Hubert Burda Media

Lilian Tay talks about the role of architecture in building a city

In conjunction with International Women’s Day, Prestige Malaysia takes a retrospective look at some of the accomplished women who have graced the pages of the magazine. In this interview we speak to Lilian Tay of Veritas Design Group

Architects are dreamers in some way,” says Lilian Tay, principal and director at Veritas Design Group. “They sometimes feel that through the planning of space they can change the world.” Having worked in the industry for several decades now, Tay is quite aware that changing the world may be a tad idealistic but she still strongly believes that the role of architects isn’t confined to just ensuring the quality of one’s immediate living environment but to enhance the quality of the city.

“Even side-walks and pedestrian lanes,” she says. “Here we don’t talk about it but in other cities they need to plan so that sunlight falls on the street,” she says, quoting New York as an example. “You realise that all of this is the work of architects and planners and it ends up creating the quality of life or lack of it in forming the city.”

Perhaps it is because Tay adopts this school of thought that she describes architecture as being a consuming profession, not something that you can shut the door on when you clock out at five.

“You carry it with you everywhere,” she says. “Architecture has to do with the whole creation of the environment. You are constantly aware of it, even when you go on holiday because you are thinking about how people use that space and of how design has been used to create that environment.”

It is also, she adds, not something that can be compartmentalised, which makes it one of those fields that is “never-ending.”

“It is not exactly an objective science,” she explains. “Ideas can continue to be developed so you can’t just walk away.”

It is this aspect of the profession that she says may have resulted in the small number of women who choose to work in the industry. There were not that many women architects when Tay graduated from Princeton where she studied Architecture and Civil Engineering in the mid-80s. Today, she says, the number of women studying Architecture has increased significantly but many don’t make it a career because of the all-encompassing nature of the profession.

“Particularly in Asia because the expectation for women is to do the usual family role so a lot don’t continue in the profession and that’s why you see so few women in the industry.”

Tay joined the Veritas Design Group, started by David Mizan Hashim in its fifth year of operations, now it is in its 28th year. The projects that bear her creative imprint include Menara Binjai, 1 Sentral, the Digi headquarters and the Putrajaya Transport Terminal.

“I suppose at first, I thought it would be a stepping stone and that I would venture out on my own eventually but I found that the partnership was good because the scale of work that we now do allows us to look at a larger public component where there are multiple needs to address.”

A partnership is good, she explains, because it allows you to split the tasks and do all the things that are needed. “It is not just about sitting down and designing. You have to implement.”

This is particularly important for Tay who is involved in other issues related to the field, which are aimed at enhancing the living environment. Apart from her work at Veritas, where she oversees the general design direction, Tay is involved in numerous professional development activities.

She was the deputy president of the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) from 2015-16, where she also served as vice-president from 2000-2001 and was a council member of the Heritage Trust Malaysia (Badan Warisan). She was the editor-in-chief of Architecture Malaysia, the official journal of PAM.

Being part of Veritas, she says, allows for the pursuit of projects not on the basis of profit but based on the fact that they are interesting.

“Within the practice we do projects that are considered national service,” she says. “Having a wide portfolio of projects allows us to do that.”

Case in point, is the refurbishment of the Maju Jaya flats in Kampung Medan. Veritas worked with artist and activist Wong Hoy Cheong and PKR’s Lateefah Koya to give a new lease of life to a block of affordable housing.

“They wanted us to engage with the community,” explains Tay. “Initially they just wanted a paint job but we believed that doesn’t really address the real problems so we proceeded to do a study about what needs to be done so that people can start using the space the way that it was designed.”

The idea behind the project was to enable the residents to have a sense of identity or ownership. Once that happens, she says, they will start to take care of the space.

“We are able to have the resources to do these sorts of things because we do other large commercial projects,” she explains.

As a senior architect, Tay says she has learnt to see links between buildings and community, resulting in the view that architecture isn’t just about physical planning and design.

“The great thing about the profession is that everyone can talk about it,” she says.

“People can give you input and that is good because you can easily engage with everyone. It is not good because then people start telling you what to do and your job then becomes how to achieve a balance between having control over a project while also allowing for the participation from the stakeholders.”

Throughout her career Tay has been involved in various aspects of enhancing the city.

“KL upsets me because I see so many missed opportunities,” she laments.

Hence, heritage and conservation are two areas that Tay is a strong advocate of.

“It is important to maintain the character, soul and personality of a city,” she says. “Architecture is a powerful manifestation of your history, legacy.”

This interview was first published in the March 2015 issue of Prestige Malaysia