Making things better is the upshot of making things for singer-songwriter Yuna and architect Doris Sung.
Yuna is an internationally famous singer and songwriter. She is the first Malaysian performer to be nominated for a BET Award and the first to reach the top 10 of the Billboard R&B charts.
Born Yunalis binti Mat Zara’ai in 1986 in Alor Setar, Malaysia, she began writing songs when she was 14. She initially came to widespread attention thanks to her strong following on social media site MySpace. By the time she graduated from university with a legal studies degree, she had released two EPs, performed at venues around Malaysia, and appeared on a TV talent show.
Her first album, Decorate (2010), was picked up by a US label in 2011 and released as an EP. Yuna’s self-titled 2012 LP reached number 19 on the Billboard Heatseekers album charts. Her critically acclaimed 2016 album Chapters included her best-known song, the hit single “Crush” featuring Usher. She released Rouge, her fourth album in the United States and seventh overall, in 2019.
Yuna operated a fashion boutique in Kuala Lumpur from 2014 to 2018. She collaborated with designer Hatta Dolmat on a clothing line in 2017.
Doris Sung is an innovative architect known for her research into smart and sustainable building materials.
Born in 1964 in Hollywood, CA, into a Korean American family, Sung studied architecture at Princeton University and Columbia University. She became a professor of architecture at the University of Colorado in 1997, moved to the Southern California Institute of Architecture in 2001, and to the University of Southern California in 2006. She is now the Director of Undergraduate Programs for USC’s School of Architecture.
Sung founded DOSU Studio Architecture in the late 1990s and converted the firm into a research center for sustainable design in the mid-2000s. Since then, DOSU has developed thermal bimetals combining two metals that expand at different rates when heated. The materials can self-ventilate, self-shade, and make other adaptations in response to changes of temperature, thus reducing the energy needed to heat or cool a building. Sung’s designs have received awards from Architectural Record, Architect Magazine, Ars Electronica, and many other organizations.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how really creative people understand the world. I’m Jim Cotter and on this episode, “Breaking Ground.”
The Malaysian singer songwriter Yuna makes unapologetically catchy and confident music for all. Her soul-tinged pop has made her both a global star and a role model for young girls.
Yuna: I just want them to be inspired by these things and not, not like, you know in a preachy way but in a fun way like, go see the world.
And architect Doris Sung’s innovative building surfaces are modeled after human skin. They self-ventilate and self-shade in response to weather changes. And they do this by drawing power from the sun.
Doris Sung: When I look at it, I’m thinking wow, this really is pretty amazing. That we use zero energy, zero computer controls and we basically infuse designs with behavior systems with a kind of DNA that it just operates by itself.
That’s all coming up on Articulate.
Today the Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna is a bonafide international pop star, who has sold millions of records around the globe. In the US, where she has a more modest following, she can still fill a room and has attracted the attention of many R&B and pop A-listers. Her music has also been a huge presence in countless TV & film soundtracks, an H&M ad campaign, and even the in-game radio station in Grand Theft Auto Five.
All this because one afternoon, more than a decade ago, a girl from a modest country on the edge of Southeast Asia was brave enough to put pen to paper.
Yuna: I never used to write songs before, I think I was like 19 when I wrote my first song and it was just like, I was determined, I remember just being like, “Okay I’m gonna write a song today. I don’t know how but we’re gonna try and do this today.”
When Yunalis binti Mat Zara’ai began songwriting and performing at open mics in Kuala Lumpur, it was all just good fun. Sure, she had always suspected that music could be life changing, but that was just a dream without a plan. And even if she gained a following in the Malaysian coffee house scene, Yuna stayed focused on studying law. On the assumption that she would follow her father, a high profile attorney and high court judge, into the family business. Instead her dad, a lifelong lover of western popular music, urged her to think bigger.
Yuna: He was really surprised that I could like, I was able to write my own stuff. So, I remember just like when I was doing music in the independent scene, he was excited.
AJC: Did he come to see you?
Yuna: Yeah yeah, he came and he would like watch me perform, and then I would tell him after a while you know like, I don’t think I’m gonna do this full-time, you know this is probably a phase. To me, I was just like I don’t know if I’m gonna you know, be able to generate income from this career. You know what I mean? He would just tell me like “oh you know you need to just like focus on this and you know try because you have this songwriting talent that not a lot of people can write songs so”
AJC: And that voice.
