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The client explicitly asked for privacy for the spaces inside, contradicting her desire to let lots of light and air in. Cleverly placed openings allow for proper ventilation and lighting without revealing the interiors to the street.

The house’s physical constraints are apparent from the street. It sits on 176 square meters of land wedged between two other units in a terrace housing row in Kuala Lumpur. The lack of setback makes it appear cramped, claustrophobic. Aware of these limitations, the client wanted the house renovated Balinese-style, desiring the serene and refreshing ambiance it promises.

Fabian Tan, the architect, followed the client’s brief by hewing to the guiding principles of Balinese architecture—generous ventilation and harmony with nature. The renovated house now stands half a storey higher than its neighbors, as though coming up for air. The thick exterior walls appear to contradict the brief, with concrete slabs protruding from the façade to form an awning for the garage, a roof deck, and a frame for the 4.5-meter-high front door. The scale and proportion save the facade from being thickset and heavy. Indeed, its rhythmic, vertical lines make the composition, particularly of the entryway, pleasingly distinctive. Better still, the spaces inside induce a feeling of lightness unexpected in such a narrow terrace house.

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The striking concrete frame shades the front door from sun and rain. The 4.5-meter door pays homage to Chinese temple doors. Its red surface appears solid and opaque from the street, but up close one realizes it is permeable, made of steel mesh, aiding in ventilation.

His goal was simple: for users to appreciate the voids created by the shell, not the shell itself. For the architecture to heighten one’s living experience while remaining unobtrusive, he turned to Japanese architecture for ideas. “Houses from the Edo and Shinto periods look very simple, but you can tell the process and feel behind their construction was complex. I wanted to achieve that subtlety in this house,” he says.

Changes to the original structure were minimal. Ground floor partitions were torn down, as they shrouded the interiors in darkness and made for cramped spaces. The resulting layout and flow is straightforward and logical and planned with differences in ceiling heights and openings to help air circulate and let light in.

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View from the front door. The removal of interior walls enables a visual corridor all the way to the kitchen at the back of the house. The foyer’s ceiling is higher than the second floor, and a meter-high gap between the two allows a peek of the lounge and office area upstairs. This entrance space introduces a liberating feeling that is impossible achieve in a conventional terrace house.

The front door opens to a spacious foyer one and a half storeys high, from which one can see all the way to the back of the house. Tan calls the uninterrupted sightline “a view corridor.” Past the foyer is a low-ceilinged dining area that extends towards an indoor courtyard, another high-ceilinged space intended to simulate the experience of being outside, an extravagance few terrace house owners know. After the high space, the house terminates in a low space, which houses the kitchen.

Of the original layout, Tan retained only the bedrooms—a guest room and the daughter’s room on the ground floor, and the client’s own on the second. The void created by the indoor courtyard left the second floor with a smaller area for its living spaces, composed of the family lounge, master bedroom, and a bathroom.

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View of the ground floor from the kitchen, which has an inclined ceiling, the underside of the pitched roof at the house’s northwest side. From here, one can see the still-young tree in the indoor courtyard and the master bedroom above.

Without room to expand sideways, Tan enlarged certain living spaces vertically to dispel the sense of confinement in the narrow rectilinear space. Aside from allowing the owner use of the second floor, the syncopated ceiling heights—as against a uniformly tall ceiling—goads visitors to move forward and explore the other spaces within the house, particularly the double-height courtyard where a skylight bathes the ground floor and upstairs bedroom in a perpetual glow.

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View from inside the 4.5-meter high foyer, showing the front door and a gate with swiveling grills that open to a small garden. Visitors can enter through both, and the grills can be rotated open to allow air to come in. A small door for storage on the wall to the right is one of several disguised nooks in the house.

A curious detail in the foyer is the meter-high gap between the foyer ceiling and the second storey-floor, which offers a peek into the second-storey space, like a woman lifting her skirt. The gap was left open, so the client could see into the foyer when visitors arrive. While it looks like a design faux pas, it is a testament to Tan’s preference for connectivity in architecture. “Everything has to be linked,” he says. “When you talk about context in architecture, it isn’t just the relationship the building has with the outside environment, but also of elements within the building itself, how they relate to each other and the building’s users.” B ender

This article first appeared in BluPrint Vol 4 2017. Edits were made for BluPrint online.

READ MORE: Fabian Tan’s Jose House translates nature and light

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