He’s an eco visionary with a passion for towers and a taste for karaoke and comics, and he’s on the shortlist to design the UK’s largest urban regeneration project. What would he make of Elephant & Castle?
Ken Yeang is a fan of karaoke. “It’s a great way of bonding,” says the smartly dressed Malaysian architect as he sips Pimms in a Soho bar. “To sing, you have to loosen your inhibitions. It’s the modern variation of the Irish singing around a piano in pubs.”

Yeang’s theme song on the karaoke stage is Frank Sinatra’s Young at Heart, which seems appropriate, given how much he packs into his life. On top of designing the green skyscrapers that have made him world famous with his practice TR Hamzah and Yeang, the 51-year-old is by turns an author, professor, marketing student and full-time traveller. Such is his flying schedule (300 000 miles a year) that he collects enough air miles to travel first class between London and Kuala Lumpur every year.

There have been plenty of opportunities for Yeang to make the journey from Asia to Europe of late. Since joining the Southwark Land Regeneration team, one of three bidding for the £500m redevelopment of London’s Elephant & Castle, he has been adding his customary energy and ideas to one of the capital’s major regeneration schemes.

The winner will be picked at the end of the month. And if his team’s bid is successful, it will be something of a homecoming for Yeang, who describes his childhood as a “classic British upbringing”. Sent to Cheltenham College for Boys at 13, he went on to study at Cambridge University. He calls England his second home – two of his sisters live here and he owns a house in East Finchley.

Yeang is excited at the prospect of working in the UK. “In the Far East, you are always dealing with developers who are trying to cut costs,” he sighs. He also thinks there are more skills in the UK. “There is a shortage of professions in the Far East. The best consultants in the world – Arup, Battle McCarthy, the University of London – are within a stone’s throw of each other here.”

The prospect of future work in the UK seems good. As well as the Elephant & Castle opportunity, Yeang has signed a formal agreement with HTA Architects (also on the Southwark Land Regeneration team) to seek residential work. “We think his time has come,” says HTA director Ben Derbyshire, who describes him as “an incredibly likeable man”.

Yet Yeang’s affable manner hides real drive. The disadvantages of working in South-east Asia, which include the tempestuous economic conditions, seem to have inspired him. “If people ask me what it’s like to be an Asian architect, I say you have to over-achieve to be recognised,” he says. “If you tell people you are from Malaysia, they see you as a Third World architect.”

That is far from the perception that currently surrounds Yeang. Having incorporated environmental ideas and research into early projects, such as his own Roof-Roof house in Kuala Lumpur, which features a louvred roof that acts as a solar filter, he decided to tackle the structure probably considered the most wasteful in the modern world: the skyscraper.

If people ask me what it’s like to be an Asian architect, I say you have to over-achieve to be recognised

His more recent projects, such as the international award-winning Menara Mesiniaga office block in Kuala Lumpur and the mixed-use MBf Tower in Penang, have started to change the perception of tall buildings. The environmental ideas – minimising energy use, creating microclimates inside the buildings – were matched by a style that was more informal and expressive than that of the typical modern skyscraper.

The Yeang approach is a knowledge-based one, which he thinks will be crucial in the coming century. “You have to have the figures,” he asserts. “A low-energy building has to use less than 100 kilowatt hours per square metre per annum. It’s an index you can design to. If you don’t have those criteria, it’s like a moving target.”

Knowing your watts per hour doesn’t restrict the design, though, he says. “You take those knowledge-based aspects and interpret them poetically.” And Yeang is realistic about the results. “It’s not going to work 100% – things change, that’s what life is. If it’s 100% hunky-dory, you are building a box.”

Yeang is buzzing with ideas, most of them dreamed up while he soars through the air on his way to another destination or, bizarrely, while he reads his extensive collection of Japanese modern comics. “I have 12 hours on a plane to myself to think things I want to,” he says of his flights.

Many of his ideas continue the ecological theme. He is preparing a working paper for the RIBA on sustainability, and is also producing a concept of landscaped bridges that could take over from roads by linking buildings. “Roads cut up ecosystems into 20 000 bits,” he says. “A good design can have a positive impact on the environment – you can enhance it.”

Married to this environmental zeal is Yeang’s flair for marketing. “I’m probably one of the best marketing men around,” he says. He picked up his sales patter selling encyclopedias in London during his student days. He has also studied marketing. “Most architects are very bad at marketing, except the Americans, who are terrific. When you become a corporate business, it is much more professionally done.”

With his hectic schedule – in Yeang’s world, flying is a form of relaxation – he has little time to rest on his laurels. Asked to pick out his favourite building from his collected output – he has completed 12 skyscrapers to date – he responds: “That’s like asking a mother with lots of children which one she likes best. She would say, ‘I love all of them, but in different ways’.”

Personal effects

Where do you live? I still live in my Roof-Roof house in Kuala Lumpur with my wife Priscilla, my four children – two boys and two girls – and our maid. What book are you reading? Funky Business by two Dutch economists, Kjell Nordstrom and Jonas Ridderstrale. It’s the best book I’ve come across about doing business in the global economy. What do you sing when you do karaoke? Mostly Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, and the occasional Pet Shop Boys number. What do you do to relax? I watch four to six films a week. My favourites are the Japanese Samurai films. The best is Lone Wolf and Cub about a Ronin [a masterless Samurai] and his baby son during the Edo period. Which architects do you admire? Lord Foster, Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind and Professor Peter Cook. Which are your favourite places? The cities (and their sub-cultures) I love are London (Soho), Tokyo (Roppongi), New York (Tribeca), San Francisco (North Beach) and Melbourne (Flinders Street area).