Guest editorial: Sustainable solutions for tropical Asian cities: the nexus between architecture, technology and heritage

Keith Kay Hin Tan (School of Architecture, Building and Design, Taylor's University – Lakeside Campus, Subang Jaya, Malaysia)
Camelia May Li Kusumo (School of Architecture, Building and Design, Taylor's University, Subang Jaya, Malaysia)
Johannes Widodo (Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore, Singapore, Singapore)


ISSN: 2631-6862

Article publication date: 17 March 2023

Issue publication date: 17 March 2023



Tan, K.K.H., Kusumo, C.M.L. and Widodo, J. (2023), "Guest editorial: Sustainable solutions for tropical Asian cities: the nexus between architecture, technology and heritage", Archnet-IJAR, Vol. 17 No. 1, pp. 1-5.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2023, Emerald Publishing Limited

This special issue explores sustainable solutions for tropical Asian cities, and examines the nexus between architecture, technology and heritage. It was conceived as a response to issues as well as conceptual challenges arising from the increasingly complex social, cultural and environmental conditions that have made urban spaces in tropical Asia the focal point for much recent architectural debate regarding globalization and socio-economic development. Given that Asia is now home to more than half the world's population, the long-term sustainability of urban spaces throughout the continent can be treated as a litmus test for sustainability solutions across the world. This is especially so for the fast-growing tropical regions of the continent, where rapid economic growth is coupled with rapid rates of urbanization, that together are placing a strain on the planet's resources like never before (Rasoolimanesh et al., 2020).

This special issue approaches these topics from both a micro and macro perspective. It examines how increasingly heterogenous urban societies live, work and educate themselves and their children in conditions of rising population density, pollution and inflation. Whereas in 20th century, social studies of Asian architecture often focused on the rural–urban divide, urban life is now firmly entrenched as the norm across much of the continent (Ibrahim et al., 2019; Chang and Imran, 2019; Potter, 1985). The chapters that follow acknowledge this by addressing specific issues from a mostly practical, urban perspective. Questions of theory, whilst never ignored, are framed within a practical lens of continuing population, land-use and environmental pressures that are stretching notions of sustainability across Asia.

This practical approach also examines the impact of technology from a solutions-based perspective. It examines how technology contributes to heritage conservation via the use of simulated environments in specific cases. This approach examines different building typologies, including those that are relatively well-known as well as those which are comparatively under-studied. The focus is on solutions which suit the needs of Asian societies in general and developing countries, in particular.

Whereas many contemporary scholars have emphasized the link between development and change (Tan and Kusumo, 2021; Plevoets and Van Cleempoel, 2019; Jenkins and King, 2003; Thomas, 2000), this special issue presents development as also an opportunity for conservation. It does so by emphasizing the desires and ambitions of the younger generation of urban dwellers, and how increased levels of economic development allow for the monetary investments needed to make conservation projects a success (Amat, 2019; Chohan and Ki, 2005; Spennermann et al., 2001). In other words, the chapters that follow examine how, in societies which are dependent on economic progress for their continued well-being, there is a necessary and inevitable nexus between the architecture, technology and heritage. Architecture represents a tangible reflection of peoples' lifestyles, whilst technology and heritage are important intangibles representing their future aspirations as well as historical roots. To be impactful, sustainable solutions must therefore respect all three, thus creating the theme for this special issue.

Structure of the issue

Based on a desire to group architecture, technology and heritage under an umbrella of sustainable solutions relevant to tropical Asian cities, contributing authors from different backgrounds across Asia executed papers relating to these topics and linked them to specific case studies. Although some national locations predominate, the multicultural complexity of these locations create linkages to wider Asian diasporas, showing that the very idea of heritage in general, and cultural heritage in particular, transcends national boundaries. The papers are grouped and sequenced in the following order.

Papers examining semiotics

  1. Urban semiotics: Analyzing the contemporary Chinese diasporic meaning of Petaling Street, Chinatown.

  2. Architectural language of the Southern Fujianese traditional Chinese temple timber frame structure in West Malaysia: A cultural semiotics analysis.

