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By Willy Wilson | Aug 12, 2010

Traditional Nyonya courtyard concept, modernised for city living


Humble: Roland Lee and his wife, Lin Lee in their living room

A ramble around a prestigious gated community in a Petaling Jaya district and its environment is reminiscent of Wisteria Lane of Desperate Housewives fame. With rows of mansions, manicured gardens and extra-wide streets, one can almost expect to bump into well-heeled ladies in their summer dresses walking their dogs.

But an afternoon tête-à-tête with Roland Lee and his wife Lin Lee snaps us back to reality. Modest, accessible and warm, the couple admits that their residence mirrors their personalities. The couple’s 10,000sq ft residence sees a Nyonya house (Siheyuan) layout, which is an open concept featuring an internal courtyard in the centre. Such arrangement allows natural light as well as good air ventilation to reach every corner of the house.

A Buddha statue is placed in the centre of the courtyard. A devout Tibetan Buddhist, the couple confesses that religion places utmost importance in the way they live their life.

“Incorporating a spiritual aesthetic into the interior works of the house is what makes a house livable,” says the couple. This explains a 5ft Lama Songkapa statue, which sits majestically on a grand altar located in the left wing of the house.

Unlike their glitzy neighbours, the concept of quality living for the couple seems to have skewed towards having a house that shows their religious devotion. The couple further explains that it isn’t luxurious commodities such as Italian marble tiles or rare Iranian rugs that can bring comfort to a house.

Contemporary: A blend of Buddhist aesthetic with contemporary setting in the living room

StarProperty.my chatted with Mr and Mrs Lee about incorporating Buddhist art into a contemporary house.

Tell us about this house. How big is it and what are the main rooms here?
Lin Lee (LL): We don’t exactly know the built-up size, but we can tell you that this house sits on a 10,000sq ft land. It is a two-storey, five-bedroom house which was built in 1997. There is an internal courtyard in the centre of the house.

Roland Lee (RL): Once inside the house, guests are greeted by a spacious foyer, which leads directly to the courtyard. The foyer’s left side consists of a living and dining area, which are both connected to the kitchen. The kitchen, on the other hand, is located behind the courtyard (in the opposite direction of the foyer).

The right side consists of a flight of stairs that lead to the second floor. Next to the stairs is a corner that we dedicate to the Buddha. We built an altar there. Meanwhile, the second floor only consists of bedrooms and a study.

Certainly there is a strong presence of Buddhist influence in terms of interior. But what is the concept of the house?
RL: The concept is a basic 'vision' of repose and calm, with lots of airiness and natural sunlight. In terms of architecture, perhaps the strongest influence is a traditional Nyonya courtyard house, in which the spaces are arranged around an inner courtyard.

A traditional Nyonya courtyard-type of house is almost unheard of in modern architecture! Why did you decide to go with this style?
LL: The original plan was to have a swimming pool right where the courtyard is. But a Feng Shui guru advised me that having a water element in this house wouldn’t be good for me. The next obvious option was to build a courtyard.

Buddhist art: Paintings, sculptures and art pieces are hung on the walls

RL: The good news is that courtyard house has a tendency to be inward looking, which means that most activities are done within the house. As such, maximum privacy and security of the homeowners are guaranteed. See, we are the kind of family who spends a lot of time at home, so a courtyard house is definitely suitable for us.

Spiritual: The central courtyard features an elevated Buddha

How does this house reflect you?
LL: The house reflects our heritage, and more importantly our faith. We consider spiritual harmony within the interior works of the house. As you can see, there is a strong influence of Buddhist art – paintings, sculptures, and art pieces are hung on the walls. And of course there’s the altar.

RL: A life-size statue of Lama Songkapa on the altar may seem a bit much. Surely with the level of intricacy put into the work of this statue, it is a quality art piece. But for us, this statue isn’t just a piece of art that compliments our house, but also a symbol of our devotion.

Buddhist art pieces normally come in a riot of bold colours, which are prone to the somewhat garish stereotype. But, your living room manages to blend Buddhist aesthetic with contemporary setting effortlessly. Any tips?
RL: I think the key is to work with the best colours that could frame both contemporary and Buddhist art for the walls. In our living room, the walls are grey, which provides a sophisticated ambience.

LL: We also use antique furniture to play down on the colour contrast. Antique furniture, which we inherit from our grandparents, are in dark wooden colours. The sentiment that these furniture bring to the house somehow gels with the Buddhist art pieces.
 

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