Heffrence Teow


Taylor's University, Subang Jaya, Malaysia

Just when we thought that alternative exchanges – credit, information, the bit coin – had replaced gold, we are at the threshold of finding that, possibly, the next supreme currency is anonymity. The robbing and erosion of personal privacy have taken a treacherous path in our social experience. Typological and fictitious models form our legacy. Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon and George Orwell’s 1984 are both (un)inhabitable worlds of dystopic propositions where privacy is zero and surveillance – in all its imagined forms – a reality. Investigative journalism is, no less, an operation of this reality where princesses are hounded to death, and where our bodily nakedness might be viralled on cyberspace against our wish. Where can we go where we can be naked and unashamed? Post-Snowden, where can we be where we can know and be not known? How much are we willing to pay for this freedom/place? What might the architectural space of this free world look like?

Sub-rosa Wonderland takes a critical stance on disseminating the potentiality of uprising surveillance society had on our living environment when it challenges the very basic definition of sheltering and protection in architecture. While the project depicts a possible fantasy, it also communicates satirical value on our current social issue. What is freedom afterall? And what is the cost of it? Or are we just giving up more freedom to reclaim the freedom that we once had?

Heffrence could you introduce yourself, where you have studied, what stage you are in your architectural career/degree?


I’m born and grew up in Malaysia. Currently 26 and just finished my Master of Architecture in Taylor’s University, with 2 years of working experience in a local firm in between my BSc (Hons) Architecture and M.Arch.


Why did you decide to study architecture?


My interest towards architecture was never a thing since I’m a child, and there are no brave stories behind. Coming from a small town in Malaysia, I only stumbled upon architecture after I finished my high school. I like art – to draw, to design, to make, as well as science – to study, to research, to understand, and I believe architecture is able to provide me a balance of both. I came to enjoy it very much, and thereafter, my interest grew tremendously. Until today, I still view architecture as not limited to only built environment, but as an amalgamation of everything.

Your Sub-Rosa Wonderland project imagines a dystopian world whereby anonymity is a privilege, how did you conceive such a detailed and intriguing proposition for your project?


I’m always interested in narrating architecture through juxtaposing research, culture, context, and transdisciplinary knowledge to create a response. I believe every dot in this world can be connected and finding the relationship in between them makes addressing certain issue more effectively by looking at a bigger picture. For the past decades, architecture itself is very much a call of response to its immediate environment in which often not directly architectural related: industrial revolution and new construction methods, Fordism and mass housing, World War I and modernism, global warming and green building, natural disaster and disaster prone/relief architecture, food insecurity and urban farming… However, in most time architecture comes too late after the incident, and the search of solutions become critical and insufficient. In view of this, the project examines the uprising condition of surveillance society that the world is currently facing, and further extrapolates on the possible future living environment. I think this is a crucial topic to discuss now pertaining to architecture as this ever-increasing surveillance condition challenges the most basic purposes of a shelter: to protect, and provide privacy.

The project is critical of society ever decreasing personal privacy and does this in a satirical nature, what persuaded you to approach your project in this way?


We often read news about how surveillance systems are becoming more and more common with our current lifestyle. On one hand we felt threatened by them in taking away our freedom, but on the others we practice our right of freedom by embracing technologies, drones, internet-of-things… It becomes a paradoxical topic, and people often lost in finding the balance in between, sometimes forgotten the greater impact it has on our society. Through a satirical approach, I am trying to draw critical attention this matter by providing a clearer perspective of an imaginative possible future.


My aim with this project is not trying to provide an absolute solution, but rather on suggestions, and most importantly to raise an alarm and to use this project as a basis to provoke further discussion. I believe this should not be an end, but the beginning of a longer debate.


In the description of your project you reference the works of Jeremy Bentham and George Orwell how much did these authors and their dystopian novels influence your work?


The work of Jeremy Bentham with his idea of Panopticon is established on a theoretical basis, and that of George Orwell in his “1984” provides a fictional perspective. While both works are speculative (at the time when they are produced), the conditions portrayed are very much a reality now. Their works allow me to look into architecture with added dimensions – theory to fiction, past to future, in order to grasp a more complete picture of this issue.

Sub-Rosa Wonderland is located in a former mining lake in Malaysia why was this particular location chosen?


There are 2 premises: First, the lake site was chosen in contradict to the hostile, dystopic future I am portraying in showing that despite all the paranoia, leisure and tranquility are still needed elements for a sustainable living environment. Second, the site once celebrated its prime days in the noughties with The Mines Wonderland theme park – a place of entertainment and fantasy make-believe that combines beautiful landscape, recreation and retreat together, which eventually ran down. The project attempts to resuscitate the idea of urban escapism through creating an anti-surveillance enclave, a true form of “wonderland” for the future.

The scheme takes form through a series of private residential villas and chalets, why did you choose this architype to express the projects philosophy?


The idea is to address the issue of privacy at places where it is most vital: A residential as the most basic living space where one spend their most intimate time within; a chalet as a response to the diminishing definition of “retreat” challenged by the presence of surveillance all around.


What do you feel you have learnt by undertaking this project?


I think the most important take away I get from this project is to architecturalize a non-architecture topic, and to turn a complicated, serious issue into a more palatable, fantasy outcome that engages a broader audience while keeping the real debate intact.

The way you present your work is particularly unique, has anybody or anything in particular influenced your graphic style?


As images retain information better than words, I wanted to be able to summarize the project and to convey messages through a few images that carry the narrative, like a storyboard. Instead of a very realistic or monotone rendering which often looks dystopic, and as often portrayed in other literatures or even movies, I decided to demonstrate the seriousness of privacy erosion through a fantasy-like, almost-entertaining storytelling manner. Like a tale that carries hidden message or moral value within, the idea is to break apart the negative connotation to the subject of surveillance and build upon the hope for a better future.


Could you provide our readers with an insight into your drawing process, do you use a particular software to produce your drawings?


The softwares involved here are only Sketchup, Photoshop and Illustrator. 3D models are first created in Sketchup and then exported to Photoshop for composition, before tons of hours are spent in rendering the images there. Details and characters are later added through drawing in Illustrator.

If you could offer one piece of advice to our architecture student followers what would it be?


To really enjoy you are doing, be always open-minded and inspired. Architecture has no limitation, and ideas can come from everywhere. Most importantly, never ever views architecture negatively. It should be “archcitement”, not “architorture”!


Finally, where can people find out more about you and your projects?


You can find out more about me, this project altogether with some other works of mine at my online portfolio page or follow my instagram profile @heffrence for which I’ll constantly update my latest works there too!


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