Yuna: You know he was really confident, he believed in me, I think, you know, and back then I was really young and I didn’t know, kinda like, I don’t know what I’m gonna do, maybe I’m just gonna be a lawyer or continue my studies you know, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. But I love making music and to hear that from my dad. I’m glad I went through all that like, you know, I went to university, I worked really hard so I had that discipline. I feel like my parents raised me really well to just like focus on one thing and do really well in something and not to be a perfectionist but just to you know like, try as hard as you can. He understood, you know, music and as well as he understood the fact that you know I should be doing something that I love and I’m also the only child so I don’t know that’s probably why he’s a little bit you know, “you have to do something that you love,” so yeah, I was like, “Okay.” But I was thinking you know the other way, like I’m the only child I would need to like you know, take care of you guys in the future. But, yeah no, he was you know I feel maybe he just like had a hunch that I would do really well so.
By the time Yuna graduated college she was one of the biggest names in Malaysian pop. Her self-titled debut EP had earned her five Malaysian music award nominations and four trophies, including Best New Artist and Best Song for “Dan Sebenarnya.”
But Yuna wanted the world. She resisted local management offers in hopes of attracting a larger international audience. Soon she had more than a million streams on MySpace and earned the attention of US-based management company Indie Pop. In 2011, the 25 year-old signed with Fader and re-released her EP Decorate. Praise poured in.
Pharrell Williams produced the lead single off her debut album, then in 2013 multi-Grammy winning producer David Foster signed Yuna to Verve Music. In 2016 they released one of her most popular singles to date, “Crush”, a duet with the R&B singer Usher. It reached number 3 on the R&B/hip-hop charts and made her the first Malaysian artist to be nominated for a BET award.
But getting ahead in the hyper-competitive and often hyper-sexualized western music industry has not always been a smooth ride, especially for an observant, hijab-wearing Muslim woman like Yuna. Alternately picked apart for being either too conservative or not conservative enough, over the years she’s learned not to give too much consideration to what strangers think or say.
Yuna: Those things are normal, it’s not just me and I know like that I’m not the only person who’s going through this, you know like, there’s no point of like whining and thinking like, “Oh I have to go through this,” you know like, “People are judging me, blah blah blah,” you know, I don’t think about this kind of stuff that much because I have a lot of other things to, you know, focus on and, but I do take criticisms seriously when it comes to my music, you know and I learn from that and I listen to them. I wanna be better, I wanna be a better musician, but when it comes to the personal things and I know myself, I’m a big girl. So you know I, I know myself, I know where I stand, and–
AJC: And this is you, and this is the performer over here?
AJC: She’s not affected by anything bad that people say about this person?
Yuna: Oh yeah, no, I mean, it is what it is, like there will always be people, when you’re like in the public eye obviously you know you get like, a lot of hits for whatever, it doesn’t have to be me it could be you know, it could be another American singer, it’s just how it is.
Yuna prides herself on being a strong, independent woman young fans can look up to. Her 2013 song “Rescue” was celebrated as a feminist anthem, though Yuna doesn’t think of it that way. She was, she says, just trying to capture the spirit of the women she models herself after. Chief among them, her mother Datin, a retired high school chemistry teacher, who is now Yuna’s business partner in a terrarium shop.
Yuna: My mom is the strongest person I know, she has gone through so much. You know, she’s so wonderful and she’s always helping out people, you know, she doesn’t think about herself, like she doesn’t think about money, she doesn’t think about, you know, what she would have to sacrifice for anything, for her family, for the people that she loves, you know and so yeah I mean yeah she’s the strongest person I know. I feel like, I’m probably, I’m not even half the person she is so, yeah. I grew up…that.
Yuna’s confidence is evident in the bold yet modest fashion sense that has made her an international style icon. For several years she ran a boutique in Kuala Lumpur, called November Culture. Then, in 2017, she collaborated with Malaysian designer Hatta Dolmat on a clothing line. Today, she’s signed with the renowned Wilhelmina modeling agency, and is a front row regular at high end fashion shows. Still, songwriting remains her most powerful form of expression.
