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Profile: Ho Kwoncjan

Why did you become an architect?

As a boy, I loved houses; my favorite toys were building blocks, including an early version of Lego that enabled me to build houses in various shapes. It’s probably genetic! When I became older, I drew imaginary cities, filling in huge sheets of paper with an inordinate number of palaces and temples and churches. When I announced that I wanted to be an architect, the whole family yawned – they knew it when I was five.

Who were your biggest design influences when you were a student? And now?

As a student, one must absorb many influences before finding one’s own voice. I liked the works of many architects; Kenzo Tange, Alvar Alto, etc. My taste was very eclectic back then. I have reached a stage where I am no longer particularly interested in architectural fashion. What I now seek is a timeless quality: a building that transcends “style” but remains valid for all times.

What do you look for when recruiting for your team at Architrave?

I look for architects who can draw. Incredible as it may seem, many new architects today are so dependent on computers, they literally can’t draw a line to save their lives. I’m no Luddite but there is a spontaneity and liberation with paper and pencil that you can’t have with a computer. For me, drawing is an act of sensuality; my pencil makes love to the paper. Some of my best designs arose from squiggles. Architects who can’t draw have difficulties liberating their creativity.

What triggered your interest in designing buildings in an environmentally friendly way?

There was no specific “trigger” unlike St. Paul, there was no single moment when I “saw the light and converted”. It was more of a general worldview gradually instilled into me as I grew. I was the generation that read Rachel Carson (ecologist author of Silent Spring), fretted about over-population, DDT, and the like. It was part of our social assumptions and values. For me, it is like literacy; there’s no question about whether you should be literate or not, you just have to be, it is a “given”.

Is it getting any easier to build or develop properties in an environmentally sustainable way?

Yes — because more people are aware these days; you need not spend so much energy to convince owners, developers, investors and boards of directors. No — because criteria have risen. Most countries have tightened their laws, and there are more rules to meet, higher standards to live up to. In the long run it is good, for we cannot rest on our laurels, but in the short term it can produce headaches, especially when governments insist on unnecessarily high standards.

How do you set about capturing the ‘sense of place’ of new property?

I tour the place, taking pictures madly – even shacks and hovels if they have an interesting feature or proportions. I try to soak it in – to internalise the local architecture, in the same way a learner of a new language must internalize its grammar and syntax. If I just slap a few local architectural features on my buildings, it would be like an Englishman peppering his speech with a few fancy French words – a patois, a bastardised speech.  To speak properly, one must learn more than the vocabulary, but gain an understanding of its internal rules – its syntax. Only then can one speak like a native-speaker. In short, my objective is to try to design in the way a local mason or carpenter might, if he was to express his architectural language in modern terms.

Do you have a favourite Banyan Tree project? If so, which one and why?

A mother is not supposed to say which is her favorite child…but for you I will whisper my secret: it is Banyan Tree Lijiang. Conditions were optimal: the setting was delightful; it was designed and built during a recession, so I had plenty of time to go lovingly over every detail; I had a lot of space and was not obliged to cram in the maximum permissible floor area; but over and above that, I fell in love with Lijiang – the old town, the snow-capped mountains… and I was inspired. Such optimal conditions are very rare.

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