Breaking Ground

Making things better is the upshot of making things for singer-songwriter Yuna and architect Doris Sung.

AIRED: June 04, 2021 | 0:26:46

- Articulate with Jim Cotter is made possible

with generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

- Welcome to Articulate the show that explores

how really creative people understand the world.

- I'm Jim Cotter and on this episode of 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.

- [Jim] 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] 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.

- [Jim] That's all coming up on Articulate.

(intro music plays)

(upbeat music)

- 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 TV & film


(upbeat pop plays)

A H&M ad campaign and even the in game radio station

in Grand Theft Auto Five.

♪ Find your light

♪ Don't hide from what you are

♪ And rise before you fall

♪ And hope for something more

- 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."

(cheerful music)

- When Lienalis 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.

- Did he come to see you?

- 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"

- And that voice.

(She Laughs)

- 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 and feel like my parents raised

me really well to just like you know focus on

one thing and do really well in something and uh

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 um

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 it 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

(she laughs)

- By the time Yuna graduated college she was 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.

(Dan Sebenarnya plays)

- But Yuna wanted the world.

♪ I wanna go wherever, whenever you wanna go ♪

♪ Wherever you wanna, I wanna go with you ♪

- 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.

♪ I'm all black and white inside ♪

♪ Monotonous from left to right ♪

- 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.

♪ I see you arriving in your car, hey ♪

♪ Jet black Mercedes, built in the 70s ♪

♪ Classic like you and me

♪ I'll be coming down, down, down ♪

♪ Down, down, down, down, down, down ♪

♪ I'll be coming down, down, down ♪

♪ Down, down, down, down, down, down ♪

♪ I feel a little rush

♪ I think I gotta little crush on you ♪

♪ I hope it's not too much

♪ But boy when I'm with you, I hear it ♪

♪ My heart singing

- But getting ahead in the hyper competitive and often

hyper sexualized western music industry,

Has not always been a smooth ride, especially for a

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 um

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 this is you, and this is the performer over here?

- Yeah

- She's not affected by anything bad that people say

about this person?

- 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.

(upbeat pop music)

- 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 the 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's

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.

♪ Things were bad

♪ They were beyond repair

♪ She was scared

♪ She couldn't handle it

♪ Things were bad

♪ But now she's glad

♪ Can't you tell, that she's walking on air ♪

♪ Yeah, she's got light in her face ♪

♪ She don't need no rescuing, she's okay ♪

♪ Yeah, she's got life in her veins ♪

♪ She don't need no rescuing, she's okay ♪

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

a Malaysian designer 'Hatta Dolmat' on a clothing line.

Today she signed with the renowned 'Wilhelmina'

modeling agency, and is a front row regular

at high end fashion shows.

Stil, songwriting remains her most

powerful form of expression.

- [Jim] 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.

(She laughs)

- How much of what you write is written from you?

- Me?

- If some of it is messages to other people, but there's

there's a lot of 'I' language in there as well.

- 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's not necessarily made up

but based on something that's real, you know?

So normally it's like that.

I think I feel it, 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

Song writing, you know? like you're telling a story.

- 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 a lot in there?

- Maybe a little bit.

I don't know, probably when, you know, whenever

I write songs about relationships, but I don't know, like

you 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 were 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 that, you know, Oh, go see the world.

Or, you know, like, don't be afraid go

after your dreams and be fun, be special.

♪ Don't have to call me, I turned my phone off ♪

♪ Let the pillows here protect my heart ♪

♪ You don't have to check up on me ♪

♪ I'll be alright

♪ I turned off the lights and swim into the night ♪

- 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.

♪ I prayed every night

♪ For someone to mend my broken heart ♪

♪ When I couldn't see the light ♪

♪ You're walking with my in the dark ♪

♪ And all of this time

♪ You were right there from the start ♪

♪ All I ask from you is just to stay where you are ♪

(upbeat music)

- [Jim] 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] 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.

- [Jim] One source of that inefficiency

she believes is a hallmark of modern architecture, glass.

- [Doris] 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

um, 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.

- And that's where we really tend to, 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?

- 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 ideas, 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 give me-, 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 and a key component of the mechanical systems

she was trying to escape. Thermal bimetals, thermostats

and heating and cooling systems have used them to

regulate building temperatures for over a century.

As the name suggests bimetals combined, 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.

- [Doris] We put the thermal bimetal 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, you know

manual controls they'll work way beyond probably the

the lifetime of the building.

- [Jim] 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.

- [Doris] 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' scope 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

- [Jim] 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.

- [Doris] 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

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.

- [Jim] 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 and 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.

- [Doris] 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 filtered both particulate matter as well as gases, and

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 um, 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.

- [Jim] 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.

- I'd like the meaning

of smartness to change a little for architecture

at least. The original meaning many years before

in engineering, as, as, as it was referred to in materials

it was a material that required zero energy

and zero controls.

Now has changed a lot with smartphones and smart cars

and smart things to mean something very different.

I feel like um, 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.

(calming music plays)

- For more articulate, find us on social media or

on our website,

On the next articulate,

an inevitable part of the human experience.

Pain is impossible to objectively measure,

but felt universally. And, violinist Gil Shaham may well

be the last musician to personally own a great instrument.

His Stradivarius is precious and cherished.

I'm Jim Cotter.

Join us for the next articulate.

(violin music plays)

Articulate with Jim Cotter is made possible

with generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

[Outro Music]


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