AJC: I’ve heard Randy Newman say that if he was all the characters in the songs he’s written he’d be a crazy man by now. How much of what you write is written from you?
AJC: some of it is messages to other people, but there’s there’s a lot of ‘I’ language in there as well.
Yuna: I get inspiration from a lot of things. Sometimes it’s, it’s, you know based on my personal experience, but sometimes, you know whenever I have a conversation with my friends or, you know, whenever I read books or when I watch films, you know these are like things that are not necessarily made up but based on something that’s real, you know? So normally it’s like that. I think, I feel like maybe 50% or like 60% of the songs are, you know, mine, but 40% probably, you know based on something that, you know. There’s a lot of dramatization that goes into songwriting, you know? Like you’re telling a story.
AJC: Some of them sound like you’re giving advice to others about what you’ve experienced. Sort of, “don’t make the same mistake I made.” Is there some of that in there?
Yuna: Maybe a little bit. I don’t know, probably when, you know, whenever I write songs about relationships. But I don’t know, it depends, like sometimes I feel like, okay I’m going to write something, you know, very uplifting today. Like something for the younger girls, you know, like for example, like I, I feel for them, you know, like for example, like the younger girls in Malaysia I know they are like very shy and timid, and they’re like scared to travel the world and see the world. And I just want them to, you know, like be inspired by these things and not in a preachy way, but in a fun way like telling them, “Oh, go see the world.” Or, you know, like, “Don’t be afraid, go after your dreams and be fun, be special.”
In Malaysia, Yuna is a national treasure. In Los Angeles, where she now lives with husband Adam Sinclair, she’s a talented and well-respected songwriter but not a household name, yet. Her fourth album, 2019’s Rouge, peaked at number 18 on the Billboard Hot 100, but she has no desire to return to a smaller pond. Number one hits or no, Yuna has managed to build a devoted fan base that has been tuning in for her in-home concerts. But perhaps most serendipitously, 2020 also saw the perfectly-timed release of a previously-shelved song, “Stay Where You Are.” It became a soundtrack of solidarity for fans around the world who submitted videos holding signs with her lyrics. And so even in isolation Yuna continues to create community, a testament to her remarkable music making and to her steadfast commitment to the values that have gotten her here.
When most of us see a building, we see a space separate from the world around. Bubbles built with walls and roofs to escape what’s outside by creating an inside. But Doris Sung imagines something more integrated, and in many ways, more alive.
Doris Sung: I actually never grew up thinking I wanted to be an architect. And so when I finally decided to go to architecture school I had no preconceptions of what architecture should be. And having a biology undergraduate education, my first question is, “Why can’t it be like animal skins, like plant cells?” which seemed to work a lot more efficiently than buildings.
One source of that inefficiency, she believes, is a hallmark of modern architecture: glass.
Sung: When plate glass, and the invention of it came about and that all we wanted as humans was this 180 degree, floor to ceiling views. That, in some ways, was a downfall. The thick walls and small windows was ideal for insulating but once we moved to glass, we let all this heat in through the envelope system, the material, the physics of it, makes it much worse. So now we have to run huge amounts of air conditioning in order for us to keep those things.
AJC: And that’s where we really tend to swing towards at the moment, “Hey, let’s put a whole bunch of solar cells. Let’s cover buildings in solar cells so they can run the air conditioning on the inside.” What’s wrong with that idea?
Sung: Basically what it’s doing is it’s just making more and more technology that’s reliant on energy sources, right? Even though it’s renewable energies it’s still not smart as an envelope system. So my idea is, instead of relying on the heart and the lungs of a building to pump and work really hard, why aren’t we looking at the skin? Which, on a body is the largest organ on the body, that can therefore do and be the first line of protection. By being the first line of protection, it can therefore relieve some of that work on the heart and the lungs, meaning the mechanical system.
