Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Kington Loo

Kington among men


Renowned architect Datuk Kington Loo, who passed away last Friday, left behind a legacy of priceless contributions to his profession and also to environmental conservation and the arts. ALLAN KOAY talks to his friends and associates who knew him well and loved him dearly. 

When this story was being put together, it only took a couple of phone calls to those who knew Datuk Kington Loo personally before word got around, and many called up to volunteer information or pay tribute to one of the most celebrated figures in the architectural profession. 

Loo was not only renowned for his priceless contributions to the profession, he was also highly regarded for his tireless efforts in wildlife and environmental conservation, and as a patron of the arts. He was chairman of the Malaysian Zoological Society and founding trustee of the World Wide Fund for Nature Malaysia (WWFM), as well as chairman of the Malaysian Arts Council.  

His youthful enthusiasm in joining and forming committees also led to the formation of many of the institutions of today. The Federation of Malaya Society of Architects (FMSA), of which he was president in 1962, was the precursor to the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM). As chairman of the Arts Council, he was instrumental to the founding of the National Art Gallery. 

Loo, who was among the first generation of architects following the country’s independence, was born in Kuala Lumpur on Oct 17, 1930. His mother, Loke Soh June, was the sixth daughter of millionaire businessman Loke Chow Kit, and his father, Yuson Loo, was the grandson of prominent businessman Loke Yew.  

Another illustrious member of the family was Loo Mui Suet, the Ching Dynasty Imperial Examination Scholar who sailed to Malaya and married Loke Yew’s daughter.  

Loo’s parents lived a modest lifestyle. His father was a mechanical engineer and his mother, an accomplished piano teacher. 

Loo had his primary education at Batu Road School in Kuala Lumpur. He walked to school every day from his family house in Stonor Road. 

Before he turned 13, Loo’s young life was disrupted when the Japanese invaded Malaya, and the family moved to a rubber estate in Ulu Langat, Selangor, to escape the bombing blitz. Later, they moved to Singapore which was then thought to be impregnable. But when Singapore was finally threatened, the family sailed to India, except for the father, because all able-bodied men were not allowed to leave Malaya.  

After their plan to walk across the Himalayas to China was unsuccessful due to the Japanese invasion of Burma, they stayed in India where Loo continued his studies in a private school. His father later rejoined the family and worked as an engineer with the US Army. 

When the family moved to Delhi, Loo went to the St Columbas High School where he studied until Junior Cambridge (Form Three). During his time there, Loo learned Hindi and Urdu, and was also exposed to the harsh realities of life when he witnessed death and starvation during the great famine of 1945. 

At the end of the war, the family returned to Kuala Lumpur and Loo started Form Four at the Victoria Institution

Even at a young age, Loo had displayed a flair for graphic expression; his mother even kept his doodlings made on strips of toilet paper when he was only three years old! Even so, this penchant for drawing did not sit well with his parents who wanted him to study medicine or law. After all, the architectural profession was virtually non-existent in those days. 

The young Loo was determined to pursue what he felt was his natural inclination. After finishing his studies at the Victoria Institution in 1947, Loo joined the Government Commercial Day School and learnt typing, shorthand and book-keeping. Because of financial constraints, his parents could not afford to send him overseas, so he spent one and a half years in a civil engineering course at the Technical College. There was no architecture course in Malaya back then. When Loo’s great-grandmother, Mrs Loke Yew, was persuaded to finance his studies, he went to study architecture at Melbourne University in Australia. 

There, he excelled as a student and even won the internal competition to design the Dean of Architecture’s holiday house. The university now gives out an honorary award called the Kington Loo Prize to the best design student. 

The fear of failure drove Loo to concentrate on his studies. He lived on a tight budget and had to stuff newspapers in his clothes to keep warm. 

Upon graduation in 1953, Loo returned to Kuala Lumpur and joined Booty, Edwards & Partners where he had earlier worked while preparing for his thesis. He became a partner in the practice. Under Loo and several other Malaysians, the company became what it is today – BEP Akitek Sdn Bhd. 

In 1962, Loo became the first local to be elected as president of the FMSA, and the first non-Caucasian to be president of an almost all-British society. 

He was the first to win the PAM’s Gold Medal in 1998. His architectural designs include the Dewan Tunku Canselor in Universiti Malaya, the Subang International Airport and the Standard Chartered building in Kuala Lumpur. He also designed the first high-rise office building in Kuala Lumpur, the 13-storey Police Cooperative Building at Jalan Sulaiman. 

Loo was once quoted as saying: “Unless one has a strong and orderly framework to practise one’s profession, one can never do what one wants to do. One will end up being totally commercialised and indulging in gross business tactics, including paying inducements and touting for work.” He constantly stressed the building of a solid reputation for integrity and reliability. 

