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There have been many constants in the HIJJAS practice over the last forty years, most significantly our persistence to reinvent.

In spite of the challenges of normative and cost-/profit-driven attitudes towards design in this era of climate change, we continue to approach the making of buildings as if each were unique and memorable.

We try to use in every instance materials in imaginative ways, testing structural limits, playing with functional potential and exploring aesthetic possibilities. We make places that galvanise their context, embracing streets, characters and everyday life.

Hijjas Bin Kasturi

This rigour and seriousness forms the crux of our practice, ideals instilled by our namesake and founder, Hijjas Kasturi. Hijjas calls for moral integrity and respect for the rights of others, where a clear obligation to client and stakeholders should not obviate a building’s responsibility to its surroundings and its public.

There is also joy in design itself, informed by Hijjas’ curiosity about the world and his eclectic interests, that made manifest the trademark characteristics of the firm’s early architecture.

Good architecture has many elements of art. It all depends on how you approach a building, whether you look at it as a mechanical box or as 
a piece of sculpture.

Across the

Hijjas Kasturi’s architectural idealism has been most clearly and most consistently focused through his on-going investigation into the possibility of a national architecture.

Formally trained in Australia, Hijjas was working in the Urban Renewal Department of Singapore’s Housing and Development Board when he was enticed away from the island (which had been his home despite his father being an ethnic Malay from Pahang) by the Malaysian Training Division.

The Malaysian government paid off his bond to Singapore to allow Hijjas to set up Malaysia’s first tertiary architecture programme at the MARA Institute of Technology, paving the way for a move across the causeway in 1967.

The departure for Kuala Lumpur was a conscious one, driven by the young architect’s desire to contribute to nation-building in a country that had only just gained its independence a decade prior.

A Unitary

Hijjas introduced a notable first-year foundation course that combined both streams, a unitary vision of the creative arts upheld by the practice to this day.

He consulted widely before drawing up MARA’s architecture programme that followed the Bauhaus’ interdisciplinary model. Creating two parallel streams — once involving architecture, town planning and building, the other more arts-oriented including industrial design, graphic and textile design, and fine arts

Hijjas’ enthusiasm for interdisciplinary education was not shared by his peers at MARA. Barely two years in operation, the new faculty would be dissolved into constituent-built environment and fine arts departments, prompting the architect to resign his position and make a foray into private practice.


Establishing Akitek Bersekutu in 1969 with Ong Guan Teck, he would transform their collaborative unit into Akitek Bersekutu Malaysia within three short years now supported by architects David Joyce, Nik Yusof and Tan Toh Hock. The firm found early success, boasting a robust portfolio with a plethora of educational works, as well as hospitals, commercial, residential and institutional buildings, and masterplans for new townships.

Hijjas’ growing feeling to pursue his own personal vision of architecture would eventually lead to him forming Hijjas Kasturi Associates (HKAS) in 1977. It was a prescient move as Malaysia was about enter a boom phase, a period of transition as the country began to move beyond an economy reliant on traditional commodities to one based on industry, with oil and gas also generating new wealth.

With the pool of local architects small and the capacity to design numbers of high-quality buildings stretched by the gathering building boom, HKAS took on the challenge of shaping this new urban landscape within the on-going dilemma of Malaysian architectural identity.

I wanted to contribute to the betterment of our culture and our people by creating a visual landscape that is distinctly Malaysian

The New Practice

In search of national identity

The quest for an architectural identity in Malaysia is a post-colonial response to the need to build a nation and to the fact that there was no discernible national architectural style when the country, then known as Malaya, became independent in 1957. There was, however, a rich tradition of vernacular housing embodied in the kampung house; and it was the kampung house which first provided Hijjas with a reference point.

The kampung house is characterised by a high-pitched roof with gables at either end. The house is raised on stilts and has shuttered windows, usually with a decorative, carved timber fanlight above. The stairs at the front lead to the anjung, a covered public porch where guests are greeted and the family relaxes.

The other key spaces are the elevated serambi or verandah, and the rumah ibu, the private part of the house. These are traditional elements which have been played out in contemporary Malaysian architecture for a long time but more so since the 1960s, either explicitly or implicitly. In the case of HKAS, vernacular and Islamic elements have tended to be subtle and implicit.


