Architecture development in Malaysia: A reflection of hope and progress

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 13, 2021 - September 19, 2021.
Architecture development in Malaysia: A reflection of hope and progress
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Our nation has inherited an eclectic range of architecture from its rich historical past. From one of the oldest European architectural remains in Asia — the site of the A Famosa fort in Melaka — to the tallest twin towers in the world, the Petronas Twin Towers, these structures show just how far Malaysia has come.

It is also worth mentioning that some of the earliest civilisations were discovered in the peninsula as far back as 2,000 years ago. The 224 sq km Bujang Valley in Kedah is said to be the site of the first Malay Hindu-Buddhist kingdom in Peninsular Malaysia and excavation has revealed the remains of a jetty, iron-smelting areas, temple complexes and a large clay-brick oven, suggesting that it was a sophisticated trading and cultural centre.

Datin Nor Hayati Hussain, a heritage and conservation committee member at the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM), tells us that the architecture in Malaysia has been a response to change, be it internally or externally. “We look at the transformation in the way people adapt to changes in terms of culture, lifestyle, political development, education and technology. It keeps changing.”

According to the senior lecturer at Tunku Abdul Rahman University College, where she teaches Malaysian architecture, vernacular architecture was developed by the early natives in the Malay Archipelago. “It was very much derived from the context of the availability of material and skills that were passed on from generation to generation, and was quite sensitive in responding to the climate, material availability and the way of life of the people at that time.”

The traditional Malay house

The traditional Malay house is an example of vernacular architecture and is considered a reference to the early construction of houses in the Malay Archipelago, says Nor Hayati.

Over time, the traditional Malay house has become much more refined, specifically due to Islamisation, she adds. “When Islam arrived in the peninsula, the religion brought with it concepts of how to live in a family and community. The house became a more established space, with areas that could be open to visitors; areas for the privacy of the family; areas like the serambi, which was only open to male guests; and the dapur or kitchen, which had its own entrance and where Muslim women would normally gather. Then, there was the main house that was only for family and close relatives.”

The traditional Malay house used stilts as part of its construction. “This signified a response to the topography. The heights of the stilts could be adjusted so the building could be positioned to have an even floor. The stilts also protected the building from floods as many traditional settlements were built near rivers,” says Nor Hayati.

Having the floor raised above ground also provided ventilation. “You get a ‘cool’ house when air flows below and throughout the house. The traditional house also had big windows, but enough walls to keep the building covered and cool. The pitched roof typically had openings at both ends, allowing heat to dissipate from the building,” she adds.

According to her, the structure of the traditional Malay house was normally made of hard timber, while the partition walls could be made of second-grade timber such as bamboo. Sometimes carvings were added to make the house unique, and the perforated surfaces allowed for cross ventilation in and out of the house.

Another interesting feature of the traditional Malay house is the tongue and groove construction method, which doesn’t use nails or joints that can damage the timber, and allows the building to be dismantled and reconstructed in a different location, says Nor Hayati. “If you need to remove any part that is damaged, or even move the whole house, you can. That is how flexible the system of construction is. 

“It also allows future expansion or to move the house from one place to another, which was customary for the community at the time. For instance, if a daughter got married, the father could move the daughter’s room to her husband’s house.”

An example of this is Istana Seri Menanti in Kuala Pilah, Negeri Sembilan. Constructed in the early 1900s, the 4-storey wooden structure was built without the use of nails.

Other examples that showcase the adaptability of traditional Malay architecture are Istana Satu and Rumah Penghulu Abu Seman. The former was built in 1884 by Sultan Zainal Abidin III of Terengganu in Istana Maziah, Kuala Terengganu, in the Rumah Terengganu Tiang Dua Belas architectural style. This building, which is part of the main palace complex now in Muzium Terengganu, was reconstructed on the grounds of the Muzium Negara in April 1974.

