Architecture of Humility

Disk 40

There are two broad aspects of Architecture that influence my thinking as an Architect. One is what I term “Architecture of Humility” and the other, the “Tai-chi of Architecture”.


When I talk about Humility I am referring to the suppression of one’s own ego in the face of the Situation, and how it wants to be resolved. The Architect’s role is to provide the vehicle for the manifestation of what the final solution is.

Humility plays an important part in influencing my attitude as an architect. I am referring to the suppression of your own ego, assuming a submissive role so that you can see wider vistas. As an architect, you need to look at and consider what the ‘situation’ or ‘matter’ is and how it is to be resolved. Your role is to provide the vehicle for the manifestation of what the final solution is. Unless you take the back seat you are unable to see beyond yourself! This total immersion of yourself in the problem means accepting humility and once humbled you are able to look at the problem squarely from all sides. You get an all round view of the problem. Hopefully things become clearer.


“We talk of our mastery of nature, which sounds very good; but the fact is we respectfully adapt ourselves, first to her ways,” says Clarence Day in “This Simian World”.

Well said. My contention has always been that you must be humble towards Nature, respect her and see her do wonders for you. The Chinese call this aspect of respecting nature “Feng Shui” is nothing mysterious. It merely means studying a site in its natural state and using the knowledge in building. Vitruvius mentioned this in his books on Architecture. You need to understand where the prevailing winds are coming from; where the Sunrise and where the Sunset is; how rain and surface-water run-offs behave; and the implications of possible underground water movement and direction of its flow. The other very vital aspect totally related to the spiritual is the aspect of the site. The most important and pleasant view must take prominence. This is the aspect that will provide the most stimulation to your spiritual self.

Nature is balance; it is the perfect ‘ying yang’. The interdependence and interaction of all natural things as an order is most obvious in nature. You need only to at any ecosystem, however small, to realize that the factors present interact to produce a system so stable it is able to sustain itself over a long period. Within that entity everything works. On a macro scale, then, you need to look and survey the natural surroundings. Try to understand what nature has provided you, what it wants to be and not what you want it to be. Man must build to complement and to preserve the balance the ‘Ying Yang’ of the land. It makes no sense to upset the perfect order that exists in nature, rather take advantage of its bounty by ‘going along with it’, so to speak. To do this we must humble ourselves first, then take a closer look at nature and try to understand it Nature is a benevolent teacher.


“Welcome ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Suzhou.Suzhou is an ancient city and this year we shall be celebrating our 25th Century”,

this was the tour guide’s welcome that greeted the PAM delegates when they visited Suzhou, China in 1986. 25th Century! That works out to be 2,500 years – the mind cannot perceive this length of time, it is beyond comprehension. What is amazing is that there still stand structures built 25 centuries ago – the pagodas, the canal network all the way to Xian and Beijing. It humbles you. It makes you realize how infinitely small Man is in time. The people were long gone but their deeds, their built structures – the built environment still stands as testimony to their wealth, richness of culture and architecture. Seeing Suzhou reminded me Ercolano outside Naples, except that in the latter case it was a silent, sad and tragic yet imposing testimony of what the former built environment must have been.

Both examples carry one message; Man is only temporal. The structure he builds outlasts him. What wealth of information is left to us from ages gone by.

Man has been building probably since he found his hands manipulative. No one can really pinpoint when. In Malaysia, should we see something about a hundred years we think of it as old. We look at it with awe and accord it reverence – it is antiquity! This is a good sign. It suggests that we are moving in the right direction for we value and appreciate things of old, things that remind us of life styles and art forms not found anymore. The architect as a builder of the built environment has an enormous task to accomplish. When he builds, he builds to last. He must therefore ensure that the built structures are worthy of future admiration and praise, 25 centuries hence, that the legacy he leaves behind is worth the effort.