The post-war period also saw substantial migration from rural areas to the cities, creating a demand for new housing, schools, hospitals and office buildings, even new satellite cities such as Petaling Jaya.

Located just outside Kuala Lumpur, construction in this area began in 1953. The functionalism of the International Style lent itself to the urgent need in the 1950s and 1960s to provide shelter and amenities in the fast-growing cities. It was simple and economical and offered an aura of modernity in contrast with the over-designed and retrogressive colonial architecture.

But things began to change in the 1970s with the introduction of reinforced and prestressed concrete and curtain walling. HKAS saw the rapid introduction of new technologies, including computers, as a challenge which involved thinking big, taking risks and taking responsibility for constructing a quality built environment serving the contemporary needs of the new Malaysia—by now one of Asia’s emerging ‘tiger economies’.

Accordingly, in the mid-1980s, the practice took on the role of pacesetter. In the process, a set of themes emerged which, in different permutations, have characterised the majority of the buildings to come out of HKAS.

Rationality, economy, aesthetics

HKAS’ driving force has been its empirical and exploratory approach, avoiding formulaic self-repetition by starting every project with the assumption that it is unique: a unique client, a unique programme and a unique context. There are always the givens of compliance and common requirements. It is the not-givens that trigger the firm’s sometimes lengthy, sometimes rapid internal design processes.

Hijjas himself speaks of three key considerations which he credits the late Australian architect Harry Seidler for spelling out to him: rationality, economy and aesthetics.

Rationality is a legacy of his Western training in a Modernist ethic—namely, that there needs to be a rational reason for any decision to do with how the building is built. Hence, the importance of repeatedly asking ‘Why?’ until an irrefutable answer is forthcoming. Economy is about showing respect for the client’s budget and an ethical commitment not to waste resources.

Finally, the building not only needs to have a powerful aesthetic presence, but that presence needs to be coherent and also to answer the question: ‘Why?’. In other words, there is no room for gratuitous decoration or visual statements. In the work of HKAS, vernacular and Islamic expressions are never mere pictorial borrowings. Instead, they are abstracted into archetypes which resonate at subliminal levels for the observer. Moreover, they are integrated into the form of the building, rather than applied to its surface, so that they become an expression of the form and material of the building.

Art and rhythm

The interaction of art and architecture is a constant theme in the work of HKAS, Hijjas’ unitary vision, epitomised in his own residential compound, Rimbun Dahan. For most of their public buildings, HKAS specifies public art and landscaping — for example, the fountains and sculpture at Menara Apera-ULG, and the landscaping, water feature and sculpture at Menara Maybank.

A complementary theme, and largely one Hijjas’ is predisposed towards, is namely the preoccupation with rhythm which so often lends buildings their elegance. This rhythm is often a function of countervailing tensions or an equilibrium of opposites: weight versus lightness, monumentality versus human scale, density versus transparency, regularity versus asymmetry, and linearity versus the curvilinear.

Building for the tropics

HKAS has always had a bioclimatic bias, wanting to work with the climate, not against it. Passive solutions to heat, humidity and heavy, driving rain link the entire history of architecture in Malaysia and Southeast Asia— although the introduction of air-conditioning in the late 1940s often proved to be a disincentive, with the erection of inappropriate glass curtain wall buildings and large areas of exposed concrete generating massive ambient heat.

From the late 1990s, HKAS reinforced its commitment to passive climate control strategies (sun-shading, natural ventilation and landscaping) by engaging with the notion of the intelligent building and ensuring that services are as efficient as possible (for example, significantly more cost-effective and environmentally friendly underfloor air-conditioning).

This commitment can be attributed to the transition taking place in the practice, led by Serina Hijjas and the office’s younger generation, that gravitates towards a different sense of place, a different kind of content, and a different type of responsibility for a building.

Changing identity

Malaysia today is a part of a global economy and a global culture. Whatever one thinks of that, it is a fact that the contemporary sense of identity where we see ourselves and our culture as very much a function of the multifarious interactions which take place in our lives.

Hence, where HKAS’s buildings were once powerful, uncompromising and unified, delivering their message in a single, bold statement, now perhaps they are more of a conversation.

The once unified form is breaking down into a cluster of separate but complementary forms, the façade is becoming more playful and ambiguous and the internal spaces less fixed and ceremonial, and more fluid and interactive.