By examining the role of semiotics in communicating meaning, the first two papers look into place-making and the diasporic architecture of the Chinese community in Southeast Asia. They show how issues of authenticity and sustainability are sometimes at odds with each other, even when dealing with buildings used by the same community in the same country. They reveal how the passage of time sometimes attaches new meanings to places that nevertheless hold significant meaning to communities within their host countries, even if that meaning originally developed from ties to a third place in a foreign country. It highlights that, even in cases where the preservation of authenticity is almost impossible in the face of change, the conservation of heritage is nevertheless still of major interest to diasporic communities.

Papers examining the challenges and opportunities arising from change

  1. Local perspectives on the cultural significance of rejuvenated heritage shophouses in George Town, Penang.

  2. Sustaining traditionalism: An investigation into the gradual shift in the Khasi Tribal houses of Sylhet

  3. Re-establishing traditional stilt structures in contemporary architecture – the possibilities

  4. Courtyard configuration to optimize shading, daylight and ventilation in a tropical terrace house using simulation.

Expanding on the first two papers' discourse about semiotics and how meanings are translated through architecture, the next four chapters discuss how change can be at the same time a disruptive influence, yet also an opportunity for commercial, cultural and environmental sustainability. The papers highlight change as occurring not just due to economic pressures, but also because of demographic, functional and technological changes that have affected demand for commercial and residential spaces in urban sites. The papers examine how change is an increasingly localized concern, both in terms of shifts in what is considered heritage, as well as how the use of technology has adapted traditional ideas into new construction in a way that resolves contemporary issues by paying tribute to the past.

Papers presenting solutions for learning spaces

  1. The nest: Post evaluation study on intentional learning space in public housing Malaysia

  2. Zero emission and clean energy concept for campus area in hot-humid tropical climate

The need for design and technology to not just cope with change, but also to be at its forefront is further exemplified by the next two papers. These deal with different types of learning spaces, both very small and very large. The papers identify how participatory design, on the one hand and technology, on the other, can lead to sustainable and meaningful solutions for people-centric spaces that are especially well-suited to developing communities in tropical Asia.

Papers on urbanism

  1. Five footways: The generator of public realm in Malaysian historical urban center

  2. Spatial intelligence: Integration of land-use to connectivity in the context of Eastern urbanism

  3. A systematic review of indicators for sustainability of urban heritage sites

The final section deals with the tangible, physical connections as well as the intangible indicators that are necessary to link the different individual buildings, spaces and old/new developments examined by the previous papers into patterns of settlement and land-use which, if executed well, are the necessary ingredients of sustainable, tropical cities. They acknowledge that urban development in Asia is gradually giving way to ‘re-development’, as old cities renew themselves and communities seek to make themselves relevant, and their cities resilient, to the challenges of the 21st century.


This special issue is a compilation of a variety of mostly qualitative or mixed-method studies from contemporary Asian scholars regarding what they consider sustainable solutions for tropical Asian cities. It examines the nexus between architecture, technology and heritage, and points to the growing importance of studies linking the various disciplines that support architecture, rather than separating them into silos. In particular, it highlights the many non-professional voices that are often overlooked by the building industry, and places them at the forefront of the conversation. By doing so, it proposes local solutions to the challenges facing Asian cities, without ignoring the many opportunities that an increasingly tech-driven building profession offers the architects, conservators, engineers and residents of one of the most diverse parts of the world.


Amat, R.C. (2019), “Historic cities of the straits of Malacca UNESCO World Heritage Site: threats and challenges”, Journal of World Heritage Studies, pp. 9-15, doi: 10.15068/00157680.

Chang, J.H. and Imran, T. (2019), “Historiographical questions in Southeast Asia's modern architecture”, in Southeast Asia's Modern Architecture, NUS Press, Singapore, pp. 1-16.

