Cover Smolhaven at dusk has an enchanting quality

This tranquil family retreat designed by Choo Gim Wah Architect in Malaysia takes inspiration from Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Illinois and traditional kampung-style houses

Having a weekend home in Janda Baik has become quite popular with well-heeled urbanites from the Klang Valley. It's an easy drive from the city to escape into the embrace of lush flora and cool temperatures. The style of the homes here tend to favour grand eco-lodges but this compact modernist cabin by Choo Gim Wah Architect is a refreshing departure.


Nicknamed Smolhaven, it’s not difficult to see the connection between this one-and-a-half storey, 1600 sq ft cabin with its inspiration, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Illinois. A modernist rectilinear form, the house is built on stilts like the iconic Farnsworth House and, coincidentally, a traditional Malay kampung house.

Smolhaven’s immense two-tier platform is also a homage to the Illinoian house’s split-level deck and projects weightlessly over the lawned terraces. A corresponding pitched roof, with its 3.5m cantilever, enhances that captured movement to create the cabin’s dynamic silhouette.

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The Farnsworth House was designed as a glass pavilion to take full advantage of its natural surroundings. Similarly, Smolhaven's generous glazing is a nod towards the architect’s desire to create a strong relationship between the house and nature.



To facilitate the transparency of Smolhaven’s façades and inclusion of large glazed elements, the roof’s wide overhangs offer sun-shading and rain-deflecting properties. To the abode’s right and rear, this has resulted in a visually unbounded living room enclosure. Tall glass doors about 2.8m in height fold away, uniting the indoor space to an expansive deck and its scenic surroundings. Sliding glass doors also serve to expand the cabin’s single bedroom to the outdoors while a panoramic view is enjoyed from the loft through fixed and top-hung windows.  


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Above From some angles, the house looks cradled in its surroundings

Material choices were deliberately restricted to exposed brick, off-form concrete and timber to keep with the context of Malaysian tropical modernism.

Timber is certainly celebrated here. Planks of seasoned merbau line the cabin’s loft, decks, spiral staircase, and perimeter walkways, while golden brown Nyatoh strips form an elegant soffit above.

Together with dark grey steel structures, the timbers, enclosing glass façades and building geometries combine towards imbuing Smolhaven with a lightweight tropical aesthetic.   

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While Smolhaven’s design vocabulary expresses its lightness eloquently, its design retains a strong connection to the ground plane and site. For instance, the polished concrete floor featuring a terrazzo-like quality is complemented with the Equitone cladding of the front elevation. Indeed, the stone-grey Equitone fibre cement panels finished to a thick wall depth visibly anchor the building with their pronounced heft.


A massive boulder was discovered during one of the site inspections and instead of removing it, the architect celebrated this by designing an open-air bathroom which makes the boulder a focal point. This is further accentuated by the high rubble wall bordering the cabin’s rear.

The lawned terraces are likewise framed by rock and rubble, their contouring of grass and earth enhancing the cabin’s hillside-retreat appearance.

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While the form of the building was a priority, its functionality for daily life was paramount. Unlike its inspiration, whose exquisite simplicity was more an abstract statement about structure, skin, and space but hardly a house for family living, Smolhaven was designed explicitly to serve the needs of its inhabitants.

To ensure the indoors are naturally bright, full-height doors and windows invite daylight into the northeast-southwest oriented plan which ensures the double-volume interior of living, dining, kitchen and loft is illuminated throughout the day. Another benefit conferred by these large openings is natural ventilation which only requires fans to keep the home comfortable as Janda Baik’s cool hilly climate renders the need for air-conditioning unnecessary. 


The main deck beneath the home’s large overhang is a multi-purpose space which can be adapted to serve various purposes whether its a spot of sun-lounging or a mini “campsite” for the children. Drawing upon its permeable design, life in the cabin blurs the boundaries between indoor and outdoor living.


Minimal in adornment yet maximising function and its context, Smolhaven encapsulates the client’s desire for a modest yet well-appointed abode without the ostentatious trappings more common with this locale.

Instead, what the architect has done is design a home which embodies restraint and sensibility, yet capitalises on its openness to increase not only its usable footprint but also its contact with nature. It is, in its entirety, a place for family time that is for a couple, their children and one loving canine—their very own small haven.


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