Cover Story
Citizen Architect
Evanna Ramly 
Celebrating Malaysia’s rich cultural heritage and lush natural resources, Eleena hopes to spark social change through her award-winning designs

Born in Penang, Dr Eleena Jamil’s earliest memories of architecture revolve around her late father. “He was a contractor so I grew up in his office and we would always visit the construction sites together,” recalls the founder and principal of Eleena Jamil Architect.

She went on to study architecture in Cardiff University, eventually earning her PhD and qualifying as a Part III Architect before establishing her own firm in 2005.

“At first, I wanted very much to be a doctor but he steered me towards architecture,” says Eleena, adding that she has no regrets. “He told me architecture would be good for me. Being a good daughter I went along with it and it turns out he was right. I love running a small company taking on interesting projects that are really hands-on.”

Her most recent is the Urban Brain, a bamboo pavilion in Lebuh Pasar Besar, Kuala Lumpur, which was created in collaboration with UNHabitat for the recent World Urban Forum 09 Kuala Lumpur that ran from Feb 7 - 13. She was recruited by Carmelo Ignaccolo, architect and urban designer from the Urban Planning and Design Lab of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme.

“Their idea, called The Urban Brains, had the aim that people will come to this pavilion and write pledges – what they think of their city or what they hope it will be – on the small coloured circles, hence the name,” she explains. “It’s all about ideas, drawing from the concepts of brains, masses and neurons so we decided to use bamboo for the circular rings that you see on the pavilion.”

“We wanted to create an innovative space with local material, and simple but intricate pattern. I was interested in the elegance and functionality of Eleena’s works, and after conversing with colleagues based in Asia, the US and Europe, I was sure she would be perfect,” says Ignaccolo.

“Eleena is a great professional and expert on traditional natural elements like bamboo reused in a contemporary way. I really hope there will be further opportunities for collaboration between her and the United Nations in a communal effort of utilising local and natural material for the improvement of our cities.”


Design philosophy

Indeed, Eleena’s preference is direct, simple architecture. “I don’t really like architecture that’s too complicated. And to do something direct and simple in an elegant way is actually very difficult. Some people think that if you do complex architecture then you’re successful but I’m a little bit different.”

She hopes to make people see how such simplicity can also be complex. “The form can be simple but the complexity comes in when you look at it closely. Subtle changes of the levels are actually quite complex to build. Although it looks like a very simple structure, it’s not simple at all.”

Favourite works include those of Italian architect Carlos Scarpa and American architect Louis Kahn. The former she admires for his beautiful and intricate detailing of building parts, while the latter demonstrates elegant handling of materials and proportions.

Having grown up in Penang, she is strongly influenced by colonial style. “I love everything that’s old,” she enthuses. “Colonial architecture is just beautiful. I remember seeing them when I was younger and my mother would take me shopping on Campbell Street. We didn’t have malls at the time. The streets were narrow and it was so interesting to walk along the five-foot way. We had simple architecture but it was done in such an interesting and elegant approach.”

Then there is the intricacy of the city itself. “Different parts and roads have intricate patterns, which is very interesting. My buildings feature plenty of local patterns. If you look at our previous Meranti Pavilion, you will know instantly that it’s a Malaysian building. I’m all about celebrating our heritage in a subtle way.”


Urban nature

Every project that Eleena and her team undertake shows great care for the environment and how the building itself relates to its surroundings. “We always start the building design making sure that it’s oriented the right way – hence most of the doors and windows are facing north and south. Also, we like to use materials that we feel are inexpensive, easily available and of course, sustainable.”

Blessed with Malaysia’s wonderful weather, she feels lucky to be able to design buildings that are very open. “We need to appreciate what we have around us more. Trees play a large role in buildings as they help cool them naturally. Planting just a few can make a big difference. The wonderful thing about building in this country is we have so many natural resources.”

Of course, said trees can be time-consuming. “They take about 50 years to grow before you can use them for structures, whereas bamboo you can harvest within three years so it makes more sense to use it. I try to use less timber and more bamboo.”

Even when she does use timber in her work, she is careful to treat it as the very precious resource that it is. “I don’t overuse it but only use it in special circumstances where it would actually be worth the effort. We need to treat materials that are more difficult to get with more respect.”