In building to last, the architect must humble himself to the built environment which has been around much longer and therefore more deserving of right of time. I, therefore, feel that in humility to the built environment he must try to organize and build accordingly. The click here built environment is established; it is the establishment. The establishment has much more prevailing rights. The newcomer must in humility succumb to that which is already there; he must complement it. The end result is a totality of the built environment.

The built environment reflects an ongoing social fabric and system. Admittedly there will be faults and short-comings but it is for the Architect to look for that which is good or useful in the environment and system and to manifest it in his work


Humility towards mankind is a complex issue. The problem surrounding mankind is too great for one to even conceive. To think that one is able to solve some of the global problems is certainly most presumptuous. At best one can try to understand human nature and behavior. You have to look at the problems of mankind and be sympathetic. This realization hopefully can help the architect solve some of the related architectural problems. Mankind is made up of many heterogeneous groups where the texture and quality of life is different. In venturing forth, the architect must approach the situation cautiously and with humility.


Man is unique. Of all factors to consider in Architecture he is the most difficult to deal with. He is very complex. There are just too many variations to the one theme. And because he is so different he is constantly having conflict not only with himself but also with his fellowmen.

Then there are the different sexes.
The male and the female.
They both think differently.
What he wants, she may not.
What she expects, he forgets.
How do they get on?
This is the greatest Architectural test.

Vincent of Beauvais said, “Woman is Man’s confusion” (or vice versa?, as many women would contend.)

Having dealt with so many couples I don’t dare begin a discussion on the male and female psyche. Architecture is often all related to, associated with and involves both man and woman. To solve their needs, their requirements, their whims and fancies, the architect must first of all look at their problems with sympathy and understanding. Even if he knows their weakness, he should not allow that to cloud the issues at hand. He must be objective. He must approach issues and related problems gently as if dealing with a child, with much care and concern.

It is necessary to show a complete understanding of their needs and wants. Having approached them in this manner, he is able to help solve their problems, to provide the answer to the kind of ambience they need or dream about.

Humility is nothing new in the context of our Malaysian social fabric. The traditional Chinese and Malay cultures emphasize humility and softness of approach. Therefore, “softly, softly” is a virtue to be cultivated. This, however, should not be misconstrued, as a weakness for it is through weakness that you garner strength. Unless you know what weakness is you will not understand what strength is. Through humility you are able to appreciate the two ends of the scale.


Life is a series of contradictions. In humility we achieve greatness. To search for greatness with no idea of humility is to search aimlessly for there is no reference point.

In the architectural world there is no such situation where ideal conditions become available to the architect. He had to make the ‘ideal’ conditions happen. Conditions which may at first appear to be non-conducive to building may be turned to advantages if you are humble enough to take a second look, spare some thought on what otherwise would have been rejected as being common and not of any particular use. Turning a disadvantage into an advantage is to capitalize on the foreign force with which you are up against; this is borrowed from the art of ‘tai-chi’ – a form of ‘kung fu’ fighting. It utilizes the strength of the opponent to overwhelm him. If he were a larger force and you decide to take him on by force you will probably end up floored.

One has to seize opportunities as they come and turn disadvantage to advantage. It is like surfing – your advantage lies in riding with the wave; go against it and you will bet into trouble. When a horse is travelling in one direction and you in the other, a head-on collision becomes inevitable but if you were to jump on its back and ride it, you will be able to direct it, control it and guide it in the direction you want it to go.

I use a lot of timber in the houses I design.This is the result of seeing what has been going on in the Malaysian built environment. The urban scape in our cities is not something we can be proud of. It is repeating mistakes the West made 30-40 years ago. Timber is very Malaysian and also very traditional. People here tend to look down on timber houses, Thinking that only the poor live in them. That is a fallacy. Timber houses are not only beautiful and functional, but, cheaper and easier to construct and maintain. I sometimes leave the timber untreated or unfinished, to allow it to age with time and the elements; and they age so beautifully. When such suggestions are made you get the most incredulous looks from your clients. No venture, no gain, and often new dimensions appear upon new possibilities.