Thoroughly modern architectural wonders

To highlight the plight of modern buildings under siege in Ipoh, Law Siak Hong sought the help of architects. Here are his reflections on two public housing sites and the issues of their preservation.

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Modern architecture was the physical manifestation of a broad social and philosophical movement that forever changed the course of human history.”

– David N. Fixler

 

We must be concerned. While we concentrate on preserving pre-war buildings, are we neglecting the outstanding buildings of modern architecture?

Over the past decade, conservationists have been advancing “green” solutions for buildings under pressure for urban renewal. Instead of demolition for redevelopment modern buildings are getting preserved. There are sound economic and cultural reasons for this. For one, technologically, it is cheaper than demolish and build anew. Even post-war council flats in London of modern “Brutalist”, a particularly nasty style, have been upgraded, with its spaces adapted and reconfigured.

Modern buildings began to appear in the Kinta Valley around 1930s. You may be surprised, but built in 1931 the Lam Looking Bazaar is the earliest example of International Style in all Malaysia (Chen Voon Fee). It is a pity that its intrinsic architectural value has been compromised through inappropriate renovation. Meanwhile, the treasures of Ipoh’s modern heritage – cinemas, schools, institutional buildings, and the legacy of public housing from 1950s and 1960s – remain a time bomb. It has to be said: the remarkable modern cinemas and institutional buildings in Ipoh were mostly designed by B M Iversen, the prolific Danish architect. As the architect in the Public Works Department (now JKR) Frank Cowie’s significant contribution to our historic urban landscape must be noted.

Public Housing

As an indicator of progressive town planning, housing is also an important marker for community history. When attap huts, timber sheds, shophouses and bungalows were the norm, the earliest housing estate popped up in Falim, built by Foo Nyit Tse in 1920s (Ho Tak Ming). Built back to back with the shophouses on the main road, each single storey linked house had a small garden, like the early 1900s shophouses on Ipoh’s “lawyers Row” or Hale Street (now Jalan Tun Sambanthan). Then, in 1936, B M Iversen designed for towkay Loke Wan Yat double storey terraced houses and a row of shophouses in Fair Park, previously known as Piccadilly; sadly, in 2009, careless demolition had caused the Art Deco shophouses to topple, killing two men in a passing car.

World War Two came and building activity ceased. In the post-war period, as “architectural development gathered a new momentum”, the progressive Ipoh Town Board had published its first building by-laws in 1954 to “bring about greater control over unauthorized building activities” (Ipoh: The Town that Tin Built). Around this time, to meet the demand for suburban houses, large housing estates emerged: Housing Trust and Canning Garden, while Sungei Rokam was an experimental low-cost housing for a Malay settlement by the Sungai Pinji. As urbanisation and demand for low-cost housing in the city rose, Ipoh Town Councillor Waller came to the rescue. One after the other, two public housing schemes of merit: Waller Court and “Sungei Pari Towers” (now, Sungai Pari Tower) were built, cheaply but well. Perhaps, they could become popular city flats or town houses and with some commercial uses. But then, what about the plight of the displaced low-income dwellers?

Waller Court

While Waller Court emptied out in dilapidation, plans are afoot for its renewal. The City Council (MBI) has announced that it will be adapted and maintained for mixed-uses, while legitimate tenants would be invited back into the improved units (TheStar: 25 February 2012; 6 December 2012).

Waller Court. Photo from The Star

An obelisk and a commemoration plaque mark the entrance. The project site was opened in August 1960 by the Mentri Besar of Perak, Dato Shaari bin Shafiee. Named after E. G. Waller, chairman of the Ipoh Town Council from 1959 to 1962, it was completed by the Public Works Department in 19 months, and ceremoniously opened by Mrs Waller in May of 1962, presided over by D. R. Seenivasagam, Ipoh Town Councillor, Federal Member of Parliament and a champion of the under-privileged.

Open space, trees and an outdoor badminton court – a good environment for living.

Note the simple folded plate roof of the car park.

Compact units mean that each tenant has had to add lightweight enclosure for useful space.

Small traders continue to live in such “heritage social housing”.

For elderly residents, gardening is therapeutic but negotiating the stairs may be problematic.

Laid out on a gentle curve, Waller Court comprises 536 units in seventeen Blocks of four storey flats. Staggered blocks form T-annexes. It sits on a long strip of land over 1500m long and 30m wide. The blocks are linked at all levels by covered walkways and foot bridges. One can leave their flat to go to the shops on the ground level without getting wet, theoretically. On the ground level covered spaces flow into adjacent lawns, a car park or a play area.