Chohan, A.Y. and Ki, P.W. (2005), “Heritage conservation a tool for sustainable urban regeneration: a case study of Kaohsiung and Tainan, Taiwan”, Heritage Conservation a Tool for Sustainable Urban Regeneration, Vol. 41st, pp. 1-16.

Ibrahim, F.I., Bakar, A.A. and Omar, D. (2019), “Sustainable city indicators in Malaysia”, in Development and Quantification of Sustainable Indicators, Springer, Singapore, pp. 1-25.

Jenkins, G. and King, V.T. (2003), “Heritage and development in a Malaysian city: George Town under threat?”, in Hitchcock, M. and King, V.T. (Eds), Indonesia and the Malay World Special Issue, Tourism and Heritage in Southeast Asia, Vol. 31, pp. 44-57.

Plevoets, B. and Van Cleempoel, K. (2019), Adaptive Reuse of the Built Heritage: Concepts and Cases of an Emerging Discipline, Routledge, London.

Potter, R.B. (1985), Urbanisation and Planning in the 3rd World: Spatial perceptions and Public Participation, Routledge, London.

Rasoolimanesh, S.M., Ramakrishna, S., Hall, C.M., Esfandiar, K. and Seyfi, S. (2020), “A systematic scoping review of sustainable tourism indicators in relation to the sustainable development goals”, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, Routledge, pp. 1-21, doi: 10.1080/09669582.2020.1775621.

Spennermann, D.H.R., Lockwood, M. and Harris, K. (2001), “The eye of the professional vs. opinion of the community”, Cultural Resource Management, Vol. 24 No. 2, pp. 16-18.

Tan, K.K.H. and Kusumo, C. (2021), “Modern architectural tourism in Singapore”, International Journal of Tourism Cities. doi: 10.1108/IJTC-02-2021-0032.

Thomas, A. (2000), “Development as practice in a liberal capitalist world”, Journal of International Development, Vol. 12 No. 6, pp. 773-787.

About the authors

Dr. Keith Kay Hin Tan is a UK-registered architect and the author of two previous books about the heritage of Malaysia's colonial-era Catholic mission schools. He obtained a doctorate in Tourism studies from Taylor's University in Malaysia in 2017. He is an Associate Professor at the School of Architecture, Building and Design at Taylor's University, and is also attached to the Liveable Urban Communities Impact Lab and Centre for Research in Tourism (CRiT) there. He has previously published many research articles in journals dealing with architectural heritage and tourism and is an active article reviewer for academic journals dealing with heritage and tourism issues.

Associate Professor Dr. Camelia May Li Kusumo is Program Director for Postgraduate studies in the School of Architecture, Building and Design of Taylors University in Malaysia. She holds a PhD in Architecture, Urbanism and Building Science from Delft University of Technology (the Netherlands). Her research interest is particularly in sustainable urban design and architecture, social housing, transit-oriented development and urban heritage. Camelia is the leader for the research group Affordable and Livable Asian Cities and member of the Centre for Research and Innovation in Tourism at Taylor's University. She is also an editorial board member of Journal of Advances in Civil Engineering and Sustainable Architecture.

Dr Johannes Widodo is the director of Graduate Programs in Architectural Conservation and Tun Tan Cheng Lock Centre for Asian Architectural and Urban Heritage (in Melaka) of the National University of Singapore. He is an Associate Member of the Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA), the founder of mAAN (modern Asian Architecture Network), an Executive Committee member of the Asian Academy for Heritage Management, a jury member for the UNESCO Asia Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation, member of ICOMOS International Scientific Committee, a founding member and director of ICOMOS National Committee of Singapore and Indonesia, a founding member of DoCoMoMo Macau and Singapore, the founder and executive director of iNTA (International Network of Tropical Architecture). He served as an advisory board member of the Preservation of Sites and Monuments of the National Heritage Board of Singapore (2013–2019), a board member of SEACHA (South-East Asian Cultural Heritage Alliance) since 2019, and a member of TCHS (The Circle of Human Sustainability (Singapore)) since 2022.

Related articles