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Finding Borneo With Wendy Teo Of B-Lab

Little is known about the cultural heritage of the third largest island in the world. Wendy Teo is determined to change that through on the ground discovery, meaningful conversations and respectful collaboration.



BY Stephanie Peh

26 July, 2019


Wendy Teo is not trying to change or modernise Borneo. She just wants to make it more visible.

Upon graduating from the prestigious Bartlett School of Architecture in 2011, Teo worked at Foster + Partners for five years, becoming a UK ARB/RIBA chartered architect before returning to Sarawak—a Malaysian state Northwest of Borneo. She could no longer ignore the calling to discover her birth island.

Wendy Teo.

Responding to a lack of accurate representation, Teo founded Borneo Laboratory (B-Lab) in 2016. “Borneo is a tropical landscape with high levels of biodiversity and numerous inland community architectural cultures,” she shares.

However, her intention is not to exploit the land’s richness but to engage secluded communities sincerely, starting with documentation—a step towards preventing cultural erasure, which happens more than we know.

In the spirit of an ancient Iban philosophy, ‘berjalai’, which means to go on a journey to seek betterment, the first major project of B-Lab was a 30-day, 1500 km road trip in pursuit of unexplored art and cultural content in Borneo.

Successfully funded through Kickstarter, the Pan Borneo Road Trip, 2017, resulted in a documentary film and publication, illustrating Teo’s intentions to the community.

To date, B-Lab has initiated other publications, educational workshops, exhibitions and pavilions through a profit-sharing model, calling upon a passionate multidisciplinary team to further promote the cause.

“We have been actively working on building a bigger picture by engaging different talents and ideas,” she explains, “these [outputs] help people to understand the intrinsic value of our movement.”

In the process, B-Lab has also been able to involve forgotten communities in the conversation. For The Instrument, 2018, Teo engaged the makers of attap, a traditional natural roofing system on the brink of extinction, spotlighting the architectural wisdom of indigenous groups.

For the Rainforest Fringe Festival 2019, B-Lab experimented with an audience participatory model to enhance inclusivity. The tactile experiences of 60 committed strangers building The Origin, 2019, can be described as tribal and a reminder of the value of togetherness.

 

In parallel to B-Lab, Teo also runs Wendy Teo Atelier, a UK-registered architectural practice. “The research and development for B-Lab projects are more for a mass audience while Wendy Teo Atelier speaks to a design niche. However, there’s been some cross-referencing taking place,” she adds.

B-Lab is also building an ongoing natural material and treatment knowledge library, adding on to the preservation of Borneo’s vernacular.

Images courtesy of Wendy Teo.

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