Penang's architectural gems collected in new book

20 May 2022

Straits Times, 20 May 2022, Penang's architectural gems collected in new book
When Penang's capital of George Town was inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List in 2008, together with Melaka, the world's attention was suddenly focused on the history and culture of these dazzling port cities east of the Suez Canal.

Unesco said the heritage sites represent an architectural and cultural showcase "without parallel anywhere in East and South-east Asia".

In 2015, eminent Singaporean scholar and architectural historian Jon Lim released his first book, titled The Penang House And The Straits Architect 1887-1941, to help define Penang's architectural identity by examining the works of the early colonial-era architects who laid the foundations for future generations.

He says the term "Penang House" refers to buildings with a mix of Western traditions and modernity, showcased in an Eastern setting. These included grand structures built in British Malaya by European pioneers such as Henry Alfred Neubronner, James Stark and Joseph Charles Miller.

The book was published by Penang-based Areca Books and is currently out of print.

In his second book, The Penang House: Rise Of The Malaysian Architect 1887-2017, which has just been released in bookstores, Dr Lim charts the course of a new generation of architects who broke away from colonial mentors to forge their own distinctive designs.

Penang's unique showcase
He makes a case for Penang as Malaysia's architectural cradle, the island having had a head start from the mainland - where urban development took place only almost a century after 1786, when Captain Francis Light of the British East India Company founded the outpost.

Penang's place in architectural history can be seen in some of its earliest buildings, such as the Penang Residency in Residency Road, which was completed in 1890 and designed by architects from the Public Works Department set up by the British.

Another landmark is Homestead in Northam Road, built from 1919 to 1922. It is considered the most influential prototype for the Penang House during the golden age of Malayan architecture in the 1920s.

According to Mr Ho Weng Hin, a conservation specialist and co-founder of local architectural conservation specialist consultancy Studio Lapis, it presents an invaluable record of the myriad design influences on colonial-era residences, and how these are influenced by patronage, the designers' background, aesthetic preferences and social norms.

"This second book by Dr Lim will be an important primer for scholars, practitioners, owners and policymakers invested in the field of architectural and urban conservation," says Mr Ho, who was part of the consultation team for the conservation of the almost century-old St James Power Station in Singapore.

"I hope that this will inspire the next generation to become new custodians who will safeguard these rare heritage properties for posterity and imbue them with a new lease of life," he adds.

Dr Lim's second book is structured into three parts, beginning with the work of the early rustic builders such as military engineers from the British East India Company and Malayan stonemasons.

From 1786 to 1887, they constructed structures with features that were designed to address heat, rain and floods, such as thatched roofs and houses that were raised a few metres above the ground.

The Kuala Lumpur-born author, who is 80 and lives in Singapore, says he had to be daring in putting a date or period into practice when no such precedent existed in architectural history.

"It is daunting when there are no guidelines to forage a 'period' or define the first, second or third wave of architecture," says Dr Lim, who taught at the National University of Singapore's School of Architecture from 1972 to 2002. "But it has to be done if we are to move forward in writing history."

The second part, from 1887 to 1957, looks at the works of the early Straits European and British architects and their Malayan proteges, who may have been draughtsmen in the studios of the colonial designers.

By the turn of the 20th century, almost half of the government buildings from King Edward Place to Downing Street in Penang had been constructed.

Early Malayan architects attached to the studio of Neubronner included Lim Soo Loon (1889 - 1976) and Chew Eng Eam (1894 - 1972), who were among the first generation of Malayan architects mentored by the colonial architects.

With its bow-front topped by a concrete semi-cupola (a dome-like structure), Lim's design for Cheah Sin Kee villa at 17 Kelawei Road in George Town, which was completed in 1935, is unlike any other Penang House. Its hybrid design represents a 1930s transition style.

In 1963, Malaya became known as Malaysia, including Sabah and Sarawak. Later, the national body called Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia was set up in 1967 to pave the way for more Malaysians to rise up the ranks in architecture.

The final part of the book, from 1957 to 2017, looks at the achievements of Malaysia's new generation of home-grown architects such as Derrick David, Dennis Liew and Laurence Loh.

This was the start of the modern movement, with buildings that sought to embrace progress and modernity, featuring clean lines and made of concrete, steel and glass.

Rise of the Malaysian architect
"The character of Malayan architecture, namely the Penang House, serves as a case study of how ethnicity shaped the Malayan identity," says Dr Lim in an e-mail interview.

"The Europeans lived in bungalows, homesteads and villas, whereas Asians built shophouses under the confinement of their township.

"The latter subsequently coined Hokkien terms such as 'ang moh lau' and 'phu kah lau', meaning a villa and bungalow respectively. And when their economy prospered, the Asians preferred to live outside the township in the suburbs, where they built similar house forms."

Dr Lim says they forged a hybrid house form in association with the pitched roof and incorporated an entrance porch, portal and verandah, which justifies the use of the term "Malayan Architecture".

Forging their own styles
Publisher of The Penang House, Mr Marcus Langdon, director of Penang-based Entrepot Publishing, says Dr Lim's second book is a tome that deals with the local draughtsmen who initially worked for the European firms, but rose to become architects under the government acts which allowed their registration and formal participation in architecture, beginning with the British Architects Ordinance Act in 1926.

"Dr Lim argues that these local architects stamped their own styles on domestic architecture, influencing design across Malaya and, later, Malaysia," says Mr Langdon, a Britain-born Australian who is based in Penang.

He adds: "Educational facilities developed over several decades to the point where students no longer needed to study outside of Malaysia to obtain their full qualification. There are currently around 5,000 registered architects in Malaysia."

Ambitious undertaking
According to Professor Yeo Kang Shua, an architectural conservator and associate professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, this second volume by Dr Lim has been long-awaited.

Prof Yeo - who is also the president of the International Council of Monuments and Sites Singapore, a professional body that Unesco consults on matters relating to World Heritage Sites - says the second volume is more ambitious.

"Dr Lim provided an account of how local architects, as opposed to the Europeans during colonial rule, moved away and experimented with designs that parallel the country's transformation and development," he says.

"As Singapore and Malaysia have a shared heritage, including architects who worked in both regions, I believe this book will provide insights not only into our architectural past and present, but also, perhaps, point the way to the future."

The Penang House: Rise Of The Malaysian Architect 1887-2017, 272 pages, by Entrepot Publishing, is on sale at Books Kinokuniya and Basheer Graphic Books.