As for Rumah Penghulu Abu Seman, the house was built in stages in Kedah between 1910 and the early 1930s. According to badanwarisanmalaysia.org, the building is one of the oldest surviving traditional Malay houses, and has been restored and relocated to the Badan Warisan Malaysia’s Heritage Centre in Jalan Stonor, Kuala Lumpur.

“The concept of conservation and extending the life of the building is packaged inside the design of the traditional Malay house, even though it is made of timber. Timber is usually seen as non-permanent and can easily be broken or catch fire. But if you understand the nature of timber, you can prolong the life of the building. Timber construction is not only for houses but also for palaces,” says Nor Hayati.

Today, the traditional Malay house is more commonly found in rural parts of the country. However, one can still get a glimpse of kampung living in the heart of metropolitan KL in Kampung Baru. Developed in the 1890s by the British, the rustic Malay enclave is home to some century-old traditional Malay houses including Rumah Limas, complete with stained glass windows, wood-panelled walls and stone pillars.

The heritage shophouse and colonial architecture

The arrival of the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial powers changed the landscape of our buildings’ architecture and possibly made it richer, says Nor Hayati. “Although we did lose some remnants of the past and many of the old construction [methods], we managed to learn new things — adapt and adopt. It is important for us to build with a strong understanding of the past.”

Some of the oldest surviving shophouses in the country can be found in the historical city of Melaka, which became an important trading port in the 15th century. An example is No 8 Heeren Street, a 2-storey shophouse believed to have been built in the 1700s. According to badanwarisanmalaysia.org, early shophouses commonly served as a shop, residence, stable and animal yard at the same time. No 8 was rehabilitated and restored by Badan Warisan Malaysia to make it look like the original structure.

According to Nor Hayati, shophouses built during that period have the Dutch influence. “There are no records of when the first shophouses were built in this country and they could have been influenced by the Chinese, Indians or Arabs who settled in many of the towns in the peninsula. When the Dutch came in 1641 and captured the Portuguese stronghold in the peninsula, they built settlements around the fortress and across the river [in Melaka]. The shophouses built during that time were like the ones in the Netherlands during that period, but had adopted local materials and culture,” she says.

“It is a systematic planning [system], whereby the imposition of the grid is clear … the demarcation of the road, the area of the building and how the buildings are aligned. It was very much urban planning.”

Shophouses are designed to provide a residence as well as a business venue. The ground floor is commonly used for commercial activity while the rear area and upstairs are informal spaces for residential purposes.

It is typical of shophouses to come with a courtyard (or courtyards) and a five-foot way. As shophouses are often narrow and deep, internal courtyards are used to punctuate the building to draw in light and ventilation, a sympathetic feature especially in the context of the peninsula’s humid climate. Similarly, the five-foot way provides pedestrians with shelter from the sun and rain.

In Penang, old shophouses are often centred around the kongsi or Chinese clan house, which is the heart of a settlement. “Penang still has some well-preserved shophouses … Based on my observation, the ones in Melaka’s Heeren Street are smaller than the ones in Penang. You can find up to three courtyards in the shophouses in Penang. But in Melaka, mostly there is just one. Many of the shophouses have been converted into boutique hotels,” says Nor Hayati.

As Dutch rule in Melaka spanned 183 years, the longest of all the colonial powers that arrived on our shores, we are left with quite a few buildings that showcase their architecture. These include the Stadthuys, Christ Church Melaka as well as other former Dutch administrative offices and residences that are currently the Malaysia Youth Museum and Melaka Art Gallery, the Malaysia Architecture Museum and Melaka Stamp Museum.

Subsequently, British rule in Malaya from 1824 to 1957 left us with quite a few examples of colonial architecture from that period. The Sultan Abdul Samad Building, National Textile Museum, former High Court building, Kuala Lumpur railway station, KL City Theatre and the Jamek Mosque, among others, showcase what is described as Moorish, Indo-Saracenic or Mughal architecture.