Sustainable star

She first started using bamboo when she entered the international Millennium School Competition that was searching for a wind-resilient design for a school. “In the east coast of the Philippines, schools are battered by typhoons so they needed a solution. We used bamboo for ours as it is soft and flexible, and can absorb some of the force from the wind.”

Eleena and her team won first prize. “They actually built it, which is very unusual for competitions. After that, we really started to get into bamboo.”

She admits it was a steep learning curve. “It’s not like timber where there are standards as to how you treat it. When you buy timber, it arrives already treated and with a certificate to confirm it has been treated carefully. There was nothing like that for bamboo in Malaysia – it’s still very new.”

They had to learn how to treat bamboo so that it would last for a long time. “It was a slow learning process and there were a lot of mistakes on site but in the end, we succeeded.”

Bamboo remains a particular passion, taking centre stage in many of her creations such as the well-loved Bamboo Playhouse. Commissioned by Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur, the charming structure overlooks the tranquil lake of Perdana Botanical Gardens. She describes it as playful and visitor-friendly, a social space that invites people to enjoy all that it has to offer.

The project was shortlisted at the World Architecture Festival 2015 Singapore and in the Best Sustainable Development category of the Leading European Architecture Forum Awards 2016. It also received honourable mention at the American Architecture Prize 2016.

“Getting the Bamboo Playhouse built was a difficult process that resulted in something very different. It’s sustainable not just in terms of the way that it’s designed and the materials incorporated but also the use of space,” she notes. “We want our buildings to be very accessible. As much as possible, we try not to do buildings that are more exclusive.”

The Bamboo Playhouse at Perdana Botanical Gardens – photo by marc tey

The people’s architect

Eleena believes architects play a very important role in social awareness. “What we design has an impact on people and how they use the space. If you design something that’s very enclosed and doesn’t reach out to those in the streets, you exclude people in a way.

“I like to think that my buildings are very open but it’s not always easy. In Malaysia, we tend to erect fencing and close everything up as we want it all air-conditioned, and it’s not friendly to people. Being architects, we always have to follow the brief and to achieve that balance is difficult.”

She is pleased that there are many good architects in the country who are socially and environmentally aware and educated in sustainable design. “That said, trying to achieve a building that has good sustainable standards is sometimes difficult because you have to balance what the client wants with their costing and also what you want to do based on your design philosophy.”

Architecture to her is complex in that one has to be a mediator between what is required and what should be done. “You have to wear many hats but I think most architects in Malaysia try to be as sustainable as possible. Rating systems like the Green Building Index create more awareness among people and clients as well, which is very good.”

Currently, Eleena is busy conducting research on affordable housing, focusing on Program Perumahan Rakyat (PPR). “There are a lot of social problems related to low-cost housing so we were appointed by the Construction Research Institute of Malaysia to look at housing design and hopefully get something built as well.”

She finds the social project especially interesting. “With housing, it’s not just about the architecture but also family living as well as social problems and safety issues. It’s a different type of architecture.”

Sadly, many often overlook the importance of architecture to a community. “There are not enough facilities provided. When it comes to housing, you must think about how people actually use the space. Especially in low-cost housing, you really do need additional space for people to come together and socialise.”

The WUF09 Bamboo Pavilion was designed to bring the people of the city together – photo by pixelaw

Higher love

Asked what she enjoys most about her work, Eleena says her joy lies in seeing things built. “The first rush comes when you see the final design that you’re happy with on paper, although the first sketch is never the thing that you’re going to build as you go through a lot of changes.”

“The second is when you see it finished. Nothing beats seeing the building that you designed in its completed state. That’s the best part.”

Eleena aims to inspire others to do things differently, to respect materials more and value what they see around them. “There are so many beautiful things in Malaysia that can inspire you, from the kampung houses and weather to the scenery and landscape.”

Not surprisingly, she personally likes the greenery and trees. “If you check my Instagram account, that’s all you see,” she laughs. “I think the sun is so powerful. When you view buildings in the sun, they look completely different. We have very nice natural light as well, which is excellent for photographing them.”

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 273.