Alumni in Focus: Professor Hijjas Kasturi AM
The iconic international architect paving pathways for Malaysian students.
University of Adelaide alumnus Professor Hijjas Kasturi AM knew he wanted to be an architect since the age of twelve.
“I was interested in art, drawing and sketching. I helped my father build our ramshackle houses in Singapore when I was young, including sewing the attap roof and making plank walls out of discarded timber boxes,” he said.
Today, Professor Hijjas is a celebrated architect and founding Director of Hijjas Kasturi Associates (HKA), an architectural practice in Malaysia, recognised through multiple local and international accolades.
The firm's most well-known projects include the iconic Malayan Banking Berhad, the Securities Commission Headquarters, the Convention Centre in Putrajaya and the Telekom Headquarters.
In 1960, with the support of an Australian Government Colombo Plan scholarship, Professor Hijjas started a Bachelor of Architecture at the University of Adelaide.
“It was an eye opener of course, embarking into a new world and higher education in a new place. Everything was exciting, from attending classes to participating in university activities, and the city surroundings where there was easy access to the business and entertainment centres, and the surrounding parks. It was an unforgettable place and experience. The memories linger still,” he said.
The ambitious undergraduate cultivated his craft by enlisting in architectural work through the university holidays.
“On the job training played a big part in preparing me with skills to work independently later on,” said Professor Hijjas.
Benefiting from practical experience and industry connections, he later secured a position within Adelaide architectural firm Brown and Davis, and gained a valuable mentor in principal partner Gordon Brown.
After continuing his studies at the University of Melbourne, Professor Hijjas returned to Singapore and accepted a position on the Singapore Housing and Development Board.
However, he felt restless and yearned for more.
“There were few opportunities to do what I had trained for, and I always had the idea at the back of my mind that it is critical to impart knowledge to others who need it,” Professor Hijjas
Following his experiences at the University of Adelaide and the University of Melbourne, Professor Hijjas was recruited to create the School of Art and Architecture within the MARA Institute of Technology in Malaysia.
“I was there at the beginning of professional architectural education in Australia, where many part-time teachers supported the programs. If Adelaide and Melbourne could do it, I felt I could also do it,” he said.
Professor Hijjas formed the syllabus, sourced space, then developed not only a school for architecture and building technology, but for valuation, fine arts, textile, graphic and industrial design.
“Most of the students were “dropouts”, having failed a critical exam at school. So we started them with a preparatory pre university course so they could catch up to make up for prerequisite requirements for university entrance,” he said.
The college was a significant offering for the Malaysian education system at the time.
“The motivation was the importance of higher education that I had been lucky enough to receive, and that had elevated me to enable me to have a professional career.
“A new nation like Malaysia needed this access to education most of all. As a former colony of Britain, none of this had been provided. Professional training was available in Singapore, but when the two counties separated in 1965 there was nothing in Malaysia.”
As an advocate for education, Professor Hijjas has committed considerable time throughout his career to teaching architecture. He has served as Visiting Lecturer, Visiting Professor, and External Examiner to University of Science Malaysia in Pahang, International Islamic University, University of Malaya, MARA University of Technology, Universiti Utara Malaysia, Sheffield University, the University of Adelaide and Melbourne University.
In recognition of his contribution and commitment in architecture, Professor Hijjas has been honoured with Honorary Doctorate degrees from several universities both locally and abroad, including the University of Adelaide. He was also granted the Order of Australia in 2013.
“While at university, I was aware that professional education gives you knowledge of technology, the history of building and the principles of building design, together with the understanding of materiality.
“I was trained, given skills and knowledge at university. In the industry, one has to complete a project at an acceptable academic and professional level. The rest is shaped by your individuality and skill in how you tackle the problem,” he said.
Professor Hijjas is actively involved with the University of Adelaide through the Malaysian Alumni Network which, in 2020, celebrates its 25th anniversary.