Celebrated Swiss-born French architect Le Corbusier once said that a house is a machine for living in. I couldn’t agree more. Dwellings, as are buildings and structures intended for human use, often become the physical expression of an architect’s taste and design genius yet they fail to live up to their original purpose. Some become monuments that exhibit technological prowess, while some an affirmation of one’s wealth.
And that’s exactly what British architect Gary Fell, founder of Bali-based GFAB, is not doing. Educated at University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture, Fell moved to the Indonesian island, first temporarily, to oversee the construction of a Four Seasons hotel in Sayan – a stint he considers a trial by fire (some 4,500 or so on-site people asking one architect on how to do things!).
Perhaps it’s the conducive ambiance of a tropical locale that prompted Fell to settle permanently in Bali, and after a while decided to put up his own architectural firm, often described by design magazines as ‘progressive’ (to which he jokingly replied, ‘I have no idea what that means, but it certainly sounds good – better than alternative or contrary!’). Progressive certainly is an abstract term. It could mean one’s dexterity in designing breath-taking structures. To some it may mean one’s ability to harness technology in order to do so. But for Fell, it may have something to do with his refusal to go the same direction as most upscale holiday homes being designed throughout South-East Asia – the same school of thought that reproves design that does not reflect the traditions and culture of its host locales, which Fell finds quite insulting. He feels this pervasive attitude has been corrupted into some kind of proto-Disney position (traditional roof + lots of rattan interior = Bali hotel).
In fact, Fell dislikes the way ‘culture and heritage’ has been enslaved to the tourist industry or for political gain. A ‘movement’ he describes as little more than nationalism in a different suit. However, he acknowledges that his refusal to engage with such ideas meant he had to wait for the right clients – those, he accurately describes as ones with sufficient vision to see past the coffee-table books they bought at the airport.
Just one look at any GFAB-designed structure and it’s easy to know why. Fell and his team steer clear of ‘making funny shapes’ that may seem en vogue now but not tomorrow. In fact, he says he doesn’t see this a deviation from what many architects are doing right now, and there is a strong current crop of architects in the region doing the same things they do.
Fell also admits his attraction to the rigour of clean, geometric lines, and that there is a prosaic side to it. Indeed, why spend significantly more for a room that is, for example, an irregular trapezoid, he asks.
He also says that he’s quite a stickler for proportion, and spends plenty of design time on it. ‘I often ask my [engineering] collaborators to work that bit harder to achieve this. I believe that abstraction is essentially our game as architects.’
And he rarely resorts to curves, not out of hostility, but as recognition of their design strength – too much of it, in fact, which often can overpower their surroundings. And also because when he does use them they look too much like Oscar Niemeyer’s.
His works are also noted for their fluidity. His signature style is fluidly connecting a dwelling’s indoor spaces with its outdoor areas, which somehow resonates of green and sustainability.
‘It is true that in many of our projects, there has been a conscious decision to try and keep spaces fluid and open,’ he said, ‘[which] often has been a reaction to the sites given us as well as how our clients choose to live.’ But he also adds that sustainability is a given when making work today.
‘We have to care how much energy our buildings are using, and we should make every effort to create an architecture that is sustainable and sensitive to its environment.’
This isn’t a ‘badge of honour’, according to Fell. Instead, this design philosophy should be intrinsic to the way every architect works. He also says that more clients now, most of them private individuals, are becoming more open-minded.
‘I find it hard to understand how anyone might think differently,’ he shares. ‘Using planters for roofs is a simple “passive”-type measure that insulates superbly and looks good into the bargain – why wouldn’t we use such an approach regularly?’
What amazes him, however, is how such measures are often greeted with hostility. ‘In many cases around the region getting permits for buildings without an “Asian” or “local” roof form is astonishingly hard,’ Fell shares. ‘The energy considerations are simply not appreciated and pseudo “cultural identity” trumps all too often.’
Then there’s also the lack of government incentives for such environmentally sound options. ‘These types of buildings may get tax incentives in Europe, but not in Asia, where such things are considered luxury goods.’
Economics is the key, he says. ‘Few developers will pay more for sustainable designs or more energy-efficient technology. They get it’s great, but their aim is to sell.’ In his experience, GFAB has had more success when the client is the end-user who certainly sees the benefits of such design over time.
Another challenge, which Fell says is rather inescapable, is the region’s climate. ‘Obviously the climate has a huge bearing on how one designs and keeping the building’s fabric reasonably cool is important.’
This kind of environment is not particularly kind to buildings per se. Hence, there’s an ongoing ‘battle’ with nature in the design process, but also a desire to embrace it in one’s work, which, after all, is what architecture is and should be about.
But one thing Fell is proud about is how their projects use their sites really well. ‘Often we seem to be able to get more from a site than was originally expected; creating the appearance of a larger “lot” than what is in fact the case.’
That, and obviously being progressive, best describes GFAB and Fell. But if you think about, it is what architecture is all about: to create a house much akin to Le Corbusier’s definition of one, that it should be for living, not to mention being conscious of its environment.