Architectural Education 1.1

Article by: Ar. Wee Hii Min 
Published on: Intersection News - PAMSC Circular 3 (25.09.2020)

This is the first instalment of a series of articles based on our observations at design crits and workshops in local universities, written with the primary objective of promoting discourse amongst fellow architects (as employers) and the possible benefit to our student readers. The topics of our articles are loosely based on the sub-headings in the marking sheets.

All students are required to conduct a site analysis when they receive their project brief. Sometimes this part of the assignment is carried out as group work, especially if the site is large or out of town. What we then see is that the task of preparing the analysis is divided into sections such as sun orientation, traffic, neighbouring built environment and so forth. Often these tasks are carried out by small groups and later re-compiled as part of the submission.

Therein lies the problem – that the students are doing the ‘site analysis’ are part of the submission because the school requires them to do so, so that marks can be given. Often this is just recording, without the analysis. The findings are not used as site forces to drive the brief nor mould the final outcome; the design scheme.

Note to students
It is important to take on the non-tangible aspects of a site as well as physical, this might be patterns of movement at different times of the day, its social history and the aspirations of the local population – this is especially true for life projects.

When I. M. Pei was offered the commission to reconstruct the Louvre Museum in Paris in 1983, he made several secretive trips to Paris (without telling anyone in his firm). The purpose of these visits was for him to determine the feasibility of the reconstruction project, which called for the re-design of the museum (its entrance, especially) and the addition of exhibition space.

He spent these trips walking the neighbourhoods near the site where he observed the movement of people especially in the main courtyard (Cour Napoleon). This may have resulted in the opening up of the gateway in the north so that people can walk through the court on their way to the Rue de Rivoli (and the Metro). Pei did this to allow the city to meld with the realm of the museum; creating a crossroads of culture and public life.

Pei also understood that the enclosing wings of the Louvre were built gradually over time and that the new Louvre Pyramid would be a continuation of the Museum’s rich history. This may have resulted in his decision to sink that entire visitors’ lobby under the forecourt; an act of subservience perhaps. And though the pyramid is an imposing form, its sloping sides built in glass obscured very little of the existing buildings around the main court. In fact, the pyramid’s sloping sides offer a perfect frame to view the French Renaissance facades from lobby below.

These are just a two of the site forces in play – one which is physical with the full weight of history while the other is transient like the echo of footsteps on a stone floor. Both are used to reinforce the narrative of the final design – together with many others too varied to list here.

Note to students
Watch I.M. Pei in ‘First Person Singular’.

Fig. 1: ‘We designed a wire frame structure which we had a crane pick up what would be the top of the pyramid so that Mr. Mitterrand could see the form of the pyramid’.

Fig. 2 & 3: Initial design sketch of the Pyramid entrance. The dot to the left of the sketch is a folly; a smaller inverted pyramid with its apex in the underground lobby. 



Closer to home, DNA’s Masijd Wan Alwi is a good local example of how several site forces shaped and placed the buildings and spaces within the mosque complex.

  • The Kiblat determined the orientation of the prayer hall
  • A grove of existing trees meant siting the buildings away from the street, giving the prayer hall a planted forecourt.
  • The alignment of the street provided the angle for the enclosing garden wall
  • An existing surau (converted into a new Tadika) was the starting point of the wall, and decided the areas for male and female ablutions.
  • The river in front of the prayer hall reminded us to raise the building on stilts so that breezes will ventilate the internal spaces.
Note to students

When all the site forces line up in support of the scheme, it becomes very hard to dislodge the arrangement and positioning of the buildings and spaces. This is very important during design crit when tutors question the rationale behind your design, likewise for architects when clients need reassurance on the ‘ideal’ site layout plan.

Fig. 4: Masjid Wan Alwi @ Tabuan Jaya, Kuching. 

Fig. 5: Masjid Wan Alwi viewed from the road.

Schools can guide students in this area of design by looking at prominent buildings, complexes and city and try to de-construct the thinking behind its placement, orientation and its form. This is a good event that can take place at the beginning of the semester, as an eye-opener for the uninitiated and a refresher for the uninspired.

Students must visit the site at different times of the day, and spend some time there to take notes instead of photographs. Sketching cross sections of streets is a good way of recording the terrain, changes in levels and sight lines.  If it is a site in an unfamiliar city or town, talk to the local and ask them questions – what do people there do on the weekends? what is a favourite pastime?

Liu Jia Kun, the architect for Chengdu’s West Village said this of the locals – if there is one thing that the locals enjoy more than drinking tea and chatting with friends, it is drinking tea and chatting with friends in the shade of tall bamboo. The resulting project left much of the street untouched and extended their reach overhead in a series of looped paths, ramps and steps prolonging the journey and increasing the opportunities of meeting friends.

To conclude, the site analysis must be carried out as a research project, to seek catalysts that would trigger the onset of the design process, and be constantly reminded that some of the strongest site forces are unseen. Like a person, one needs to spend time with the site to know it, and preferably on your own, not in a group.

By Min

Share this news