Chow influence, or Sri Lankan, Tamil, Sinhalese … Even the Malays come from Bugis or Java ancestry, though interestingly, most identify only as Malay now,” Powell added.

His third book named Terrace Transformations in the Tropics takes on a whole new meaning of singularity in design: focusing entirely on what seemed like the most ubiquitous of all Malaysian properties – the mid-terrace house. With over 2.5 million terrace houses in Malaysia – a third of the housing stock – there is a great demand to get this right.

An exceptional choice of architecture selected for the book includes a 1985 three-storey terrace house originally designed by Ken Yeang. After the landslide and tower collapse nearby, ZLG Design gave a fresh new design to its resident by removing interior walls and adding brick jalis (a perforated design). Additionally, adding floor-to-ceiling windows to promote the flooding of sunlight into the home.

[A tropical lifestyle: W39 in Bukit Antarabangsa, Selangor, features perforated walls and floor-to-ceiling windows to brighten up the interiors.]

The secret may not lie in its grand design plan, but an emphasis to consider the section. “I went in search of houses that have been transformed into well-lighted, cool dwellings with a biophilic connection. It is intriguing just how many variations of a terrace house emerge.”

To purchase Robert Powell’s latest book, visit Atelier International’s official website, here.

Architecture vs. Music

Understanding music as an art form is similarly also applied in architecture. At Music Press Asia, our appalling zealousness towards music is also extended to architecture – an expression of spatial art that surrounds the livelihood of Southeast Asians every single day. While art can be expressed in many ways, we respect its professional expression that works hand in hand with nature; an element that is rigorously synonymous with our intentions on the topic of sustainability and climate change.

Love for architecture isn’t at all dissimilar to the context of appreciation of music. To compliment Robert Powell’s books – the last episode of the ‘Book of the Month’ series – Music Press Asia recommends the following music that can be played and enjoyed alongside a good read.

Recording #1:
Artist: Yo-Yo Ma
Album: Notes For the Future (Sept 2021)
Label: Sony Classical

Originally inspired by the Bach Project, Yo-Yo Ma’s global journey to explore how culture can help us imagine and build a better world, these nine tracks — featuring vocals in Arabic, Zapotec, Catalan, Paiwan, Spanish, Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqey, Ewe, Maori, and English — celebrate the wisdom of the generations that were and the possibility of those to come. Ma’s next performance of The Bach Project is scheduled for 23 February 2022 at Ibermusico in Madrid, Spain. For more live performance details, please click here.

In December 2020, Yo-Yo Ma brought the Bach Project to Taipei, Taiwan to engage with young leaders from across the Asia-Pacific, learn how the Atayal tribute – Taiwan’s third-largest indigenous tribe – is engaging young people and facing the challenges of 2020. The project brought together musicians and artists from Taiwan including indigenous Paiwan artists ABAO, Atitan Studio and Bulareyuang Dance Company (BDC).

Recording #2:
Artist: Noor Ayu Fatini a.k.a Bunga Isme
Single: Intan Payung featuring Noraniza Idris
Label: Warner Music Malaysia

A modern rendition of Malaysia’s traditional instruments ignites a progressive culture where terrace houses are no longer the ubiquitous choice after all. Bunga is proud of her heritage; one that comes with a tropical element that makes her assiduously Malaysian. Her lyrics are the era’s popular ethnic interpretation – even as a rap artist – of perseverance and not buckling under pressure. Fatini continues to play a huge role in advocating for the rights of women of her era. Her recent collaboration with Siti Nordiana in single, Amaran, is a highly anticipated release.

Recording #3:
Artist: Monita Tahalea
Album: Dandelion
Label: Dandelion Record

Written by Gerald Situmorang and Monita Tahalea herself, the album articulate flawlessly the casual demeanor that we should all snuggle to on a rainy day in the tropics. The tropical rainforest wouldn’t exist without such expressive downpour so pervasively typical of the climate in this part of the world. And Tahalea’s voice assures us that life is hopeful when the tropical Malaysian breeze brushes past our face. Hai, another single from Monita’s second album Dandelion effortlessly extends the same notion. A great album to end the week.

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