Melting pot of architecture

Commercial and residential buildings attest to development since Merdeka

By Tharmini Kenas 

PENANG and Malacca’s inclusion in the list of Unesco World Heritage Sites brought great honour to the country. With Portuguese and Dutch influence in Malacca and the representation of the British era in Penang, the two heritage sites highlight the rich and unique architectural scene in Malaysia.

Being a melting pot of culture in the region, Malaysia has intrinsically unique architecture. From Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Malacca to Ipoh, Kelantan and Sabah, the buildings have played a crucial part in nation building since Merdeka.

The effects of colonisation are still intricately embedded in the lives of Malaysians. After independence, our own cultural blend began to take precedence over colonial architecture.

Architect Ang Chee Cheong

Architect Ang Chee Cheong

“In 1963, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong called for the construction of almost 10 buildings and institutions that are critical for the strengthening of nationhood. This was a significant moment because it indicated the role architecture plays in shaping a nation,” said architect Ang Chee Cheong.

As co-writer of The Merdeka Interviews book (with architectural historian Dr Lai Chee Kien), Ang put together 17 interviews with architects, engineers and artists who helped erect key buildings in Malaysia after independence.

The need to create a national identity and a functioning nation spurred the architectural styles, which was followed by the urge to stand tall among other developing countries in the region.

According to Ang, architecture plays a big part in the economy of any country and quite large in Malaysia. It affects over 200 industries, trades and services, and is a significant component of the domestic economic production.

It is worthwhile noting that the price of heritage houses in Penang and Malacca has been steadily increasing. A three-storey pre-war building at the Heritage Zone in George Town, Penang, costs RM3,650,000 (RM869.05 per sq ft) while a three-storey superlink house in Mont Kiara, Kuala Lumpur, costs RM1,900,000 (RM467.06 per sq ft)*.

“Perhaps a more important role for architecture is the representation of a nation’s ideas and ambitions, its identity and its quality,” said Ang.

Asked about the local architecture scene, he said: “We need to change the way architecture is conducted in this country, in how architects are selected and how major buildings are commissioned. The way this is being done is often vague, often cloaked in secrecy and often with barriers, even with the various government agencies and GLCs.

“In our research on Merdeka-era buildings, we see that the architects for major projects were often selected by open design competitions, with the submissions published and exhibited. In most countries with vibrant architectural cultures, we see that such competitions decide projects.

“In light of the openness of our new government, perhaps this is an opportune time to make a real systemic change to our architecture and cities,” Ang suggested.

Classification by periods

According to the Heritage of Malaysia Trust, the styles of buildings are the basis of architectural classification. The influence of various architecture from other parts of the world has been successfully incorporated and modified by Malaysian culture and environment.

Some of the architectural influences that differ according to time periods include the Indian Kingdoms (from 7th to 14th Century), Malay Vernacular (early 15th Century to present), Straits Eclectic (15th Century to mid-20th Century), Chinese Baroque (19th Century to early 20th Century), Indian Vernacular (15th Century to mid-20th Century), Colonial (17th Century to mid-20th Century), and Modern (1950s-1980s). These variations in influence have resulted in the expression of assimilated architecture in local buildings.


6 common building styles

Despite being a convergent point for many architectural styles, some common ones can be easily found across Malaysia. The assimilation of foreign cultures with Malaysia’s own diverse cultures has resulted in unique architectural styles in the country. Some of these styles played prominent roles during British rule while others have been the backbone of the country from independence till now.


Sultan Abdul Samad building.  Art Chen/ The Star.

It is on the field opposite the Sultan Abdul Samad building that the British Union Jack was lowered for the last time on Aug 30, 1957, and the Malayan flag was raised for the first time.

Being the blend of Indian, Persian, Turkish and Islamic architecture, Mughal architecture became common in Malaysia around the 20th Century. Some of the Mughal buildings in Malaysia are the Sultan Abdul Samad building, Malayan Railway Administration building, and the Kuala Lumpur National History Museum.

Straits Eclectic

The vibrant and colourful Straits Eclectic architecture is also known as the Peranakan or Baba Nyonya architecture

The Straits Eclectic architecture is uniquely Malaysian and can be mostly found in the heritage shophouses in Malacca and Penang. British, French and Chinese architectures inspired the style, and these heritage buildings are being converted into business premises. Catching the attention of small and medium industries as well as international franchises, these buildings have contributed significantly to the economic development of Penang and Malacca.


Petaling Street boasts buildings with Chinese architectural elements

Instead of just being confined to Chinatown as in most parts of the world, Chinese-based architectural buildings can be found scattered all over Malaysia. The infusion of Chinese architectural elements in Malaysian buildings speaks loudly of the influence of the Chinese community in the making of Malaysia.


The complex and intricate design of the Sri Kandaswamy Temple in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, is a Dravidian architectural gem

The Dravidian architecture is well-manifested in the hundreds of temples across Malaysia. Emerging in South India, the Dravidian architecture heavily influences the structure of Hindu temples with the prominent feature being the high gopuram or gatehouse that rises well above the rest of the temple building complex.


Tudor architecture is very popular in the Malaysian construction scene for its black and white quadrilaterals

As a result of British rule from the 1800s to 1957, its influence is still prominent in many aspects of Malaysian life. In building architecture, the British influence is manifested through the Tudor style. With time, it has been modified and adapted to the climate in Malaysia — signifying the progress that Malaysia has undergone after the departure of the Brits. An example of Tudor architecture in Malaysia is The Royal Selangor Club in Kuala Lumpur.


Being the pride of Malaysia, the architecture of the Petronas Twin Towers is a sight to behold from near or far

Despite being surrounded by many other modern architectural buildings, the Petronas Twin Tower’s tube-in-tube design continues to gleam the brightest in the Kuala Lumpur skyline. The structure attests to Malaysia’s development since Merdeka.


Win 6 months of dimsum* subscription “What are the six common building styles in Malaysia?” Join the contest at bit.lyArchitectureMerdekaContest *dimsum is the latest video streaming service in Malaysia serving the best Asian content including drama, entertainment, variety, movies, documentary and news.


Related Articles: