Grand designs: an interview with Spine Architects

Stephen and Amelie are a husband and wife team who share a passion for introducing people to new concepts in design. This applies both to SPINE’s clients and Myanmar’s new generation of architects.

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Published in The Myanmar Times property supplement on 22 October 2012

A recently completed SPINE building in a residential district off Pyi Thar Yar Road in Yankin Township, Yangon. The building is owned by Hein Engineering and Trading. Photo credit: Aye Zaw (Kan Ni)
A recently completed SPINE building in a residential district off Pyi Thar Yar Road in Yankin, Yangon. Photo credit: Aye Zaw (Kan Ni)

Stephen Zawmoe Shwe and Amelie Chai create a style of architecture that turns even the most world-weary of heads.

“When a taxi driver saw the design of our eight-storey MGD building, he said, ‘I never imagined seeing a building like this in Yangon in my lifetime,’” Stephen says with a smile from his chic-modern Mayangone township office.

“That the general population is starting to notice us is so rewarding,” adds the Myanmar-born architect, who returned to Yangon in 2003 after a 15-year absence.

While wealthy people are much more likely to travel overseas and are therefore exposed to contemporary architecture and in turn, be more accepting of it, the feel good factor for Stephen is that, “The middle class are starting to want to live in the houses we design.”

Stephen and Amelie are a husband and wife team who share a passion for introducing people to new concepts in design. This applies both to SPINE’s clients and Myanmar’s new generation of architects. The firm employs a number of local graduates, who are provided with on the job training, both practical and theoretical.

Stephen left Myanmar in 1988 to study architecture at the University of California and Columbia University.

He said, “At the time, the education system [in Myanmar] was pretty poor. All the schools shut down following the‘88 protests. They reopened for a couple of years but then shut down again.” Some of his peers spent 10 frustrating years completing their engineering degrees. Stephen believes the situation has improved and welcomes moves by the government to divest considerable energy into reforming the public education system. But he laments Myanmar’s ongoing brain drain, with much raw talent being lost to Singapore.

Stephen said that particularly in years past, when new buildings in Yangon and other cities looked monotonously similar, “Young architects didn’t have the opportunity to design something they believed in, or something challenging. For financial reasons, many had to work on projects they disliked – such as the Greek temple style.”

Needless to say, Stephen and Amelie don’t fawn over neo-classical buildings, a style that remains the most common among Yangon’s wealthy. But thanks to SPINE and other innovators, this is rapidly changing.

Amelie, who has been living in Myanmar since 2004, describes SPINE’s creations as “fairly contemporary, with a lot of open plan living.”

It makes sense that they don’t hold fortress-like modifications to homes in high esteem either.

“We definitely don’t like the razor wire look,” says Amelie with a wry smile.

“The idea of the fenced compound is rather new to me, coming from the States. Almost every property here is surrounded by a six foot wall.”

Amelie said SPINE has designed the ubiquitously tall fences (which they make non-climbable to boot), but a minority of clients “add razor wire afterwards for added security and we can’t do anything about it.”

She doesn’t believe crime rates are high enough to justify ream upon ream of sharp wire, particularly as most houses also have guards, but understands it is an aspect of Myanmar culture that also has a psychological basis.

Far less visually dominant forms of security, such as alarm systems or CCTV, haven’t taken off in Myanmar yet, as Amelie explains, “People tend not to trust anything completely electronic because of constant electrical outages – even with a backup generator, many doubt it will work every time.”

Stephen agrees –more SPINE homes would include large panels of laminated glass if people felt comfortable without “another physical barrier to prevent someone breaking in, like a layer of iron grill.”

Whilst supplies of razor wire are seemingly abundant, SPINE projects have often had to accommodate a gap between the demand and supply of architectural resources.

Stephen states matter-of-factly,“Myanmar has many shortages, not just in terms of materials, but also skilled labour and technology.”

“It’s a very challenging environment to work and live in. It’s raining almost all the time and there’s a lot of humidity,” adds Amelie.

The same project as pictured above. The building is owned by Hein Engineering and Trading.  Photo credit: Aye Zaw (Kan Ni)
The same project as pictured above. The building is owned by Hein Engineering and Trading. Photo: Aye Zaw (Kan Ni)

When the duo worked on hotel projects, Amelie said it was often impossible to find 30 matching bathroom fixtures and tile sets because stocked quantities were low and lead times long.

“It was always a struggle to get the bathrooms to look somewhat similar,” she says with a laugh.

Under these circumstances, they define success as getting “eighty percent of what we hoped for.”

Amelie and Stephen give short thrift to the glass being half-empty: their focus never wavers from conceiving grand designs – with evidently successful results.

“We create something with what we have,” says Amelie, who believes that: “As the country continues to open up, hopefully there will be more and more experienced contractors coming in and a greater assortment of materials.”

A further, though again, not insurmountable obstacle, is the impact of Myanmar’s cash economy on the quality of new buildings, which Stephen believes should always be at least a ‘Class B’.

“It’s a financing problem, but that’s changing now and we should see better quality buildings [being constructed],” says Stephen.

SPINE’s ability – and determination – to make every project unique is motivated by a desire to satisfy their clients as much as it is to stimulate their own intellect.

“We always challenge and compete with ourselves – we don’t compete against any other architects,” says Amelie.

“We don’t want to do the same thing over and over again,” adds Stephen emphatically. “That would be so boring. The pleasure of architecture is creating something new every day. When clients ask us for the same house we did three years ago, I say, ‘No, it’s been done and I want to do something new for you.’”

Click here to visit SPINE Architects website

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