Clara: Confessions Of An Inquisitive Student (Part 7 Of 10)

Previously, we shared about Alice Wansa’s architecture school journey. Today, we let Clara Lee share her own reflections. Clara is the second child out of seven children in her family. She hails from Johor Bahru, Malaysia. Coming from such a big family, she was so used to a house full of life and noise. So when she had to go to Kuala Lumpur to pursue her studies at Taylor’s University, it meant that she would be away from them. How did she adapt to both the life of an undergraduate and the life of archi-torture…?

A photo of Clara during a measured drawing exhibition at Seraph Awaken.
A photo of Clara during a measured drawing exhibition in 2018 at the coffee shop, Seraph Awaken, Klang. Clara was one of the presenters for the exhibition: Architecture, Community and Memories (Jalan Stesen 1, Klang).
Picture credit to Arina Nadia

“If I were to describe myself, I would say that I am inquisitive, self-motivated and a workaholic.”

clara lee, architecture graduate at taylor’s university (2015-2019)

Architecture Meets Clara

During the time Clara was taking her Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) exam, she announced to her secondary school friends that she was going to take the Australian Matriculation Programme in Sunway College Johor Bahru. Had she followed the plan, she would have met our friend, Chee Jia Xin! But Clara became interested in architecture when a family member introduced it to her. So Clara searched for architecture scholarships that she could get into because architecture school is not cheap. “Not to mention the expensive boards and materials that I found out later on,” she added. She came across the Taylor’s World Class Scholarship, applied for it and successfully got in!

“To be honest, architecture was not my first choice. I didn’t even know that such a course existed.”

clara lee

Clara Guiding Herself Through Architecture

“I still remember the day I first arrived at my apartment in Kuala Lumpur. It was the year 2015, on 25th of August. My family dropped me off and said their goodbyes, and there I was, alone with the silence.” Therefore, Clara decided to join many clubs and activities to keep herself busy and make herself some new friends. Some of the clubs she had joined were: Taylor’s Orientation Leaders, MAD.TU, and Taylor’s University Catholic Society.

A picture of the Taylor's Orientation Leaders Club, suited up.
Clara (second from left on the second row) and her team in the Taylor’s Orientation Leaders Club, suited up. A student organisation where the seniors work together to assist new students in their transition to university life during orientation week.
Picture credit to Clara Lee

“I only had minor knowledge of the life of architecture prior to attending my foundation course. But it was nothing like experiencing it first hand.”

clara lee
Clara and her friend, Joy, smiling to the camera while holding up an architecture model.
Clara on the right, proudly holding up her favourite project model: The Weekend Getaway House at Cameron Highlands Bharat Tea Valley. Sharing the light moment with her is Joy Lim, a fellow student.
Picture credit to Clara Lee

In semester two of Clara’s first year degree, she had her very first site visit. It was located at the Bharat Tea Valley Plantation in Cameron Highlands. “The site had a sense of tranquility that just captured my heart. I loved the way light brought out different gradients of green on the tea bushes.

1. Working From Day To Night

“Architecture is difficult, so mentally prepare yourself for the upcoming three years.” Those were the words of Ms Dee, Clara’s former lecturer from her foundation course. Since then, Clara decided to set her nose to the grindstone and work day and night. Being a part of many clubs and societies had taken a toll on her time management. She discovered that architecture required full time attention. To cope with this, she made a list of goals that she needed to achieve, along with the deadlines and steps to achieve it. The more detailed the plan, the better.

“Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

alan lakein, an american author of the book how to get control of your time and life
A concept model of Clara's first semester model in the first year of degree for the project: Dreamspace.
A concept model of Clara’s final project during the first semester of her first year with the task to create your Dreamspace. Clara’s concept was “a workaholic’s regret”. Clara would get so focused on her goals sometimes that she would neglect everything, including her health, responsibilities and friends. The walls are angled so that when someone walks past them, they would not be able to see what is behind the wall unless they look back.
Picture credit to Clara Lee

My strength is that I work hard. But my weakness is that I worked too hard, instead of working smart.” When she was in primary school, her teacher had once said to study hard. The young Clara had interpreted it as “the more time you work on something, then the better grade you will get.” However, she soon discovered that this was not the case in architecture.

2. Battling An Unhealthy Lifestyle

During the first year of university, we were given our own studios. Clara’s plan was to stay overnight and constantly be working on her projects. Where did she eat? At the studio. Where did she sleep? At the studio table. Clara lived this lifestyle for many months and realised that she still couldn’t finished her work on time. Her memory was deteriorating and she would get sick after every studio final submission. It got to the point where she had to write down the normal conversations she had with her friends due to her inability to remember.

“It is hard for me to do things if I don’t give my 100%.”

clara lee
Preparing a team banner for the Architectural Student Workshop in 2017.
Preparing a team banner for the Architectural Student Workshop in 2017 hosted by Universiti Teknologi Malaysia Johor Bahru. Most of Clara’s free time was preparing for these workshops where she made new friends from different semesters.
Picture credit to Clara Lee

“Through my reflection of my architecture studies, I found that the sleepless nights had mostly come from the bad habits of procrastination and wrong work ethics.”

clara lee

It was during the final year of her degree that Clara realised she ought to set her priorities right. She learnt how important eating healthy and sleeping is in rejuvenating her body. Even after she graduated, it took her a year to fully recover.

