Story by Eleena Jamil

We were in the second year of the pandemic when we came across the Connections through Culture Grant 2021 call for interest on British Council Malaysia’s Instagram. At the time, all our architects at Eleena Jamil Architect were working from home and the pace of work had been excruciating slow with most of our projects either at a standstill or cancelled by clients. Research has always been something we do alongside design work and the call seemed like a perfect opportunity to explore our preoccupations with‘making’ and ‘process’ in architectureand to keep ourselves busy.  

One of the prerequisites of the grant application is to partner up with someone from the United Kingdom. Our search for a partner started late, and about a week before closing date we came across an article titled ‘Craft Contains the Critical Thinking That Could Unpack the Current State of Architecture’ in Architectural Review magazine by Catherine Rossi, who is a researcher and lecturer at Kingston University in London. We decided to contact her to see if she might be interested to partner with us on the project. Catherine was on maternity leave at the time, thus unavailable. The university administrators put us in touch with Christoph Lueder who is an Associate Professor of Architecture and Urbanism at the same institution. Christoph expressed interest in joining us for the project and he roped in fellow Kingston academic, Stephen Knott, a writer, researcher and lecturer in Craft Theory and History and Abbe Fletcher, a filmmaker, senior lecturer, and researcher with a background in documentary and experimental film to join in the project. 

With less than a week to submission date, we quickly drafted our project proposal. From the outset, we decided that the exploration and outputs of our research will be in the form of short films featuring interviews with building craftspersons and contemporary practitioners whose work is rooted in craft. A film called tukang, which means craftsman, featuring the process, role, and worldview of crafts persons of traditional Malay timber housewill act as the foreground for all the other interviews.

As soon as we received news that our application is successful, we started work right away on the tukang film. Anise Kaz Ahmad Kamal assisted in researching on traditional Malay house architecture and helped search for local practicing tukangs to interview and film. This process took about twomonths, and we were very fortunate to have found three who were willing to be interviewed at their workshops. filmed Adiguru Muhaimin Hasbollah, Elias Robani and Isma Sazali Rosti for the next 12 weeks responding to pre-determined set of questions that touch upon the building techniques and design principles of traditional timber houses, as well as their role, culturalbeliefs, and worldview.

The filming of the tukang film was delayed when many parts of Malaysia was hit by devastating floods that occurred in December 2021. One of the tukangs, Isma, was most affected, with his workshop swept away by rising water. His workshop was reinstated about 6 weeks later and we were generously invited back to continue filming.

The tukang film was well received, hitting almost a thousand views within 3 days of releasing on the project’s YouTube channel. It offered a new perspective on the traditional Malay timber house. Exploring the processes of building in the film has in many ways, shift the focus away from the finished creation - i.e., the house - to the act of making. ‘Making’ is seen beyond matters of technicality and practicality. It is seen as a value, an ethos, and an obligation that has been practiced in our diverse traditions as a driving factor to achieve excellence.

These values are important to understand in the making of contemporary architecture and the search for sustainable solutions and they are explored in the interviews with contemporary practitioners. In London, Abbe Fletcher and Mariam Kamara of Films filmed Christoph Lueder’sface-to-face conversation on the process of making with Yasir Ibrahim, Salah Krichen, Madoka Ellis, Arjun Singh and Pablo Boirac of 121Collective with Himali Patil of @communitybrain where they talked about the origins and ethos of their shared practice as architects and makers, based at @the_farm_of_futures in Tolworth, UK. This is followed by an interview with Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez of Notpla where he spoke about his mission to make plastic disappear and the making of revolutionary packaging solutions derived from one of nature’s most renewable resources, brown seaweed. The interviews were somewhat delayed by Storm Eunice which hit Britain in February 2022, but Christoph et al managed to squeeze in a third interview with architect Amin Taha within the project time frame, where he discussed his approach to materiality and tectonics in projects such as 15 Clerkenwell Street and Caroline Place. 

At the same time, Eleena started a set of conversations with contemporary practitioners from the Southeast Asian region. An online interview with Patcharada Inplang was set up to find out more about her process of working in a unique set up described as architect/maker/builder in Chiangmai, Thailand. This is followed by an interview with Florian Heinzelmann and Daliana Suryawinata of Shau architects who discussed their challenges working in terms of standardisation and cultural practice within the context of Indonesia. 

Stephen Knott initiated a series of online live dialogues as soon as the last interview was released. The dialogues were convened as responses to the issues raised and discussed in the interviews with contemporary practitioners. Three separate sessions were organised, each with different themes: tradition, natural/local materials, and cultural exchange. People we interviewed earlier were invited back to participate in the dialogues and they were joined by Martina Margetts, a UK based authority on the culture and practice of contemporary craft and Andy Rahman, an architect whose work is rooted in traditional techniques of building. 

InstagramTwitter, and a YouTube channel were used to publicise our activities. A dedicated website was also set up with all our films, interviews and recorded dialogues embedded within its pages. Our project completed slightly later than planned, but we were pleased to be able to accomplish all that we set out to do.  It was a high impact 5 months for all of us, but it was a fruitful cross-cultural partnership that works with the efficient support from British Council.

Discover more Connections Through Culture collaborations here.

Check out the opportunities from British Council here.