Tropical Green: Penang Tropical City

PUBLISHING info: LOG 8: Observations on Architecture and the Contemporary City, Cynthia Davidson, ed., summer 2006

Editor’s Note: This Log entry is in two voices and can be read three ways: in the critic’s words, in the architect’s words, and in the weave of the two that they present here. The critic’s voice begins the text.

In Southeast Asia, the paradigmatic image of tropical sustainability today is generally that of Ken Yeang’s vegetal hair, dangling from an open-work high rise – a definition that often digresses to style rather than ideological position, toward material construction rather than strategic intervention. The materials in Yeang’s case are literally green – lush vegetation that offers shade, natural cooling, and a lifestyle reintegrated with nature, closer to the natural environment.

While sustainable development was defined in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (Our Common Future) as “that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” – a definition which no doubt joins the economic, environmental, and social – sustainable architecture is defined almost purely as eco-friendly. Yeang’s work is a specific example of a much wider phenomenon, be it in Southeast Asia or on 59th Street in New York. Sustainable equals green, green is good, sustainable as green is good architecture or good urbanism. Yeang invited Ole Scheeren to participate in a competition for the redesign of the Penang Turf Club in 2004, for which Scheeren’s proposal presents a sublimely viable alternative.

How to build in a tropical city? How to build a tropical city? The question of tropical modernity has long haunted (southeast Asian) architects – today it is still discussed at the level of the natural climatization of window shades instead of urban activities and potential.

Reintegration with nature has always been a modernist task. Such an attitude brought us the rooftop garden of Villa Savoye and, inspired by the Ville Radieuse, the urban renewal of the 1960s. See how far that got us? Likewise, and despite its eco-effects, Yeang’s attempt at synthesis is not much different. Green enters as the functionally efficient and qualitative improvement of life. His tall buildings, whether in Asia or London, propose the city in the building, not far removed from Le Corbusier’s Unités and too close to developers’ luxury condos. Albeit hygiene and order are not necessarily at their root, they are single-minded in their project, banally modernist at best, aesthetically challenged at worst.

The tropical city is full of contradictions, full of contrasts: buildings and nature, concrete and green, humid heat and sudden downpours. Small and large reside side by side in unpredictable rhythms, towers and tents, parking garages and food stalls. It is full of energy, full of activities: plants sprout, children play, people sit and walk and linger. It is a place in which the ability to occupy space has far exceeded the Western definition; the residual hardly exists, every interstitial moment is exploited, used, occupied. The obvious might be taken over, or unexpectedly left aside. Spaces are used and exploited to their maximum potential and density, immediately next to empty, abandoned terrain vague. Activities appear and disappear, in a perpetual process of readjustment, in a continuous reinvention of the modus operandi.

Vegetation in Southeast Asia is so lush, so dense, and so fertile that its regeneration and sustenance can be almost taken for granted. Rather than be consumed with its preservation, can we learn from its example? Can sustainability be redefined beyond green by looking at green? Can tropical green take the greenness of sustainability to task?

The site is captured between the land and the sea. Partly mountain (with its green rainforest), partly flatland (with its proximity to Georgetown), it has a bit of everything – the potentially urban and the untamed natural. Its immediate surroundings are bland and heterogeneous – from expensive bungalow housing in the north (Jesselton Heights) to a graveyard in the south. The east bears a connection to the center (Georgetown) and the main address (Scotland Road), the west a new, fast connection around the island: the highway (Penang Outer Ring Road).

Scheeren’s competition entry for Penang Tropical City (PTC) – a master plan for the redevelopment of the Penang Turf Club – proposes such a paradigmatic shift. Greenness is redefined as the texture of the tropical green mixed with built substance, the strategic implementation of which allows for its future potential instead of it as mere texture The natural is redefined in terms of the organic man-made. Rather than an ecosystem to be preserved, green refers to the connective, permeable tissue (of activities) between and amidst concentrated components. It is not preserved through the imposition of energy-efficient built structures but rather is sustained through strategic implementation. This model implies an architecture that is no longer mimetic but systemic, no longer functional but organizational, not synthetic but symbiotic.


Work: Writing