3. Finding Light At The End Of The Tunnel

Clara faced a huge challenge in handling bad critiques from her lecturers. It tore down her confidence and it would just keep replaying in her head, making it worse every time. Consequently, this caused Clara to blindly follow everything that her lecturers said without actually realising that it was a total mess.

A picture of Clara's design studio tutorial group under Mr Emmanuel.
Clara was under Mr Emmanuel (centre from the bottom) in the last design studio tutorial group. She could not have been more grateful for the friends she had made during her studies.
Picture credit to Clara Lee

“I think this experience changed me a lot, because my friends sensed that something was wrong. I did not realise it. They pulled me aside and spoke to me. Through the conversation, I began to realise something was not right too. One night, we were in the studio doing our assignments and I had my usual designer’s block and went out to ‘look for inspiration’. I went up the stairs, and went higher and higher, till I was at the highest floor. I am not proud to say this, but I looked over the railing and wondered if things would have been better if I had jumped. But my friends’ faces popped up in my head and that shook the suicidal thought away. So I went back down.”

clara lee
A photo of Clara and her friends at a restaurant celebrating her birthday.
Clara’s friends threw her a surprise birthday gathering when they noticed that she was feeling down. Till today, Clara (third from the left side) was very touched by their simple and kind gestures.
Picture credit to Clara Lee

4. Clara’s Inquisitiveness Expands Outside The Studio

Clara also tried to explore and learn new things through workshops and competitions. Clara was part of a team effort in the installation competition in NEON 2017 held in Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Johor Bahru. The brief was to create a street furniture installation that would be displayed in Johor Bahru City Square. She and her team wanted something that was interactive and safe for people of all ages. So they decided to go with a swing. And they related it to a well-known Johor Bahru dance performance, Kuda Kepang. Other than that, she was also part of the annual Architectural Student Workshop for three consecutive years from 2015 to 2017. In 2018, Taylor’s University hosted the 30th Architecture Student Workshop, [RE:D]EFINE, which she was also part of.

A group photo of Clara's team for the NEON 2017 competition to build an installation piece for Johor Bahru City Centre.
Clara’s team for the NEON 2017 competition held in Johor Bahru. From the top left: Ong Kar Chun, Wong Chee Fon, Clara Lee and Lim Joe Onn. From the bottom left: Karen Kok, Ng Zien Loon and Chok Jia Jun.
Picture credit to Lim Joe Onn

What Happened After Clara Graduated?

After graduating, Clara made the decision to return to Johor Bahru, back to her family. She wanted to take a few months break from architecture to recuperate. Then, COVID-19 hit and jobs in the construction industry were difficult to come by. But, after one and a half year of doing freelance jobs and projects at home, Clara started job hunting. Clara was able to secure a job as an assistant architect in a small firm. “I was elated that I got this job.” But only after a month of working, Clara was let go due to a slowdown in the economy resulting from the lockdown.

A picture of Clara and her office mates at SH MOK Architect.
Clara (second from the right) and her colleagues at SH Mok Architect.
Picture credit to Clara Lee

But after this experience, Clara still couldn’t leave architecture. She went on JobStreet and kept looking for any openings. Now, she is currently working at SH Mok Architect.

“To be honest, I love working life. I love the routine of working from 9am to 5:30pm. There are definitely times I wished I was still studying as I missed my friends. But university life taught me that there is a time for everything.”

clara lee

“There Is Time For Everything”

You can never have too much knowledge. Each new project is a window for inquiry into new technology, theories, and methods. So don’t be afraid to learn new things such as new software, new illustration styles and new skills. More importantly, have a group of friends that you can really trust. Because they will be the ones to pull you back up during the times you don’t expect you’re falling into depression.

A picture of the floating totem installation competition at Taylor's University for the 30th Architectural Student Workshop.
A competition held at the [RE:D]EFINE 30


Architecture Student Workshop
hosted by Taylor’s University in 2018. The brief was to create a floating totem installation on the water. The team from University Malaya cheered as their entry succeeded to float.
Picture credit to [RE:D]EFINE Taylor’s University

“Don’t spend your holidays stuck at an office interning. Spend your university days doing more than just your assignments. Participate in clubs and activities, and document all those moments because you will definitely be reminiscing about it when you grow older.”

clara lee

Stay tuned for the next part, where I will introduce to you a sweet girl named Zainab, who hails from the island of Mauritius, to share her archi-torture stories.

About Atiqah GHAZALI

Grew up overseas in a melting pot of global culture to expat parents, Atiqah is well read, and expresses herself best through writing, art and photography. Architect by qualification, but makes a living as an interior designer.

One Reply to “Clara: Confessions Of An Inquisitive Student (Part 7 Of 10)”

  1. Pingback: Zainab: An Architectural Adventure (Part 8 Of 10) - Espoletta

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