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On the Road to Malaysia

USC architecture and urban planning students gather next to a mosque near the USC campus before heading to Malaysia. Front row (from left): Tammy Tin-Ting Chan, Susan Cline, Anna Ching. Back row: Chun Wai Ho, Mailinh Nguyen, Michelle Kurisu, Bob Gdowski, Terra Dickerhoff, Jason Armison, professor James Steele and Christopher Musich.

Photo by Irene Fertik

A dozen USC architecture and urban planning students have traveled halfway around the world this summer to study firsthand the problems posed by rapid development in Malaysia.

Like other emerging Southeast Asian nations, Malaysia is struggling with opposing forces. Modern economic considerations, especially the demand to beef up the tourist industry, threaten to destroy the country’s native villages and sensitive, tropical environment.

“The dilemma facing Malaysia presents students with a challenge that is typical in developing countries,” said James Steele, associate professor of architecture who spearheaded the School of Architecture’s new Malaysia studio.

“What do you do in a situation in which development is inexorable and an indigenous culture is being wiped out? You may not be able to stop the development, but you can work to find a middle ground,” he said. “There are other answers besides bulldozing.”

The undergraduates are taking part in a pilot program in Malaysia through the beginning of August. If things go well, Malaysia will be added to the School of Architecture’s regular study-abroad programs, along with the studios in Saintes, France, and Como, Italy. The Malaysia studio could also lead to a university-wide summer program in Asia.

“Europe is the foundation of much of our civilization, contributing greatly to the tradition of architecture and urbanism through a lengthy evolutionary process,” said Robert Timme, dean of the School of Architecture. “Much of Asia, on the other hand, is rapidly changing and growing as this region emerges as a significant member of the world’s economic community.

“As these countries rebuild their cities, moving forward into the 21st century, we hope to develop new and more appropriate models to avoid problems now facing Western urban concentrations.”

THE MALAYSIA STUDIO will give students their first hard lessons in the economic realities of the developing world, Timme said. They will witness firsthand the damage to an existing urban fabric and culture when a country is eager to modernize. They will also explore the potential for incorporating new technologies into planning for new communities, he added.

After a decade of 8 percent per year growth, Malaysia’s economic expansion will slow to 2 percent in 1998. This economic slowdown presents a perfect window for reassessing development plans, Steele said.

THE ARCHITECTURE students will study the rapid development spreading along the western coast of Malaysia near the Thai border.

Resort development, including hotels and casinos, is consuming the island of Langkawi as well as the mainland beach-front property. One beach area near Alor Setar, the capital of the Kedah province, includes a traditional kampung, or village, slated for redevelopment.

The fishing village will be wiped out and its people relocated, according to the government’s plans, Steele said. There is little the students can do at this point to alter the decision, but there is a lot they can learn.

“My suspicion is they will want to save this village, then realize they can’t. That’s the real educational experience,” he said. The students will work on strategies for re-housing the villagers, as well as researching and surveying traditional Malaysian houses. Later, they will tackle a specific project, such as building a mosque for the new neighborhood in this district.

Ultimately, their task is to design a model that considers the area’s historical, cultural and environmental restraints as well as the pressing need for new development. Through sustainable design principles and historical documentation, they will devise plans that can be used in similar circumstances elsewhere, Steele said.

While the architecture students are documenting the native fishing village, the urban planning students will work in the island province of Penang. This region’s government has set its sights on converting the city of Georgetown, a former British colony, into a tourist attraction. Georgetown is rich in colonial, Malaysian, Chinese and Indian architecture.

STUDENTS WILL augment the government’s conservation plan for Georgetown, providing historical documentation, surveys and evaluation. They will also propose various buildings for preservation and new buildings that blend in with the historical architecture.

Steele views Panang as a site for long-term projects that students in future studios can build upon.

Responding to his Asian students’ desire to learn more about the architecture in their native countries, Steele began exploring the possibility of an Asian studio program five years ago. He won a Zumberge grant to travel to Asia to acquire material about Asian architecture for the school’s archives. Through this research, Steele developed a survey course on “Contem-porary Asian Architecture,” which he taught for the first time last fall.

While in Asia, Steele also scouted out locations for a summer studio.

But it took three subsequent trips, with support and funding from USC’s Center for International Business, to pinpoint Malaysia as the most viable site. Malaysia has several advantages: It is centrally located and affordable, plus its democratic government is friendly to Americans.

More to the point for architecture students, it is bustling with innovative modern architecture – the skyscrapers of Harvard-trained Ken Yeung and the residential work of Jimmy Lim, who incorporates traditional elements in contemporary homes. Architec-tural influences reflect the diverse backgrounds of the population: Malays, plus citizens of Chinese and Indian heritage.

At the same time, large sections of the country are still relatively undeveloped. These areas contain primitive fishing and agricultural villages of Malays, who are mostly Muslim.

With support from USC officials such as Richard Drobnick, vice provost for international affairs, and Robert Biller, acting dean of the School of Public Administration, Steele established a partnership with the government-run University of Malaya, which has ties to USC. The University of Malaya’s vice chancellor, Abdullah Sanusi Ahmad, earned his Ph.D. from the USC School of Public Administration.

LOCATED IN the capital city, Kuala Lumpur, the university is the students’ home base. From there, students will travel to their study areas, then tour the offices of Malaysia’s prominent architects and developers.

Drobnick, director of the Center for Inter-national Business Edu-cation and Research, said the Malaysia studio could lead to a larger USC summer-abroad program at the Univer-sity of Malaya.

“If the professional schools [of architecture and urban planning and development] have a good experience there then, hopefully, we can promote this opportunity more widely for undergraduates interested in learning about Southeast Asian societies,” Drobnick said.

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