“The British brought in architecture with Islamic features, mainly influenced by their rule in India. Some of the characteristics of Mughal architecture are pointed arches and domes,” says Nor Hayati.

“The buildings around Merdeka Square were made from bricks that were mainly produced by the kiln in Brickfields. Brick constructions were favoured for safety and strength after the fire and flood that swept Kuala Lumpur in the late 1800s. The then British government decided to use construction materials other than timber, also because they wanted to build taller buildings. They used concrete and stone, or whatever that was considered stronger and more reliable and accessible during that period,” says Nor Hayati.

During the British era, any changes in architectural influences in the UK also influenced the colonial architecture in then Malaya. We’ve inherited buildings that include Carcosa Seri Negara, in neo-Gothic and Tudor Revivalist architecture; Royal Selangor Club, in Mock Tudor styling; St Mary’s Cathedral, in English Gothic; and Hotel Majestic, in neoclassical and art deco. These are just some examples of the British colonial buildings in KL.

Modernist to post-modernist

Leading up to the nation’s independence in 1957, discussions on finding architecture that portrayed freedom and the new system of government took place, says Nor Hayati. “Modern architecture took shape after the Industrial Revolution and new materials such as reinforced concrete, steel and glass were made available.”

Old shophouses in George Town, Penang

According to her, the early modernist architecture in Malaysia was designed to reflect a new national identity, the spirit of self-government and the hopes of a progressive country. “Modern architecture is asymmetrical and rejects embellishments and references to the past. Modern architecture is more practical and efficient, whereby every part of the building has a function. You can see buildings with a lot of sun-shading features and using specific materials such as concrete,” she says.

“When we gained independence, our architecture also reflected rational thinking and respect towards each other. It is a people’s architecture and a symbol that we belong to one nation, rather than ethnic groups. That’s the idea of democracy.”

A befitting example is our Houses of Parliament, one of Malaysia’s earliest modernist buildings. “The Parliament Building is a full expression of the modern spirit with a form that does not relate literally to any culture or ethnicity but fully responding to the climatic requirements and resources of the time. It represents the people, time and place,” says Nor Hayati.

Other examples of early modernist architecture are Masjid Negara, the old Subang International Airport and the University of Malaya’s Tunku Chancellor Hall.

Nevertheless, there are also buildings such as Muzium Negara whose architecture was inspired by Malay royal palaces and vernacular Malay architecture. “You get a sense of tradition with the building design, but using modern technology and material,” says Nor Hayati.

According to her, developments in the 1960s were very much about unity and creating a national identity for the newly independent nation. But in the 1970s and 1980s, buildings  with traditional, ethnic or religious influences could be observed.

Some examples are Menara Bumiputra (now Bank Muamalat), which interprets traditional architecture with modern building methods, and Dayabumi Complex, which has modern Islamic influences. “The 1980s was another explorative period for national identity influenced by political, economic and Islamic symbolism,” says Nor Hayati.

The Dayabumi Complex, built in the 1980s, features modern Islamic influences (Photo by Suhaimi Yusuf/The Edge)

Fast forward to today, the landscape of postmodernist buildings is becoming more familiar to our architectural landscape with the likes of the Petronas Twin Towers and the ongoing construction of Merdeka 118, which is set to be the tallest building in Malaysia and the second-tallest building in the world at 644m upon completion.

“The majority of the population is now very exposed to global and international ideas on architecture and technology. The choice of materials is also abundant and references to many designs are quite accessible today,” says Nor Hayati.

“In that sense, we can see that architecture in Malaysia is pushing the boundaries today. We have the tallest towers in the world … and we have become a competitive nation altogether. Many local architects are also positioning themselves beyond the local scenario and are on a par with architects worldwide.

“I think our architecture today is a true expression of our identity as Malaysians and as a nation. It is mixed, modern and secular … and some projects are a balance between culture and modernity.”