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Isabel Laelia Sandeman

MA work


You wash with it, you brush with it, you spread it, you eat it… It’s in half of all packaged products on our supermarket shelves. Palm oil is contained in everything from lipstick to first infant formula. This high yield and versatile oil has been firmly embedded into western consumption habits since palm oil based soap became one of the first branded commodities in existence. Early advertising campaigns portrayed the simple bar of soap as a technology of social and environmental purification, mediating the transformation from the natural dirt and disorder of colonial nations into British cultural cleanliness.

Palmed-off subverts the notion of soap as civilisation and proposes soap as a landscape strategy to dirty and decolonise the Kinabatangan floodplain, in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. This area is one of the most naturally abundant places on the planet, but as a consequence of global demand for cheap vegetable oil, it is deteriorating into a green desert and commodity-making machine. Only a fragmented wildlife corridor along the river is protected from oil palm encroachment; as rainforest is lost, animals are crowded into this narrow strip of trees. This has had the counterintuitive effect of increasing the areas ecotourism potential; high paying tourists can be guaranteed to see Sabah’s charismatic megafauna from the comfort of a river cruise, blissfully unaware of the environmental destruction concealed beyond a thin forest masquerade.

The Kinabatangan corridor remains linked precariously via unprotected secondary forest claimed as native customary land. This land does not fit into the prevailing dichotomy of pristine rainforest and depleted development. In the eyes of the government it is neither efficiently producing nor worthy of protecting, and is therefore considered to be idle and unproductive, requiring development to contribute towards the economy. 

Valuing nature solely for it’s biodiversity or yield potential reduces nature to no more than a resource. What are the spatial implications of idleness as a form of productivity? Could soap be produced from oils that are foraged from an idle landscape opposed to the monoculture of mass production? Could this product that has played an integral role in the destruction and degradation of the landscape be utilised to restore nature’s dirt and disorder?

This project proposes to convert select commercially redundant oil palm plantations into ecotourism spa resorts, where the colonial body is subjected to the process of decolonising the environment. A palm-free recipe for dirty soap contains seeds from various water-dispersing strangler figs, the most important plant group in the rainforest ecosystem with a unique capacity to both sustain wildlife and destroy oil palm. Through a series of soaping situations, such as scrubtherapy treatment, a seed soak, foaming footbaths, and personal pool showers, fig seeds are dispersed through the extensive infrastructural channels that service oil palm drainage and irrigation, becoming environmental agents of decolonisation. The proposal is a 60-year plan covering 15 separate spa sites that allows for the slow transformation of the territory through the dispersal of seeds and the manifestation of an alternative oil industry.


  • MA Degree


    School of Architecture


    MA Architecture, 2017

  • Degrees

  • MA (Hons) Architecture (RIBA Part 1), University of Edinburgh, 2013
  • Experience

  • Partner / Principle designer, Hasegawa & Xavier Associates, Kota Kinabalu, 2013–2015; Architectural assistant, Arkitrek, Kota Kinabalu, 2013; Architectural assistant, ANTA Design, Edinburgh, 2012
  • Conferences

  • Adding Value Through Design, Asia Pacific Ecotourism Conference, 2014