This diversity, as both process and solution, is reflected in HKAS’ enthusiasm for entering competitions — to ensure that the practice continues to reinvent itself by taking on new challenges. It has had considerable involvement in the administrative capital of Malaysia, Putrajaya, which led to projects in the Middle East, including a university in Riyadh, various master plans, and residential and mixed-use developments.


Shaping a National Identity:
A Timeline

With HKAS, Hijjas Kasturi chartered a new course for his architecture, innately driven by artistic, design and nationalistic visions that in the span of 25 years would come to define urban skylines inseparable from Malaysia’s historical narrative.


Bangunan Dato’ Zainal:
Setting the Tone

HKAS took over the 26-storey Bangunan Dato’ Zainal project from Akitek Bersekutu Malaysia, setting the tone for the firm’s next works. Responding to a congested context, the building insinuates a bold verticality — achieved through slender white mullions that frame bands of dark tinted glass — that draws attention away from its neighbours without being overbearing. The building would also serve as HKAS’ first offices.

Shading for Climate

The practice’s commitment to technological exploration and climate responsiveness often faced the constraint of on-site concrete fabrication, a labour-intensive method which required proficiency, coordination and speed to achieve a desirable end result. HKAS resolved these factors to favourable outcomes in low- and medium-rise buildings such as Wisma Equity, Bank Negara Kedah and the Syariah Courthouse in Kuching, exploiting concrete’s sculptural potential while sun-shading properties through design.

1982, 1983, 1986

Wisma Equity KL, 1982

Bank Negara Kedah. 1983

Syariah Courthouse. Kuching, 1986

Public Domain


Menara Apera-ULG
(Holiday Inn Kuala Lumpur)

HKAS’ 22-storey Menara Apera-ULG best demonstrates the firm’s liberation of the ground plane for public access. Private space traditionally reserved as office lobby area is surrendered to the public domain by lifting the building off the ground; terraced with ponds and gardens over three levels, the stepped plaza connects pedestrians to the main street and an arterial backroad. As an inspired piece of urban design, it erases the hard boundaries of private property by encouraging people to sit down for relaxation and respite.


Tabung Haji
(Menara Tabung TH Tun Razak)

A definitive KL landmark, Tabung Haji uses the circle and the arch as formal geometrical components that rise 37 levels into a gentle yet dramatic taper, creating an iconic silhouette ringed by massive bracing columns that represent the Five Pillars of Islam. Catering to the country’s large Muslim population, it is designed to accommodate the annual influx of hajj pilgrims with a monumental free-flowing porte cochere directly linking building, landscape and streetscape. Built prior to the arrival of complex CAD software, Tabung Haji marks both an architectural and technological inflection point that combines floor-by-floor hand drawings with the latest concreting techniques of that period.


Menara MPPJ
(Menara MBPJ)

A huge leap from Apera-ULG, Menara MPPJ trades a large ground floor experience for an expansive town square and shopping arcade. The sunken plaza is overlooked and accessed by landscaped pedestrian areas on all sides, the tower itself linked to perimeter streets via covered pedestrian bridges. The 27-storey design attempts to reconcile its presence within a context of low-rise shophouses, the dramatic chamfering of its base and crown not only reducing its visible height but also diverting attention away from its vertical mass.


Kuwait Embassy:
A Play for Forms

HKAS’ sculptural exploration of concrete continued with the Kuwait Embassy, a corner-site two-storey building with a secondary residential complex. Its fanned arrangement of vaulted sections creates a rank of arched spaces for the chancery, with the articulated roof giving it a distinctive silhouette and character. Small in scale, there was a strong case for traditional arches — with big overhangs to shade recessed windows — stylised to reaffirm Kuwaits’s commitment to modernisation and its connections to the wider world.


Menara Maybank:
Sculpted Verticality

Menara Maybank represents a major advancement over HKAS’ high rises that came before. Projecting the corporate confidence and identity of Maybank — the largest banking and financial group in Malaysia — the building fuses Malaysian identity with a progressive hi-tech aesthetic. The tower’s sculptural aspects alludes to an ascending movement achieved through tapered sections culminating at its 54th floor. Combined with the verticality and absence of horizontal banding, this tapering creates the illusion that the building has less mass than it actually has, thus avoiding the overbearing presence typical of most Kuala Lumpur high-rises.

