Far from a symbol of irrelevance, Soon-Tzu Speechley shows us that historical buildings can be powerful barometers of culture and sustainability.
As a young boy of Malaysian-British background growing up in Kuala Lumpur, Soon-Tzu Speechley spent countless hours admiring the city’s historical masterpieces. He wandered, observed and learned. He liked the way the buildings were physical evidence of ‘culture’.
When it came to his university studies, Soon-Tzu pursued other interests – history, Asian studies and even musicology – facilitated by the University of Melbourne’s flagship ‘Melbourne Model’, which encourages the exploration of many fields through undergraduate study. It built upon the diverse subjects he studied through Trinity’s Foundation Studies program, giving him perspective and a wide knowledge base.
But the allure of architecture and heritage was always there, tugging Soon-Tzu towards his childhood passion.
After graduating from Foundation Studies and the University of Melbourne, Soon-Tzu returned to Asia. There, he penned a number of articles for the Penang Monthly, discussing local heritage, then joined Singapore University of Technology and Science as a research assistant, where he got his hands dirty with historical paint and plaster. He also volunteered as a writer covering local urban issues and history at the Penang Heritage Trust.
These years spent working in Asia solidified Soon-Tzu’s passion and prompted him to take his education further with a PhD, studying the way local architecture in nineteenth and twentieth century Malaya was affected by the localisation of British influence. Given his positive undergraduate experience in Melbourne, the University of Melbourne was his institution of choice, and he returned to Australia in 2017.
In explaining his decision to deep dive into the study of architecture from centuries past, Soon-Tzu says: ‘The importance of heritage has to do with culture and sustainability.’ In his view, today’s fast-paced world is the reason why heritage is seeing a resurgence in perceived importance. In cities where rapid change is a given, people find comfort in symbols of the constant past. Soon-Tzu says this is why South-East Asian countries that previously placed ‘great pressure on their built environments’ are now realising and implementing heritage legislation.
As for the sustainability side of heritage, Soon-Tzu explains that the ‘interchangeable skyscrapers’ that can be found in many cities could learn a thing or two from heritage buildings that were designed thoughtfully with surrounding characteristics such as climate in mind. It’s for this reason Soon-Tzu aims to honour cities and culture through heritage advocacy and encourage the application of old architectural principles to the modern day, while feeding his own sense of intrigue in the process.
By Jacqueline Darwis