We are thrilled to announce an exciting development for Unagru - we are extending our wings to Asia, with the opening of our new design and research branch in Malaysia. This initiative is led by Gary Yeow, our brilliant associate and a dearly missed former member of the London team. We had several conversations about what Unagru Malaysia could and should become, so we shared our thought process in the same dialogue format
Tell us about yourself.
Hello everyone! My name is Gary Yeow. I was born and lived most of my life in Malaysia. I am an associate of Unagru Architecture Urbanism and am now leading our newly launched multidisplinary Unagru design office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I also teach interior architecture at the Malaysia Institute of Arts. I write for some publications and host some podcasts during my free time.
I completed my architectural degree at Taylor’s University, Malaysia. I worked for a year at ZLG Design Office, an architectural practice in Kuala Lumpur, before furthering my studies at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland. I worked at Unagru office in London for two years as an office manager, and now I am permanently based in Malaysia.
Why did you choose to study architecture?
Close-up detail of KLIA's vaulted roofs in Malaysia, by Kisho Kurokawa
It's interesting to recall why I chose to study architecture because it was not my first, or any considered, choice at all. When I was young, I found KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport), designed by Kisho Kurokawa, very fascinating. It is still a fantastic place to visit. I used to ride my motorcycle to the airport at night to see the empty (sometimes crowded) airport and the moments when the planes took off.
So, I initially considered studying aviation engineering or becoming a pilot. Aviation engineering was a niche field in Malaysia, so I was suggested by my brother, who was already studying at a local university, to choose mechanical engineering as an alternative that was closer to what I wanted to do. Eventually, I chose architecture and decided to try my luck. So here I am! I'm not really working as a practicing architect but revolving around the world of architecture.
The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton is my all-time favourite. I bought the book when I was completing my architectural foundation course, and it took me quite a while to finish reading it. I was always keen to know more about happiness from a general humanistic perspective, so that book holds a special place in my heart. Another one, not really a book but an exhibition publication, is Architecture Without Architects by Bernard Rudofsky.
There are books I enjoy reading for ‘academic’ purposes and the clarity of their writing, such as On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas, The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, and Utopia or Oblivion by Buckminster Fuller.
Favorite building in Malaysia?
I am a fan of modernist / art-deco concrete buildings, simply practical and elegant in the tropical context. It's hard to identify my favorite building in particular because it is scattered around Malaysia in both urban and rural settings.
Teluk Anson Chinese Club, an art deco building in Perak, Malaysia
One that I recently discovered is the Teluk Anson Chinese Club, which a memorable one. It has a well-designed facade for natural air ventilation, beautiful proportions with shades and brise-soleils, and lastly, the 'least disrupted' facade with minimal intrusions of signboards. This is noteworthy as many buildings in Malaysia, modernist or not, are often distracted by shop signages and billboards.
PJ Trade Centre, an office tower with well-designed landscape, materiality and openness
Oh yes, a rather contemporary one is the PJ Trade Centre, designed by Kevin Mark Low. It stands out as a gem representing a good Malaysian architectural example. Interestingly enough, I live across from this building, and perhaps the familiarity contributes to my liking.
Share with us how did you join Unagru.
After completing my master's at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, I decided to move to London to look for a job. I came across Unagru’s job ads for a recruiting office and content manager, and I found it interesting, so I applied. Partly because my final year thesis focused on sustainability and resilience in architectural business and its operations. For me, it's intriguing how architects often discuss buildings or society but seldom talk about themselves, about their stories, their businesses, or their well-being. My time in the London studio allowed me to observe the evolution of architects' roles over different periods, offering a contemplative moment to rethink the building and construction industry's ecosystem.
What inspired the decision to move back and set up new office in Malaysia?
The decision to move was challenging. Life in London was enjoyable, especially when I could cycle everywhere and work with fantastic colleagues. However, I felt there were limitations to my growth for new challenges, particularly on teaching and for personal reasons. Also, having more friends and collaborators across different disciplines who shared a mutual passion in the Asian region, I decided to move back to initiate more conversations around architecture through practice and education, hoping to contribute more at home.
