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Borneo, Sabah: Sinurambi


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Headline: Sinurambi - breaking paradigm of the local architecture

Date Posted: 1/24/2006

Daily Express 24TH Jan 2006

Richard N Sokial

 Sinurambi – breaking paradigm of the local architecture

Perched high upon a steep hillside above Inobong, Penampang, overlooking the West Coast of Sabah, is a house unlike any other. Completed in 2003, this dwelling called Sinurambi, is located approximately 25 minutes drive from Kota Kinabalu, and is gaining repute as one of the most architecturally beautiful houses in Malaysia. When the photo of the house was published in an earlier article in the Daily Express, many readers were amazed and could not believed that this house was even in Sabah.

Inspired by nature, the house is a marriage of Western and Kadazan traditional architecture and from its vantage point one can see to the South the spectacular view of the Kuala Penyu Peninsula, the Kota Kinabalu cityscape spans out to the West and lush green forest frames the majestic peak of Mount Kinabalu which peeks out behind a shroud of mist. In the evenings, the sunsets at Sinurambi, mirrored by the reflective glass panels of the house, are nothing short of spectacular.

The word Sinurambi, which means ‘jungle hut’ in the native Kadazandusun language, was designed by local Sabah architect Ling Fahshing who trained and worked in the US for more than ten years before returning to Sabah to set up his own architectural firm. A visionary architect with an eye for detail, Sinurambi is his most outstanding project to date and he is currently designing other distinctive projects throughout Sabah.

The architectural concept for designing Sinurambi was “a house that grows with nature”. Pockets of space were provided in and around the house to accommodate natural vegetation. The semi-circular timber pergola that denotes the house’s main entrance also provides adequate shade for small plants. In other areas, flowering vines cling onto columns invoking the notion that nature is indeed ‘embracing’ this home.

The house is arranged in an L-shaped formation to suit the site and its terrain. It has five bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, a dining room, an entertainment room, a small office on the third floor and an outdoor swimming pool. The huge outdoor timber observation deck is made entirely of salangan batu, a local hardwood species and is accessible from all the ground floor rooms.

An eclectic combination of materials was used to construct the house. Natural rocks sourced from the site itself were quarried and used to make structural walls, giving Sinurambi an interesting texture of “hardscape”. The stone walls are complimented by the smooth finishes of natural plywood. Yes, folks – weatherproofed plywood panels were use to create rich, warm timber tones of the Sinurambi exterior! It is equally interesting to note how industrial steel I-beams were put together with timber components to create the texture of this beautiful home.

The creativity of materials used is in pleasant contrast to the bland, unimaginative façades of many modern houses in Sabah today – all bricks and cement with giant Corinthian columns for decoration.

Structurally, the most impressive part of the house is the living room. Inspired by the shape of a wakid, a traditional Kadazandusun basket, the living room is a double-volume space formed mainly with steel I-beams supporting timber flying buttresses. The roof eaves were based on the shape of a wild fern leaf and emphasize the visual connection of the roof and the sky. The swimming pool, that overlooks the South China Sea, is designed with and ‘infinity edge’ that visually connects the pool and the sea.

However, to my mind, the best feature of the house is the use of an architectural detail that I refer to as the “Sinurambi Spiral”. Inspired by the spiral shape of the budding ferns which are endemic and grow profusely on the site, the architect has used its organic form to create the visual elements that ultimately define the character of the Sinurambi. The spiral form makes its presence felt throughout the building, especially on the elaborately carved main entrance door, the spiral staircase, the main gate and the coiled pattern has been repeated on the metal decorative grills around the house.

The construction of Sinurambi was not without its share of challenges. According to ‘sources’, the initial contractors, unaccustomed to the unconventional approach of the architect, constantly complained and wanted the house’s original design to be changed in favour of a simple, more typical plan. Also, in order to capture the magnificent view from the inside of the house, certain areas would have to be clad in glass – not exactly the most suitable material for a tropical climate. In hindsight, the use of glass did not contribute much towards heat gain as Sinurambi is constantly enveloped by mist and the cool mountain breezes that pass right though the house.

Despite the protestations of the contractor, the architect was determined to maintain Sinurambi’s shape, design and intent. Hence, despite some changes, the end result was a building that is both provocative and an inspiring piece of Sabahn architecture.

Sinurambi gives us a better idea of what architecture is really all about – artistic and creative and with a sense of purpose. It breaks many paradigms and local perceptions about architecture in Sabah and is an example of how a local traditional style can be combined with a modern contemporary architecture, with great effect.

There are very few architects in Sabah today who are brave enough to attempt something that will make their designs stand out and be noticed for the right reasons. Most of the time, the majority of them opt for an architecture that merely serves to please the sometimes misplaced financial sensibility of the client, despite their better judgment as trained architects.

They sometimes forget that as architects, we also have a social responsibility to educate the public and the clients about the importance of good architecture, so that in the future, the public and other potential clients will be more open to new ideas and concepts that will improve the overall design of a proposed scheme.

Sinurambi may not be the best tropical building in Sabah, yet it is special because it is a source of inspiration for the public as to what good architecture can do to enrich one’s life and personal experience.

The knowledge of local architecture, both past and present, is important to us, especially now that so many development projects are coming up in the state. Through articles on modern houses and local buildings like Sinurambi, it is hoped that public will gradually continue to support the need for architectural studies in Sabah.

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Photo Credit: Mills collection