An examination of Penang's homegrown architects and how their designs influenced Malaysian architecture

·5-min read
Malay Mail
Malay Mail

GEORGE TOWN, May 19 -- Architecture, as a profession that wedded artistic and technical skills, was initially reserved only for the British during the colonial era.

Despite this, several locally trained draughtsmen managed to rise up to become architects of note who went on to influence the direction of architecture in the then-Malaya.

Looking back at history, author Jon Lim Sun Hock said Penang saw the beginnings of these first few homegrown architects.

Back then, local Malayans were not eligible to study architecture overseas so only British architects designed a multitude of colonial buildings in George Town right after Francis Light settled down here, he said.

However, there were Malayans who trained as technical assistants under these colonial architects in that period and they eventually became full architects in their own right.

''The local architects earned their success by moonlighting a private practice at night while they worked as technical assistants with the colonial architects by day,' Lim told Malay Mail recently.

The 80-year-old Singaporean, whose parents were from Penang, said the rise of local architects started in the 1880s.

It was thanks to these homegrown architects that designs in some of these colonial-era mansions and buildings have both colonial and local influences.

'The colonial house forms were reinterpreted by the vernacular architect,' Lim wrote, adding that these buildings were known as phu-kha lau (bungalow squatted on legs) and the ang-mo lau (European-style villa).

He pointed out that designs by local architects were distinguishable by the intricate embellishments on the buildings that clearly showed Baba Nyonya and Malay elements such as carvings of flowers or moon and stars on the exteriors.

Other than these embellished exteriors, the designs were more sustainable for the local tropical climate with the introduction of cross-ventilation.

Among the first few local architects who rose to fame between the late 19th century to the early 20th century were Tan Chong Weng, Lim Soo Loon and Chew Eng Eam.

Lim and Chew's works and designs are prominently featured in the book but Tan was not featured as Jon was unable to obtain further information of his works from his descendants.

Jon wanted to feature architects such as Mohamed Ghouse and Shaik Ahmed Meah but also could not get in touch with their descendants for more information about them.

Instead these two architects and their works are only briefly mentioned.

Jon believes works such as the current Penang Malay Gallery and Museum building in Hutton Lane was by Shaik Ahmed Meah due to his signature design of including crescent embellishments on the exterior of the building.

'I would say that Penang's architecture was very much advanced back then and it largely influenced architecture in Malaysia over the years where we can see influences from our early Penang architects' designs in buildings all over the country from Johor to Kuala Lumpur to even Singapore and Phuket,' Jon said.

Jon, who was also an architect and a retired professor of architecture at the National University of Singapore, started research into the history of architecture in Penang more than four decades ago.

'Penang has always been close to my heart, my origins were from Penang and even though I was born in Kuala Lumpur, I always feel very deeply for Penang,' he said when asked why he had chosen to focus on Penang architects.

He said it was the works of Penang's own homegrown architects from the 19th and 20th century that had given Penang's architecture its own distinct style that is easily recognisable.

'We could say that Penang was the epicentre for architects at that time,' he said.

Jon wrote a first book, titled 'The Penang House and the Straits Architect 1887-1941', which looked at most of the colonial architects during that period.

It took him another seven years to work on a second book which showcased local architects titled The Penang House, Rise of the Malaysian Architect 1887-2017.

'I started research for these two books back in 1986 and had even gotten the late Tunku Abdul Rahman's blessings and an official letter from him to enable me access to institutional records to research for my books,' he said.

He dedicated the second book to the first prime minister of Malaya and Malaysia, attributing much of the success of Penang to the legacy left by the late Tunku Abdul Rahman.

Jon's book features the works of 25 prominent architects starting from the colonial era which saw the rise of Lim Soo Loon and Chew Eng Eam to modern architects the likes of Laurence Loh (of the Blue Mansion fame), Farid Kamal and building conservators such as Mathew Tan Kian Hoo and the late Tan Yeow Wooi.

Other than featuring their works, the building plans and the intricacies involved in the designing of their masterpieces, the book also takes a look at the early influences, the modern movement of architecture and the evolution of styles among the local architects as they looked towards modernism and establishing a regional identity in their designs.

For Jon, the book is more than just a record of the journey and designs of these architects but a work of passion to showcase the distinct identity of Penang.

'This book also captures the soul of the architectural genius of the Penang homegrown architects and preserves their works within the pages even if those buildings were to be destroyed or demolished in future,' he said.

'Only in Penang can we see such diverse and unique architectural designs and many of these are by its very own homegrown architects so there is much for Penangites to be proud of,' he said.

Jon was in Penang recently for the launch of the book.

'The Penang House, Rise of the Malaysian Architect 1887-2017' is published by Entrepot Publishing Sdn Bhd and available at major bookstores.

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