The structure is reinforced concrete, with cross walls of 4-1/2” reinforced concrete load-bearing wall throughout. As the first social housing project for Ipoh it deserves its place as an important architectural heritage of the city. It borders the D. R. Seenivasagam Park, the green lung of Ipoh. By any measure, it is prime location. Should they remain low-cost housing?

Residents build and adapt to their needs and convenience.

As low-cost housing, building maintenance is practically absent. Repairs are desperately needed. There are shortcomings in its design. It does not grow with the family. To keep the rain off the balcony kitchenette, a hood is needed. That is what almost all tenants have built to maximise this limited space. That’s one clue to its improvement. Here is a chance to make good something which did not work. But until the Council’s plans are put on view for public feedback, nothing more can be said.

Sungai Pari Tower: seen here with its outstanding dish-shell roof and silo-like water tower.

Sungai Pari Tower (originally Sungei Pari Towers)

By 1962, another low-cost housing scheme, an eighteen storey high rise was in the planning stage. This is the Sungai Pari Tower, located by the Pari River and west of Ipoh Railway Station. However, only 15 floors were built, in deference to a height restriction on buildings in Ipoh at the time.

Five blocks of low-rise flats are sited next to the football field.

Almost 50 years later, the Sungai Pari Tower is still the most impressive high-rise in Ipoh. It is the only building in Malaysia which features a dish roof, paying homage to Le Corbusier, a master architect of the 20th Century. The tower dominates a vast area of (several) acres with two groups of four-storey blocks. Like the Waller Court, these blocks are linked by foot bridges and walkways, enclosing open space and play area where children can play safely, supervised, if only from a distance. The sense of place and neighbourhood is apparent. The construction took a little more than three years. Two marble plaques mark the Laying of the foundation stone in November 1963 by the Minister of the Interior, Dato Dr Ismail bin Dato Abdul Rahman, and its official opening by the Minister of Local Government and Housing, Khaw Kai Boh, in February 1966.

A scenic beauty: Pari River, Buntong Village, with the Kledang Range in the background.

Views of the tower framed by mature trees along the drive way and flowering shrubs.

A view of the tower and the grouping of 4-storey walk up flats.

“The construction of Sungai Pari Towers is of high quality for its time and low-income constituency, with exposed concrete work far above anything currently achievable today in Malaysia except in those few cases of special high-end projects in Kuala Lumpur and usually designed by famous “international” architects” (DA Booth). This reinforced concrete structure and its iconic roof is physically sound (engineer anonymous) and “technically and architecturally, it would be fairly easy to renovate and upgrade this iconic structure, at great cost savings of perhaps 30-50% of demolition and new construction” (DA Booth).

Impressive patterns and shapes: hollow blocks enclose the balcony; ventilation blocks let in light and airiness to circulation space; east and west walls are windowless.

The curved concrete shell-roof harkens to the avant-garde design of “La Corbusier”.

In his open letter to the Mayor of Ipoh, Booth further suggested, “Any creative renovation could find ways to enlarge and expand units horizontally, or to absorb and re-purpose redundant access corridors… and expand vertically too, with duplex units with interior stairs or double height interior spaces, or both. There are so many fine examples worldwide of this kind of high-rise residential planning.”

Views of the park; children of the neighbourliness; a residential vehicle for a small trader; a view of the flats through a doorway; an old Volkswagen parked outside the tower.

With a spectacular view of the hills which frame the Kinta Valley, it could be re-configured for higher end housing while retaining its historic qualities. However, with open spaces and flowering trees, and more than a football field, the site is “vacant land” waiting to be packed with more housing blocks, or worse, redevelopment to a high-end market. Something has to come up to increase the density of occupation. May they be low-rise flats!

Kinta Heights

This building is not under threat. Nevertheless, it deserves a mention because of its dominant presence in Old Town. It stands on the plot of land which had Ipoh’s second market. Since late 1960s, for three decades, this twenty-storey tower has stood as the tallest building in Ipoh. Outside the fence of Kinta Heights are several blocks of four storey council flats. It is enough to note here that “Disneyfication” has caused it and the adjacent low-rise council flats to be painted in ill-matched colour schemes. This superficial cosmetic treatment is disappointing when maintenance and upgrade are sorely missing.

Kinta Heights: photo credit: before (UM-NUS students, 2012) and after (LSH) “Disneyfication”. Photo above shows the corner shophouse which was in the process of demolition.