& Identity

1988, 1990

Menara Tun Sambanthan &
Shahzan Tower
(Menara AIA Sentral)

Menara Tun Sambanthan and Shahzan Tower reflect some of the challenges faced by the dictates of site and compliance. Menara Tun Samabanthan’s fins and sloping façade, a vertical parallel of a Hindu temple gopuram, detracts the eye from a formidable eight-storey car park podium defined by a constrictive building setback. The stepped Shahzan Tower, with its five ‘fingers’ staggered over 42 floors, likewise features a 12-storey car park wedged into its irregular site, a cost-effective solution when compared to a multi-level basement parking option or a hefty non-compliance compound.


Lot 10:
Big & Bold in Bukit Bintang

Situated in Kuala Lumpur’s golden triangle, the Lot 10 shopping centre features a striking green façade that brightens a dreary neighbourhood of unrelenting grey concrete structures and rundown shoplots. With a net area of over 30,000 square metres of shops, the mall in 1990 housed five percent of Kuala Lumpur’s total retail space at one of the city’s prime locations. The shopping centre extends pedestrian connectivity at multiple points — from ground level entrances to direct connections to basement food court and monorail station — thus maximising its retail exposure to the locals and tourists that throng its bustling locale.


Shah Alam Outdoor Stadium:
Landmark of a City

One of HKAS’ most ambitious projects, this massive stadium was required by the Selangor state to display an appropriate aesthetic that reflected the importance of its capital Shah Alam, as well as aspects of Malaysian heritage, culture and aspirations. Developed from the shape of a shell — with its economically functional form — Shah Alam Stadium is built of precast post-tensioned concrete with the bleachers doubling as structural spans. Meeting all the Olympic standards of the time, it provides 80,000 seats and standing room for 5,000.

the Internal

1994, 1995

Kuching North City Hall

Kuching South City Hall

Bintulu Development Authority

HKAS ventured eastwards to Sarawak in the ‘80s and ‘90s, designing a series of civic centres for the state’s growing urban centres. The buildings doubled as both administration offices and community facility, of which three shared a distinctly similar approach of circular footprint and conical form. Their internal planning is informed by a central atrium that tapers to the top, restricting the penetration of direct sunlight, and minimising the loss of floor space on the smaller, higher floors. The conical form also exploits the moulding potential of concrete while lending each building a pronounced silhouette and a significant internal volume.


Menara Alor Setar,
A Symbol of the North

As with the earlier Bank Negara Kedah, Menara Alor Setar provided HKAS with an opportunity to create an architectural highlight in the context of a flat city. The 166m-tall splayed tower draws inspiration from one of the few vertical shapes in a horizontal landscape — rice sheaves propped up in paddy fields during harvest — and pays homage to the state’s agricultural importance as the rice bowl of Malaysia. With its public plaza, exhibition hall, commercial and a viewing platform, the tower is a place of gathering and recreation for Kedahans and visitors from outside the state.

The New Millennium:
A Time of Transition

The arrival of the 2000s marked a new phase of development for HKAS, with Serina Hijjas playing a larger role in spearheading the firm’s designs and material exploration, technological innovation and bioclimatic responsiveness.

Menara Telekom is a reflection of the firm’s transition set against a broader background of change. Built between 1997 and 2002, the 55-storey high-rise was incepted at a time of a burgeoning national self-confidence, expressed most explicitly by the Petronas Twin Towers (1996), that had emerged from a severe economic downturn in the late ‘80s.

The Malaysian government was determined to further open up and modernise its economy through initiatives in energy efficiency and sustainability, which was in turn a response to Europe’s ‘intelligent building’ drive of the ‘80s.

A similar European phenomenon, the ‘humanised’ office tower, was also emerging and led by Foster Associates (now Foster and Partners) where Serina worked until 1991. Foster’s influence would carry over into the HKAS studio – and Menara Telekom – upon Serina’s return, resulting in a complementary partnership between her and Hijjas, he focusing on the planning and sculptural aspects while she focused on the sky gardens and the detailing. Foster’s Commerzbank in Frankfurt would in part inspire the building, but initially three schemes were put to the client – ‘to test ourselves’, as Hijjas puts it.

