Aspiring masters of the universe, contemplating the unruly nature of tropical jungles and envisioning the vast metropolises that they would eventually build there, fretted about the problem of tropical torpor.
In their view, the heat, the humidity, and the “unhealthy miasma” of the tropics were deterrents to productivity, and a nation could not participate in the modern global economy if its citizens insisted on afternoon siestas.
The solution was aggressive air-conditioning, without which there could be no tropical centres of excellence. This was a view corroborated by the late prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, himself:
“Air-conditioning was a most important invention for us; perhaps one of the signal inventions of history. It changed the nature of civilisation by making development possible in the tropics. One forgets this, living in North America or Europe or northern Asia. Without air-conditioning, you can work well only in the cool early morning hours, or at dusk. The first thing I did upon becoming prime minister was to install air conditioners in buildings where the civil service worked. This was key to public efficiency.”
Coincidentally, the science1 behind the determination of a thermal comfort zone for humans was sponsored by the American Society of Heating and Ventilation Engineers (ASHVE), comprised of the same professionals who stood to benefit greatly from the sale of air-conditioners.2 And sell them they did, as anyone who has spent time in the frigid interiors of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong can attest.
Given that air-conditioning is an absolute prerequisite to all civilized activity in the tropics, one could hardly imagine so civilized a place as an art gallery that would boldly eschew the same. Yet, that is exactly what eco-architect Ken Yeang does in his design for the Ganendra Art House in Malaysia.
The building is designed in the tropical vernacular style, which means that it is responsive to its local environment.
Notably, however, it avoids conflating the local with the native. The architect and his client belong to Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese and South Asian minorities and so no doubt have an understanding of Malaysian-ness that goes beyond a superficial mimicry of Malay traditions.
And really, what could be a stronger assertion of the local than such flagrant defiance of those who would claim that the local, unmodified, is inherently unfit for civilized existence?
Yeang works with, rather than against, the local environment, incorporating features such as a wind chimney (itself a feature imported from the Middle East), which captures air flow from above and channels it down into the building. The orientation of the openings on the wind chimney are configured based on the prevailing wind directions. This is design that demands intimate knowledge of the local: no imported starchitecture here.
Other features that ensure the building provides the ideal environment for the art within include proper cross and stack ventilation via multiple high and low windows, and also sun shades for these windows, thus avoiding the harsh glare of direct sunlight.
Climate change demands that we rethink what it means for a city to be “world-class.” But it doesn’t mean we have to reject globalization: Ken Yeang’s work for the Ganendra Art House shows us another way.