The case for preservation by the revisionist approach

The collapse of tin price in 1985 practically wiped out the tin-mining industry and Ipoh sank into a long depression. In the aftermath, capital flight meant Ipoh’s money got invested in KL, Singapore and overseas. There are signs of change. Capital is repatriated. That means more and more building owners face a decision: to re-build or not to re-build. Our historic urban landscape is challenged; it has come under the pressure of renewal and re-development.

The goal of preservation will increasingly become to create dialogues that heighten the perception of the original, while acknowledging and acting upon its inevitability.” – DNF

The task of conserving and enhancing modern buildings is complex so why do we need to preserve modern buildings while older buildings are falling like cards?

The meaning of heritage of the modern movement

Modernism is part of history, and it is “constantly revisited for the refreshment of ideas” (DNF). In practice, Building conservation is a modernist concept. Intervention by modification is one way to save a building reduced to being “obsolete” in order to make it a part of our city’s heritage again. It can create a whole new meaning and leave open the potential for future modifications. This revisionist approach has been acknowledged in a May 2005 memorandum by UNESCO, “World Heritage and Contemporary Architecture – Managing the Historic Urban Landscape”. We need to “manage growth and change in historic precincts through precise and sensitive, but contemporary, methods of intervention.” (DNF)

Buildings are our cultural heritage, but embodied within our buildings are the stories of their occupancies, lives lived and collective memories are linked. Big or small, illustrious or partisan, our lives shape our buildings.

Think: easier said than done?

The legacy of modernism should be documented, classified and treated in the same manner as the architecture of any historic period.” – DNF

Obviously, there are overriding political reasons for the proposed re-development of Sungai Pari Tower. Its location at one of the entrances to the Emergency village of Buntong harkens back to darker days. As the city expanded, this area has become desirable for its magnificent views of the mountains and its proximity to the colonial heritage core from the Ipoh Railway Station to the Kinta River.

“… The quality of the original architecture may be augmented through using the existing buildings as structural armatures upon which to build new experiences, introducing elements of scale and texture that will reinvigorate and make contemporary works that might otherwise seem to have exhausted their useful lives… The process (of intervention) becomes one of weaving the modifications into the original in such a way that a continuum is created that both reveals the past and leaves open possibilities for the future.”- DNF

This is precisely the thinking that is needed in the preservation of Sungai Pari Tower. Consider it a springboard to creating a contemporary building out of a historical and notable modern building for public housing. The notion of imposing the values of constants must accommodate the inevitability of change. This change will allow intervention. In the larger scheme, the urban renewal for this “classic high-rise” reflects the significant part of our shared cultural legacy. Preserving the Tower is the better choice, but we need to think out of the box for the most appropriate solution.

What now?

With modern architecture, we would focus on the idea of the building, where this idea was important in giving meaning to the original work.” – DNF

What does council flats mean to Ipoh and how will money spent on repairs and renovations benefit the people? This is the problem that the Municipality of Ipoh (MBI) has been struggling with. While inner city zones may have high land value, pushing public housing out to the fringe is the wrong solution for the “under-privileged”. Density of occupancy in inner city has to increase. At the same time, better designed buildings can help to alleviate inefficient use of space. Shall we hope that it is not at the cost of harmony and a under- privileged community squeezed and emptied out? The city is not for only the very rich but shared with all strata of society.

The author wishes to acknowledge the comments from architects Sam Tan and Ken Yeh on the draft of this article.

References:
D. A. Booth, Architect
Open letter to Datuk Bandar Ipoh Datuk Roshidi Hashim
January 27, 2013

David N. Fixler, AIA
Preserving Modern Architecture – and the future of preservation (essay)

Ipoh Municipal Council, L. H. C. Jennings (editor)
IPOH: The Town that Tin Built
Phoenix Communications Limited, 1962

Abdur-Razzaq Lubis and Khoo Salma Nasution
Kinta Valley: pioneering Malaysia’s modern development
Perak Academy, 2005

Ho Tak Ming
IPOH When Tin Was King
Perak Academy, 2010

Chen Voon Fee (editor)
Raja Dr Nazrin Shah, Landmarks of Perak
RNP Publication, 2007

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4 Responses to “Thoroughly modern architectural wonders”


  1. 1 Atiyah September 5, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    Very elaborate article…..hope the powers in charge read this and take note and do the necessary for Ipoh

  2. 3 Azaiddy Abdullah February 10, 2014 at 5:03 pm

    Do you know who is the architect for Sungai Pari Tower ? Was it DA Booth ?

    • 4 perakheritage March 24, 2014 at 6:39 pm

      No, Booth is not the architect of Sungai Pari Tower. We believe the architect is from JKR (Public Works Department) and most likely to be Frank Cowie, who was the engineer then.


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