Cover The Malaysian Pavilion is the Expo's only net zero pavilion. Photo: Gerry O'Leary

Tatler speaks to the team from Hijjas Architects and Partners who designed and built the sustainable Malaysia pavilion.

Dubai Expo 2020 opened its doors in October last year, and while the challenges of pandemic caused its delay by a year, the themes of many of the pavilions which centre around sustainability has never seemed more urgent and relevant.

Malaysia's entry was designed by Hijjas Architects & Planners who had the honour of designing the Malaysia pavilion in Milan six years prior. Themed 'Energising Sustainability', the team led by Serina Hijjas herself built the Expo's only net zero pavilion.

We speak to Serina, Lim Chiun Wee (associate) and Teh Deryan (architect) about their tropical vernacular inspired design and what it was like building in the pandemic.

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Dubai EXPO 2020’s overall theme was 'Connecting minds and creating the future'. Did the Malaysian team take inspiration from this?

Serina Hijjas (SH): When the client, Malaysian Green Tech, held an ideas competition, they came with their own theme but in conjunction with Dubai Expo’s theme, the overarching theme has been one of sustainability,

The Malaysian government came up with its own theme of 'Energising Sustainability'. We took that and ran with that. It’s quite unusual for the architect to do both the architecture and exhibition as we had done both for the Malaysia pavilions. But we felt that the story we tell inside must reflect the story of the building itself. So it works from inside out and outside in if you like

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How did the theme translate?

SH: Sustainability has been a big focus at Hijjas Architects and for every project we’ve been doing, we take a strong point of view in sustainability and have been doing this for the last 15 years. It wasn’t just because of the theme for us to do a net zero building but the theme of 'Energising Sustainability' took it to the next level for us.

You have to remember we designed this two years ago although we only completed it for the opening in October. The idea of net zero has certainly come up a lot this year. You see the government’s commitment to it and now you see the GLCs commitment as well, so you could say we were a little ahead of the game as we realised that this was important.

We wanted to make a statement that Malaysia is going in the right direction but we also wanted to be an inspiration to Malaysia, not so much the rest of the world, that we could do it—work towards net zero and take sustainability to the next level.

Lim Chiun Wee (LCW): This building was a platform to show how sustainability can be carried forward. Since it’s a small building—and a temporary building—being ahead of our time was very important so the conversation can then start.

Teh Deryan (TD): One way of executing the sustainability theme was through our use of a lot of Malaysian timber and that was a strong way to show our Malaysian identity. It showed who we are as a country with a tropical rainforest and visitors were attracted by this feature.


Let’s talk about the pavilion's very modern structure. Was that deliberate?

LCW: For someone like me who spent a lot of time away from Malaysia, my influence from vernacular architecture is more the essence of the typology, like the shaping, the materials, even the form. It allows me the freedom to think of vernacular architecture from a more contemporary approach instead of having to have a pitched roof to be vernacular.

It was important for us to extract the essence of vernacular architecture such as overhangs and building in nature so it does not deviate from vernacular architecture except the form does not have look like a Minangkabau building.

SH: This is only the second building that has detracted from the vernacular thatched roof looking pavilion to represent Malaysia and when we first did it five years ago with a building called The Seed, it was really to symbolise our country and to show it in a very contemporary way. Some of its influences include houses built on stilts, which touch the ground lightly, with materials from our country and are lightweight. In the tropical sense, the houses could breathe and were elevated from the ground.

This became the theme that we used—touching the ground lightly—that our ecological impact or sustainable impact was touching the ground lightly, and that was a very strong message that came through. Building on stilts and the meandering path to come up to the building were all tropical-influenced gestures but with a response that’s quite organic. And ours comes across as very, very organic and softer, and that is the essence of our country. 

What was it like building during the pandemic?

SH: In the pandemic, if we can move towards a prefabrication system of building, it probably would have helped a little bit especially in a foreign country. We were actually building quite lightweight structures with the intent of how we would take it down but building in this pandemic meant there were delays,

TD: We initially didn’t have anyone on the ground and were remotely supervising for a year. Eventually, even though the virus was better controlled, everyone working on the project became used to meeting virtually. We learned a lot and I think this is going to be the norm in the future.

SH: If we had been designing for the pandemic in mind, we would design more naturally ventilated spaces but when you're dealing with an exhibition and it’s a black box experience, it’s challenging. So the experience would be less black box and more open in terms of design

SCW: In terms of spatial arrangements, in hindsight there is some advantage in the way we designed as we have actually allowed for far longer queuing spaces. However, the site is so small that it was difficult to include all those functions in such a small spaces, which meant capacity had to be reduced. 

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Teh, since you were on site for six months, what was your experience like in Dubai?

TD: It was very challenging because most people in Dubai are foreigners in that everyone comes to Dubai to work. You quickly meet people and build relationships because everyone is from somewhere else. It's interesting how fast people adapt in Dubai. Even though the pandemic happened so quickly, they can implement policies quickly too. The Expo itself has a PCR centre so whenever any construction site reported a case, you could send your worker or the entire work camp to test for free and that actually helped them to have good control on Covid.

Looking at the results, would you have done anything differently or anything you might have liked to change?

SH: On the whole, I'm very pleased with how it turned out. We were the smallest site but we wanted to make the biggest impact and we are the only net zero pavilion out of 149 nations.

SCW: In terms of design, no difference but in terms of detailing, it could have been slightly different. At the Expo, we saw lots of different approaches which could be valuable for the next designers doing this project.

DH: Not in terms of design but maybe in terms of how we execute it. Our plan was to assemble the Malaysian timber locally in Dubai but we found that good workmen were hard to find in Dubai. Interestingly enough, our ID contractor who also used a lot of Malaysian timber brought the Malaysian workmen to the site and they did such a wonderful job that people from other pavilions came to observe how well they did their job.

SH: The Expo Dubai 2020 organisers must be commended because this is the first time they are capturing the sustainability reporting for all their pavilions. All their products that are on sale have recycled content, all the waste is collected, and they are providing free solar powered energy for all pavilions. I think they have taken a major step in the way expos have been conducted globally and which leads the way to the next expo in Tokyo, which I think will be fantastic as Japan has such a great tradition of craftsmanship.


Tell us about disassembling the pavilion.

SH: The pavilion will be disassembled at the end of March but by December, we have to start discussing with the contractor about where the material will go because we are counting on recycling or upcycling 75 per cent of them. So we really need to know where they will be selling them to or their sources to meet our net zero target.


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