Architecture - Issue 115 - Magazine | Monocle

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Cycling superhighway


Malaysia’s island city of Penang has made it significantly easier for cyclists to get to work by erecting a spiral bike ramp that elevates two-wheeled commuters (as well as their two-footed pedestrian friends) over a particularly busy eight-lane highway. The 11m-high platform connects the city’s coastal bike lanes to a free-trade zone where many of the residents are employed by high-tech factories; it also avoids the need to install traffic lights along the main road that runs between the city and the international airport.

“The workers sent us their proposals and we at the council listened to them,” says Mayor Yew Tung Seang, who is an architect by training and also a veteran of Penang City Council. The spiral ramp is just the latest instalment in Penang’s 2011 cycling master plan, which it runs as an ongoing partnership with the cycling community. So far the project has rolled out about 180km of bicycle lanes and connected several principal points of interest.

“Soon, visitors to Penang will be able to land at the airport, hire a bike and cycle all the way to Unesco World Heritage site George Town,” says Yew.

Slick move

New York

Italian furniture brand Molteni opened its new flagship on Madison Avenue in May, bringing its three core brands – Molteni&C, Dada and UniFor – under one roof. Atop travertine floors and surrounding a grand staircase, the artwork is arranged by young Milanese curator Caroline Corbetta. Her concept is to make the space appear to be the home of a tasteful art collector.

The safety catch

by Nolan Giles

A few weeks ago I found myself as an Australian in Venice as the city welcomed the architectural world for its Biennale, which runs until November. Besides paying attention to the fine design across myriad installations my eyes worriedly wandered to the way citizens conducted themselves (and the way the city facilitated it).

Coming from a land of public safety regulations on steroids, this free-spirited approach to city-going and modern urban design felt more foreign than the Italian language. With locals stretched out precariously in the sun on the stone balustrades of the canal-veined city’s bridges, the waft of tobacco smoke was as much a flavour of the alfresco dining experience as the Venetian cuisine. Meanwhile, ramshackle gang planks wobbled as tourists rushed across them to board overloaded boats. These urban elements would have regulators in hysterics in “laidback” Australia, a land where, in parts, the only people legally allowed to change light bulbs are electricians. Urban environments down under, like many in the developed west, are designed to be safe places – sensible railings surround attractions, while signage and barricades ward children (and adults) away from waterways. This is commendable; if these measures save lives they should be taken. But liveability can take a back seat to overly safe urban design.

In Venice I heard the splash of a canal worker taking a tumble into the water but also the laughter of his colleagues as they scooped him out. Accidents will happen in any city, as much as rules will be broken. I’m not saying cities should downgrade their emphasis on public protection. However, I do suggest Aussie town planners visit the functioning urban marvel that is Venice, where “no worries” counts for something.

Studio profile

Tropical space — Vietnam

Fast-growing Vietnam is experiencing a residential building boom and the country’s more creatively minded are making a bee – or rather wasp – line to hire the services of Tropical Space in Ho Chi Minh City. This husband-and-wife-run studio designed a three-storey residence named after the insect in 2015. The Wasp House’s latticed brick façade, an early example of Nguyen Hai Long and Tran Thi Ngu Ngon’s signature style, lets in warm sunlight and a cool breeze.

Tropical Space’s latest building, the Long An House, within the countryside of south Vietnam, uses some 200,000 bricks. Its uncharacteristic shape, a departure from the studio’s usual cubes and rectangles, hides an even more interesting structure in the backyard: a multi-level chicken house, big enough for children to move around in, made largely out of metal grills. “We’ve worked with metal and concrete before in our internal staircases,” says Nguyen. “Now we want to experiment by bringing them outside as our principal material.”

Although exposed brickwork has become Tropical Studio’s calling card, it aims to showcase local materials in its work. For Nguyen this represents a return to Vietnam’s vernacular before French colonisation and the emergence of a new national language. “Vietnamese architecture needs to have its own identity rather than follow global trends; one that suits our economy and climate,” he says.

The studio is branching out into new fields, from larger industrial projects to a hospital in Ha Noi. A beach café in Da Nang is due to open later this year. “We wanted to create a brick structure on the beach to change opinions about what’s suitable in that context,” says Nguyen, who regularly travels abroad with his wife to speak about their work and, more often than not, pick up an award or two.

Notable projects:

  1. Termitary House
    The studio developed its signature perforated brick façade in designing this Da Nang house.

  2. Terra Cotta Studio
    A cube-shaped workshop with a circular skylight through its centre.

  3. Chicken House
    This multistorey, metal grill coop takes animal housing to another level.


Balkrishna Doshi

The 2018 Pritzker Prize Laureate


This year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize, founded in Chicago in 1979, was awarded to Balkrishna Doshi, the Indian architect lauded for his approach to public space and social housing.

After a 70-year career, was the Pritzker Prize a surprise?
Yes. The work I’ve done is slightly low-key. And architecture that doesn’t shout or scream often goes unnoticed because it looks like vernacular architecture. But the fact my work has tried to deal with broader issues – the social disparities within Indian communities, for example – may have influenced the jury.

You were mentored by several towering figures of 20th-century architecture. What did they teach you?
My relationship with Le Corbusier was like that of a grandson and a grandparent. He’d say, “In your country, have you noticed how the birds fly through the houses? Have you noticed the canopies of the trees, how harsh the sun is?” He described to me things about my country I hadn’t noticed before.

Your social housing developments encouraged residents to add their own extensions and designs. How did that challenge the control you had over the plans?
Aesthetics is a living entity, it isn’t a frozen thing. My effort has been to give only hints and let the choice be with the person who’s relishing the design, or living in it. When you consider it that way, it becomes beautiful.

Let’s fix: the quality of afterlife


The problem:
Sydney is running out of room for its dead. There isn’t enough land left to inter them and at the current rate the city’s cemeteries will be full up by 2051.

Monocle fix:
Solutions must satisfy the spiritual needs of the living as well as the demographic demands of the dead. One idea is to build up. Rookwood Cemetery, the largest grave site in the southern hemisphere, is planning a multistorey mausoleum. Another necropolis might repurpose coal storage bunkers into an underground vault. The space would be accessible to visitors and above ground a landscaped area would provide tranquillity. “It’s a place for reflection and community,” says Graham Boyd, ceo of the Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust.

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