Indeed, the president of the PAM, Tan Pei Ing, remembers Loo as a man who carried himself with a dignified air and was very distinguished-looking. 

”People would take one look at him and say, ‘Wow!’ “ says Tan. “The first time I saw him, I was very impressed by him and immediately wanted to make him my role model. I wanted to be like him. He commanded respect from everyone who knew him. But then I also later discovered that he was very approachable.”  

Tan adds that she had always regarded Loo, whom she first met in 1986 after graduation, as her mentor. Tan is the first woman president of the PAM, and Loo had always given her his support. She says he had always preached professionalism and high standards. 

“He always emphasised three things – professionalism, integrity and honesty,” adds Tan. “He always said that what will set us apart from the con men is our professionalism. And he always had the public’s interest in mind. He taught us that when a client engages us, public interest must always be looked after. We should not just aim to please the client but also take into account the impact on the public and the environment.” 

Loo was also very vocal about the causes of landslides, especially after the Taman Hillview tragedy last year that destroyed Jen (R) Tan Sri Ismail Omar’s bungalow and killed six of his family members and two maids. Loo pointed out that the local authorities “seemed to be persuaded” by developers to approve projects that are unsafe and violated legislations. 

Tan describes Loo as very kind and soft-spoken. Even so, he was never reserved about his comments, always spoke up and never worried about his popularity. 

“He had firm ideas about doing the right thing,” says Tan. “He always told us that no matter how difficult things are, as a professional and a person, we must always do the right thing. He said two wrongs don’t make a right. He always told us that just because someone does something bad to us, it doesn’t mean we have to also do the wrong things.” 

Zoologist Dr Lim Boo Liat, who is also vice-chairman of the Malaysian Zoological Society, remembers Loo as a very sincere person. Lim recalls how Loo, the late Tan Sri Vic Hudson and the Wildlife Department started a zoo corner at the Malaysian Agriculture, Horticulture and Agrotourism exhibition in 1959. The corner became so popular that they had it every year at the exhibition until 1963 when they started Zoo Negara in Ulu Kelang. 

“(Datuk Loo) was very sincere in wanting to get the zoo started for the benefit of the public,” says Lim. “He went all out to get public support and grants from the Government.” 

Lim worked with Loo until 1969 when he left to further his studies overseas. In 1987, Lim rejoined the zoo committee and worked closely with Loo. 

“When he takes on a job, he is very determined to get it done properly,” says Lim. “When he took over as chairman of the zoo, he wanted to run it as it was done before, and the zoo was in excellent shape. He spent a lot of energy coming to the zoo three days a week to see how things can be improved to get more visitors.” 

Lim says the zoo was Loo’s life and he probably overworked himself there, but he never told anyone that he was tired. 

Outside of his official duties, Loo was “very sympathetic to people, never lost his temper and was very cool,” says Lim. 

“He was prepared to help anyone who came to him and would never say a word about the help he gave,” Lim adds. “He gave with his right hand and never asked for anything with his left. He was one of the rare persons I have met, and if he was unhappy, he would never tell anyone. He kept things to himself. But I have never heard anyone say a single bad thing about him.” 

WWFM executive director Datuk Dr Mikaail Kavanagh Abdullah, who had known Loo for 15 years, describes him as “very nice, very considerate, and had a good sense of humour.” Like Tan, Dr Kavanagh also regards Loo as his mentor and feels a great sense of personal loss. 

Dr Kavanagh says Loo was down-to-earth and unassuming, and a person whom everyone liked. 

“He was also a man of principles and he knew what he believed in,” says Dr Kavanagh. “He knew a lot about the environment, because as an architect and a planner, he understood the use of land.” 

Asked if there was any particular aspect of the environment that Loo was most concerned about, Dr Kavanagh says it was the proper management of the environment which Loo believed should benefit the public. 

“Proper planning should be done, and once it is done, it should be implemented properly,” says Dr Kavanagh. He said that even when you have the best plan, sometimes people will make all sorts of exceptions, and in the end the plan can end up being ineffective. And that was why Loo felt that after proper planning has been done, it should be followed. 

As for Loo’s contributions to WWFM, Dr Kavanagh says there have been many. But he remembers fondly how Loo had gone out of his way to help WWFM move office to its current location in Petaling Jaya. According to Dr Kavanagh, Loo organised and supervised the move, and went out to all his connections to get things for the new office. 

“He was always helpful to people,” adds Dr Kavanagh. “If there is one word that could sum up how he was, it is ‘generous’. He was generous with his time, generous with his help, and to the WWFM, he was generous as a donor. He supported a lot of good causes.” 

His daughter, Ewa Loo, has this to say of her father: “He was a kind and loving father who did not push any expectations upon his children, only expecting and instilling the basic principle that to have a good name is far better than silver or gold.” 

A funeral service will be held at the First Baptist Church, Jalan Gasing, Petaling Jaya, at 10am today.

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