Cover The homes in 'Terrace Transformations in the Tropics' will change what you think of this ubiquitous typology

Professor Robert Powell and Lin Ho's Terrace Transformations In The Tropics explores how the ubiquitous Malaysian terrace houses have been given new leases of life by a fresh generation of local architects

With a distinguished international academic and professional background in architecture, Professor Robert Powell has had a prolific publishing career focusing on books about Southeast Asian architecture. Powell began living in Asia in 1984 when he took up a lecturing position at the National University of Singapore.

During this time, he wrote about Malaysian houses in The Asian House and The Tropical Asian House, all published by Singapore or UK publishing houses. “I could not find any publisher in Malaysia who was willing to publish a book about contemporary local architecture. This was until I moved to Malaysia in 2016 as Professor of Architecture at Taylor’s University where I encountered the publisher of Atelier International, Dr Tan Loke Mun. He was the first person to show any interest in publishing the work of emerging architects in Malaysia,” recalls Powell.

“A lot had happened in the years that elapsed while I was working in the UK and the Middle East. There was a new generation of architects designing houses for an increasingly informed and well-travelled middle class in Malaysia. The Tropical Malaysian House was successful so we published The Tropical Malaysian House 2 just two years later.”

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As to what constitutes a tropical Malaysian house, Powell believes there is no short sound bite: “For certain, it is to do with climate, culture, materials, and the lived experience of a house owner and the architect/ designer. A combination of these factors will find their way into the diverse forms of the tropical Malaysian house – forms that are no longer, if they ever were, an expression of one race or one cultural group.”

While the first two volumes featured bungalows which conform to the coffee table book stereotype, the third book named Terrace Transformations in the Tropics, focuses entirely on the ubiquitous mid-terrace house. “There are more than 2.5 million terrace houses in Malaysia—a third of the housing stock. Most of them are quite dark internally without daylight or cross ventilation. From 2000 onwards, a number of younger architects, designers and owners have been moving to terrace houses and transforming them into living/work places,” says Powell.

“I went in search of houses that have been transformed into well lighted, cool dwellings with a biophilic connection. It is intriguing just how many variations of a terrace house emerge. I have redrawn all the house sections to emphasise that to modify a terrace house, one has to start by considering the section rather than the plan.”

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In fact one of Powell’s sketches can be seen on the cover of the book although the accompanying photographs are the work of Lin Ho who has worked with Powell since the first volume. Ho is one of Malaysia’s leading architecture and interior design photographers and a pioneer in the field, since returning from Boston after studying Fine Art in the 80s. His client list includes some of the country’s best architects, interior designers, builders and developers so it wasn’t surprising when he was invited to work on this project:

“It’s been four years since Dr Tan roped me in and it has been a wonderful experience from the start. Working alongside Prof has enriched my knowledge in architecture, design, climate and conservation issues. A truly fruitful and fun journey.”

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While Ho has seen his share of spectacular structures during his career, working on the third book opened his eyes to the potential of terrace houses. “My favourite project in the book is the Louvre House. It was brilliantly designed to suit our tropical climate. Bright and airy, with a sensible layout for all areas. It even has a lovely airwell that comes with a retractable roof which is automatically controlled by a rain sensor! How’s that for a terrace house!”

Powell who currently lives in a high-rise apartment echoes this sentiment: “While I’m happy in my apartment and enjoy its view and facilities, my preference would be an inner city terrace house—transformed, of course.”

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