A Culture of Collaboration

Both for HKAS and for Malaysia, the building was highly innovative. Growing familiarisation with computers enabled the firm to take on increasingly complex engineering challenges; working with consultants, the firm pushed its computer sophistication further, exemplifying the new trend to work with international consultants and suppliers.

HKAS’ collaboration with Australian structural engineer Peter Gabor allowed Menara Telekom to achieve 16-metre free-span office areas devoid of any internal columns. The partially prestressed structural system also allowed sky gardens to fill the triangular voids between the core and the office wings on every third floor, alternating on either side of the tower. A 21-storey steel antenna tower extends the torsioned form to the top on one side, while the shorter elevation terminates in a helipad.

Tropical Tower

The building also uses a mix of air-conditioning and natural ventilation. The sky gardens are crucial in that regard, not just for accessing fresh air but for reducing ambient temperatures (by 3–4°C in the case of Menara Telekom), acting as buffer zones between the interior and exterior climates and ameliorating the impact of the tropical climate in general. The sky gardens also shade east and west elevations, and give building users the convenient opportunity to retreat to the outdoors that is closer than the ground floor lobby.

The tower continued HKAS’ interest in pure curved forms as a means of achieving greater expression. Serina argues that there is still a preference for the single, unified form in Malaysian architecture and maintains it remains Hijjas’ preference, but not without first a constructive debate within the practice about future directions: unified form as against dematerialised form; a single, intense and immediate experience of the building as against a layering of experiences; instant recognition as against gradual revelation.

The practice also took on a number of medium-rise commissions which threw up opportunities to develop many of the ideas advanced in Menara Telekom and anticipated in smaller projects. The twin concerns of embodying a Malaysian essence and generating a single, unified form continued to inform the practice, but in subtler and more discreet ways.

These would manifest prominently in several projects in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital. Beginning with the Putrajaya Boating Clubhouse — a naturally-ventilated tropical pavilion that takes the elliptical shape of an inverted boat hull — HKAS would undertake work such as the implementation of a suburban masterplan including the ceremonial Putrajaya Boulevard and Waterfront on the core administrative island, the boulevard’s lighting masterplan, street furnishings and landscaping, and the design of a convention centre and government office tower.

Putrajaya Boulevard was conceived as a narrative, embodying the story of Malaysia, with markers at key nodal points (a series of three squares and a circle). The final marker, a circle on the main island, is the Dataran Gemilang, symbolising by its inclusive circularity Malaysia’s membership in the international community.

Cultural Metaphors

At the boulevard’s southern terminus is the elevated Putrajaya International Convention Centre (PICC) which reinforces the metaphor of Malaysia’s global role. Typologically, the building is related to the Bintulu Development Authority in that it grows out of the hill on which it sits. Its elliptical form is metaphorically related to the pending perak, a ceremonial belt buckle, as a Malaysian cultural archetype.

PICC differs from a typical convention centre in that it has a radial plan. The gull-wing roof is as imposing and volatile as any of the others designed by HKAS during this period and tops the two upper levels which emerge, highly transparent, out of the crown of the hill.

The correlating round horizontals planes of PICC, Dataran Gemilang and the half-ring of four high-rise towers — the tallest 4G11 Tower also designed by HKAS — contrive to give prominence to Putrajaya’s urban skyline at its southern-most tip.

Hijjas Kasturi has always maintained that any culture is in a permanent state of evolution.

Where PICC used the pending as a visual code, the boulevard references the cross-weaving of traditional Malay crafts such as rattan baskets, pandan mats and songket (a brocade textile featuring textured cross-weaving in gold and silk, often used for ceremonial shoulder cloths). The cross-weaving of the songket, in particular, is reflected in the boulevard’s paving and softscape design, and would be a recurring motif in HKAS’ explorations.

This is one reason why he has always had a problem with the more literal-minded applications of cultural identity to built forms: they imply a static culture, more like a museum artefact than a living culture. HKAS’ recent and current work — now rebranded as HIJJAS Architects + Planners — confirms its ability to exploit contemporary materials to generate metaphors appropriate for the character and aspirations of contemporary cultures.

Beginnings has been adapted from the 2008 book Concrete Metal Glass: Hijjas Kasturi Associates, Selected Works 1977–2007 by Edition Didier Millet.