Ironically Sung found a solution to redesign the skins of buildings in a key component of the mechanical systems she was trying to escape: thermobimetals. Thermostats and heating and cooling systems have used them to regulate building temperatures for over a century. As the name suggests, bimetals combine two metals that expand at different rates when heated. That difference causes a bimetal strip to bend or straighten depending on the temperature. But instead of using them to trigger HVAC systems, some saw that bimetals could be their own cooling system, automatically adjusting to temperature to let air flow or to block sunlight without computers or electricity. And if protected, they could last a lifetime.
Sung: We put the thermobimetal inside the cavity of this double glazed window. Because it’s sealed inside that cavity, the material actually can last over a hundred years and they can go on and on forever, and operate indefinitely. And they, they operate like I said before, without energy, without controls. So we’re not dependent on batteries and we’re not dependent on manual controls. They’ll work way beyond, probably the lifetime of the building.
Bimetal skins won’t eliminate the need for air conditioning, but Sung says they can reduce it. That’s helpful as the world tries to cut fossil fuel use to combat climate change.
Sung: Buildings use up more energy than transportation or industry. They also are way up there for emissions as well. And we do very little about talking about those changes. Part of it is because the cost is very high, and also for new buildings to go up it’s many, many years, right? For, for a new construction to actually happen. I think we have some really big problems up ahead of us given climate change and how things are changing with that, of how we think of buildings and how buildings need to be adaptable. We need to really start digging in deep on research and development of products for buildings, just as fast as automobiles are changing. Right? So automobiles in the last 10, 20, 50 years have changed dramatically. Whereas our buildings are still basically the same. I mean, we’ve improved some of the technology but our houses are built basically the same. So somewhere, somehow, maybe we should maybe we need some super bowl commercials in there.
Though the buildings that Sung designs are original and beautiful, she says that how they look is primarily a by-product of their function. So she is often pleasantly surprised when she sees what she has created, so to speak, in the flesh.
Sung: Oftentimes the choices that we make in the beginning with the geometries, I think have implications in the end of how it looks. You know, although it takes a long time, there’s a certain amount of surprise element to it for us, even. Even, you know when I see some of the stuff that we produce I’m amazed and it even gives me chills when I look at it thinking, wow, this really is pretty amazing that we use zero energy, zero computer controls, and we basically infuse our designs with behavior systems with a kind of DNA that it just operates by itself. I’m amazed how beautiful these things can be, especially when driven through a much more scientific process of design.
The scientific process of design is at the heart of her firm, DOSU Studio Architecture, which explores ways to make building skins dynamic and responsive with zero energy and no controls. The architectural community has also recognized the power of her ideas. In 2020 Architect magazine named Sung’s self-shading windows as one of its R+D Award-winners for work that is scalable, thought-provoking, and promising in achieving a more equitable and healthy built environment. That same year, the University of Southern California School of Architecture named her Director of Undergraduate Programs. Now Sung is expanding her focus. She sees energy use inside buildings as more than just a problem in need of a solution. Re-imagining our spaces and how we build them can also help solve other problems outside buildings.
Sung: Another project that we’re working on right now with a team of engineers, is trying to figure out how to cool pedestrian areas on the street in areas that the climate is getting hotter, as well as a high level of a smog is happening in these urban canyons. Can we passively move air along the building surface and therefore filter the smog as we’re doing so? So filter both particulate matter as well as gases, and really think about how architecture building facades can contribute to public health, right? To really improve the health of the public, and not only for the interior occupants. I would like to see architecture become a little more altruistic to the public. Architecture, especially the outside surface of it, can be used as infrastructure to a city. It could provide food for farming. It could provide fresh air, fresh water. It could do a lot more than we already have. So I think it’s a whole new surface that we haven’t thought of because maybe that’s the surface that should be the wall of the city and the streets as opposed to the outer wall of a building. It’s a different way of thinking.
And though Sung has a bold and novel vision for the future of architecture, progress must happen, she believes, not through evermore complex technologies, but through design that is smart in the more traditional sense of the word.
Sung: I’d like the meaning of smartness to change a little for architecture at least. The original meaning, many years before in engineering, as it was referred to in materials, it was a material that required zero energy and zero controls. Now it’s changed a lot with smartphones and smart cars and smart things to mean something very different. I feel like a lot of the science and technology should really think about how to make what we have, on a very low tech way, smart just by being what it is. By designing behaviors and DNA into these materials that are all around us.