Tan Sri Esa Mohamed talks about his plans in his new role.

Tan Sri Esa Mohamed looked just a tad tired having returned just a day ago from London after attending a meeting there. The award-winning architect certainly leads a busy life, wearing many hats.

He sits on national advisory boards and has worked on master plans, townships, and other major projects locally and in China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia; he has also won numerous awards, including the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture (see details right).

And last year, 67-year-old Johor-born Esa picked up another hat, and a particularly prestigious one at that, when he was elected president of the International Union of Architects for the 2014 to 2017 term, becoming the first Malaysian to hold the position.

Founded in 1948 in Lausanne, Switzerland, the UIA (after the French version of the name, Union Internationale des Architectes) comprises over 120 member countries and territories and is the only world union of architects; it represents 1.3 million architects worldwide. There are three permanent commissions under the UIA: education, professional practice, and international competition for design. 

It works closely with the United Nations, especially Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) and the UN-Habitat agency (which studies human settlement), on various issues.

Esa received an Aga Khan Award in 2001 for the Datai Langkawi resort.

“In fact, we have what is called the Unesco-UIA education system and charter, which defines the subjects and curriculum in architecture education,” says Esa, when met at his office in Kuala Lumpur recently.

“Architecture involves the environment and the UN is very concerned about the environment,” adds Esa, who also served as UIA vice president from 2011 to 2014 and is a member of its professional practice commission.

As the current president, Esa has a few goals set out.

“My interest at the moment is to see how to promote cross border practice, making sure that the market is not just domestic. It is important to have a good network with professionals from abroad. Architecture is not a monopoly by one country but should be global,” he says.

“I would like to establish a framework so that when our architects go abroad or foreign architects come into our country, they have a certain framework and guidelines to follow.”

Esa says that there are many Western architects practising in China and South-East Asia.

“The Western industrialised countries are being seen as global leaders, and they seem to be getting the accolades and perceived values.

“We don’t want architects from emerging countries to be marginalised or miss out on these opportunities, so we need to encourage local architects to go abroad,” says Esa, who graduated from the University of Newcastle, Australia, in 1973.

But have the standards of local architects improved over the years?

“Over the past 40 years, I’ve seen that Malaysian architects have risen to the challenge in terms of design and quality. There are quite a number of local talents but, unfortunately, they are not being promoted or recognised internationally,” he says.

Malaysia has close to 2,000 registered architects, which is about the same number as Singapore.

Other major developments he and his firm have worked on include the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (leading the Malaysian-Japanese Airport Consortium). -Filepics

Esa, who is currently co-chairman of the National Professional Services Export Council (a body under the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation), plans to work with the council to promote Malaysian architects who go abroad.

“We are going to form a Malaysian incorporated entity that will be the umbrella body for Malaysian professionals who go abroad. I have worked in Russia, China and Indonesia. There are potential projects there, and I want to take Malaysian architects abroad for such work.”

Another area of concern in the UIA is climate change and sustainability.

“Climate change is quite an issue in the UN. We need to ensure that whatever we build does not have a negative impact on the environment in the future.

“There must be a lot more work and research done on how to reduce carbon footprints in order to mitigate the effects of climate change,” says Esa, who holds a Master in Town and Country Planning from the University of Sydney.

As president, Esa intends to introduce a new commission on climate change.

“We have received positive response on this. It will be a good vehicle with which to work with the UN because the UN-Habitat programme has many discussions and conferences that deal with not only climate change but city development as well,” he says.

Esa also feels strongly about the education and awareness of the relevance of architecture in society.

“Architecture is actually a very important part of human life. We take buildings for granted. In actual fact, we have to inculcate the sense of recognising how important a building is in terms of design and its adaptability to function.

“Design and architecture, to me, are part of our culture. Most countries are moving towards recognising how important that is. I think Malaysia needs to do the same. If we appreciate culture and beauty, we become more sensitive and humanistic,” he says.

“People see design and architecture as a luxury; to me, it’s a right. If we lose our culture and heritage, we lose our identity. When we appreciate culture and design, we appreciate life,” emphasises Esa, adding that the UIA feels strongly that commercial interests should not become more important than public interest, such as when heritage sites are demolished to make way for commercial development.

Inculcating the fact that architecture is important to humanity is something that has to start at the school level, he adds.

“There is a work programme under the UIA called Architecture and Children, which encourages kids to understand buildings and the environment.

“In our schools, we have art classes. We could also introduce architecture as a subject.”

On a parting note, Esa says that he hopes Malaysia will recognise the importance of architecture to the environment and society.

“I think the UIA can do its bit to promote that.”