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    Woods Bagot's Matthew Gaal on Malaysian architecture and setting up office abroad

    Stephanie McDonald

    Matthew Gaal, director of development SE Asia at Woods Bagot, will head up a new studio in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

    He has worked across various studios including Dubai, New York, San Francisco, London, Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne. His work has included the design of the 1km-high tower for developer Nakheel in Dubai.

    Architecture and Design spoke to him about the new Malaysian studio, architecture in the country, and why Nakheel is one of his favourite projects.

    How would you describe Malaysia's approach to architecture?

    Being set in the tropics, traditional Malaysian architecture responded to the environment through necessity. Utilising cross ventilation for cooling, providing deep overhangs for passive shading and incorporating steep roofs to shed large volumes of water, the Malaysian design vernacular had a distinct style. It is a style influenced by its geography, as well as the architectural precedents in the region.

    What is becoming more prevalent in the modern buildings being completed in and around Kuala Lumpur is a resurgence of these traditional roots. Drawing inspiration from around the world, coupled with a local response to the environment, has led to a new architectural aesthetic. Operable high performance facades, the inclusion of breezeways for cross-ventilation, active and passive shading, and a strong connection to the landscape are elements that I’m finding really interesting.

    Culminating in all of the above is an appreciation for progressive architecture that reflects the new dynamic of Malaysia as one of the ASEAN leaders and a new world city of influence.

    What have been some of the challenges of establishing a studio in Malaysia?

    The Kuala Lumpur studio is the 17th studio globally that Woods Bagot has established. We are quite adept to putting ourselves in an emerging market and overcoming any challenges that may arise. Although Woods Bagot has worked in Malaysia since the 1980s (through a previous entity) we have now established the new studio as part of our global studio structure to bring the benefits of our expansive portfolio, talent and experience to the region.

    The Woods Bagot Kuala Lumpur studio is one that is set up to function and operate like any other studio we have around the world and it can expand and contract to the demands of a specific project and client needs. We are using it as a vehicle for channeling our global expertise through Asia to provide world-class design solutions.

    What type of projects will you be focusing on?

    There are a number of specific growth areas regionally that we are focusing on, but we are not limiting ourselves to any one particular typology. Drawing on the firm’s global studio model, we have design specialists from all parts of the world engaged in our projects.

    You've worked in numerous places around the world. What has been your most memorable project?

    I have been very lucky to work on some amazing projects globally with Woods Bagot. I think the most memorable has to be the Nakheel Tower in Dubai. Being the project director on that project gave me unprecedented access to some of the best architects, designers, engineers and contractors from all over the world.

    With the ultimate height of the building set at over 1km, there were many aspects of the project that were a challenge. Though the building went on hold as a result of the global financial crisis in 2008, what the team accomplished was an amazing feat of design and engineering. Foundation works for the Nakheel Tower started in 2008, and it would have been the tallest building in the world when completed 10 years later.

    What is one of your favourite buildings in Malaysia?

    I absolutely love the heritage architecture dotted around Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia. It was one of the reasons why we chose to locate our studio in the newly renovated Asian Heritage Row. The combination of old-world charm and history, coupled with modern reinvention, makes for a really interesting place to work.

    Aside from the historical buildings, one particular project that comes to mind is the PJ Trade Central in Mutiara Damansara – not necessarily because of the building’s aesthetic, but because of what the buildings are trying to achieve. The project challenges the norm of typical workplace design, not only in planning, but also in selection of materials. The creation of high-rise public space, including large balconies and external walkways, connect the users to their environment, which is really quite exciting.

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