Speaking of setting up a new office, I want to applaud and thank Davide, the director of Unagru Architecture Urbanism, who believed in and respected my decision to move back to Malaysia. This has allowed me to embark on a new journey personally and professionally. While I continue to assist the UK office with marketing matters, we stay in touch while exploring exciting opportunities to expand Unagru’s business globally and locally.
What would be the projects are you planning to do?
Unagru’s philosophy is centered around creating ‘ecologically sustainable and narrative design.’
Our multidisciplinary design office in Malaysia operates as an extension, closely aligning with ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) principles as design strategists. We view ourselves as researchers, communicators, educators, writers, participants, and designers of places—in a regionally and locally engaging manner, serving as an enabling catalyst for good architecture and design.
The approach is inspired by modern-day polymath, Buckminster Fuller, motivating us to utilise design as holistic solutions in life by ‘doing more with less’. This prompts ourselves to interpret efficiency and economy in a conscious manner when considering existing and new energy, resources, and labor—not exploitatively, but through embracing mutual collaborations to deliver optimal results by prioritizing communication and trust.
Our Malaysia office aims to be sensitive, conscious or even "frugal" about energy, people, and economy as a sustainable business ethos. When we demand for an efficient workflow and planning for our (and our clients') expectations, we can achieve more with less... which will provide a surplus of time and energy to observe our everyday's problems and solutions. This method of working provides, most importantly, a lot of opportunities to collaborate with individuals that we usually do not encounter in a construction project. Therefore, as a collective, our work revolves around everyday life, including culture, art, small businesses, finance, city connectivity, and more.
There was a podcast by Scaffold and during the conversation, Tony Fretton mentioned that 'nothing is too trivial' when he was asked about his photographic documentation of everydayness and ordinariness. I like it very much where I find daily observations are critical opportunities for designers like us to engage conversations and initiate design as solution. We have to be proactive in this scenario, rather than waiting for the right time or client. Architectural thinking or approaches can be the starting point, where we can expand architecture, which predominantly perceived as a building-making medium or instrument, to offer a wider range of creative outputs.
Our directions hinges on two keywords: purpose and collaboration.
A sketch depicting the possibilities of revitalising KL downtown by adaptive reuse strategies
The first direction is termed ‘the purpose to activate.’ We initiate projects by sensitively observing everyday surroundings, proposing what we can offer to improve our surrounding. Ongoing research projects may evolve into architectural endeavors, such as exploring the potential of unused office towers in downtown Kuala Lumpur with circular economy and adaptive reuse strategies (inspired by 51N4E's ongoing WTC re-using project), or experimenting with low-carbon materials like rammed earth or mycelium. Though this process is time-consuming, we can highlight critical or urgent issues, through strategic project brief planning and collaborating with various disciplines. This category also includes participating in design competitions or open proposals.
The second direction is termed ‘the purpose to alternate.’ This occurs when engaged by clients, consultants, or builders with their brief, like a housing project. We collaborate closely with local architects to understand project potentials and weaknesses, proposing alternatives to enhance design, reduce costs, and minimize environmental impact.
Tales of Vessels, an artwork by Gary during KL Design Festival 'DomesticDomicileDominate' exhibition, curated by Danial Ismail, Shamin Sahrum and Gary Yeow
The exciting aspect of this research-and-practice business model is its diversified outcomes.
In the architecture and construction scene, we help clients define clear and feasible project briefs, work on designs with Unagru UK, collaborate with local architects and builders on project progress, and finally, engage in post-occupation stages with marketing or branding strategies if required. You could see we lead the project by distributing the workload with other collaborators. The takeaway is everyone gets to learn from each other while zooming into different deliverables.
Meanwhile, our framework of architecture expands beyond buildings. The most recent ones would be my writing on Malaysian architecture history on the period between the end of WW2 and the national independence; and an exhibition about Domestic Culture, titled “DomDomDom” (Domestic, Domicile, Dominate) I curated with my friends, Dan and Sam for KL Design Festival 2023. So, don't be surprised to see exhibitions, events, or publications as in our portfolio.
Stay tuned for more!
For collaborations, please contact Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can visit us at:
15-05, Tower 2, Faber Towers, Jalan Desa Bahagia, Taman Desa, Kuala Lumpur 58100, Malaysia.