Past Events

A River of Ideas: How my Childhood Helped Shape my Design Thinking

About the Talk

Guest Speaker: Kun Lim, President of the Kun Lim Studio LLC, Seattle, Washington State, USA & Principal Designer at Kun Lim Architect, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

There was a river meandering at the back of my childhood home in Kampung Kubang Rotan, Kedah, Malaysia. It was a river of life and activities for all of us siblings and was our link to the outside world. I draw inspiration from the house which my father built with mostly locally sourced materials. It comes with passive design features such as Lanai that provided natural ventilation and brought in light. It had a huge concrete tank right in the middle of the house which harvests rain for everyday drinking, washing, showering, and cooking. It also cools the house on hot days. There were vegetable plots, fishpond, chicken, pigeon coops, and our own paddy field right outside, making the family as self-sustainable as possible.

My life experiences growing up at my childhood home and compound, together with the design principles I acquired as an architecture student at the University of Houston, influenced all my architecture, urban design, and town planning work in places as far ranging as the United States, China, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and, of course, Malaysia.

I am constantly going back to my past and memories of my childhood to seek solutions for sustainable development, not just in a physical sense, but also in the dialogue between buildings and buildings; buildings and context; and buildings and people.

Date: 24 May 2023, Wednesday
Time: 8.00pm – 9.30pm
Venue: Penang Institute, 10 Brown Road, George Town

Moderator: Ong Siou Woon, Chief Operating Officer, Penang Institute


About the Speaker

Kun Lim is the President of Kun Lim Studio LLC in Seattle, USA, and Principal Designer of Kun Lim Architect in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His portfolio encompasses a wide range of project types, including mixed-use, multifamily, commercial, athletic, campus, worship, medical, recreational, and township planning across Asia and the United States. His concept master plan proposal while working for BEP Architect, won the invited design competition for Putrajaya, the new Administrative Capital City of Malaysia, in 1994. He then served as the lead planner for the master planning of Putrajaya from 1994 to 1996 with the multi-disciplinary consortium Kumpulan Perunding Kota Bistari Sdn Bhd, in which BEP Architect was a member. Kun Lim and his projects are featured regularly in architectural and mainstream media, including TV in Asia. He speaks regularly about his projects and practices at conferences and forums in Asia, Europe, and USA, and he is a board member representing design professionals with the City of Seattle Design Review Board.

Key Takeaways from the Event


Rivers have a huge influence in Kun Lim’s design – “It happened that most of my projects always have some kind of river next to it. When there’s no river, I will create the river. Until today, in my dreams and memories, the river behind my house is still a river of ideas to me. The river that motivates me to move forward, to involve in, to remember my root, my past, and try to be as humble as possible.”

Design Ideas & Concept Thinking: How I Approach My Projects

  • “When I am tasked to reimagine a township, I begin to look at clues on-site. A city needs a certain structure or spine that serves as a retention point to organise activities together. A water source like a lake or streams and a railway can become a spine to connect everything together. It’s a livable city and people are going to live there, so you need certain organic aspect of the city.”
  • “Respect and follow the existing topography by not cutting down field/slopes. Keep most of the sites as it is; retain as many trees as possible for natural ambience.”
  • “Incorporate green design by using a lot of natural lighting and ventilation; reduce the use of air-conditioning. It’s a strategy I learnt from kampung houses and Dubai hot tower – whereby in kampung houses, there’s always two layers of roof so that cool air can go through to cool down the roof and in a hot tower, hot air always go up.”
  • “I also incorporate circular linear to make spaces look bigger. When you use curves, you make the space appear bigger because curve has multiple points perspective.”
  • “When I build something new, I also ask the client’s permission to preserve certain existing buildings; for example, preserve the nice kampung or a mosque. I believe you should leave and keep something behind, something that people have certain emotional attachments to them.”
  • “When I was building for Tzu Chi project, I learnt to put aside my ‘architect ego’ by not challenging the conception. It was designed for the community, and not for myself.”
  • “Normally after a site visit, I produce concept sketch within 10 minutes and if the client accepts it, it always turns out to be good because I design it with intuition.”

Homecoming Project: Delapan East, Bukit Kayu Hitam, Kedah (for Northern Gateway)

I called it “My Homecoming Project” because it is in Kedah, my home state.

Northern Gateway approached me to design a data center. They want me to reimagine the township. I looked around for inspiration and noticed there were two river streams and I suggested that we should have an urban village. I also looked at the topography and begin to subdivide the township into different parcels. We allocated 150 acres for the date center. We also introduced a mosque, residential shopping, and widened the river for water retention purposes. On the eastern side, we introduced the education hub; it can also be a high-tech research center. By doing so, we enhance the land value and maybe attract people to move, to work, and to live there.

The focus point is the urban village which is organised by the river. It used to be a tiny river but the Northern Gateway agreed that we should widen it. It should become a river of life, a river that creates activities and encourages activities – not just for water retention or flood mitigation purpose. It can become a tourists attraction too. We also introduced a lot of waterfront activities; we have pedestrian crossings that can be used for bicycles, walking or jogging up and down the river.

Closing Keynotes from the Speaker

“From the river behind my childhood home, which I call a river of ideas, I continue my journey as an architect to the river of life in Delapan East and I hope the river will have as much impact to the future residents, as much as the river of life or river of ideas behind my house.”