by azrul k. abdullah

KL saw its greatest growth spurt in the early sixties and seventies, and with it, the proliferation of new buildings comprised of new office buildings (both public and private) and some suburban projects. Architecturally, most of these buildings from the 'boom' period were heavily influenced by the wave of International style architecture which swept most of Europe and the Americas during the pre and post-war period.

Based on clean lines, basic forms and functionality, International style was a design period that covered about four decades between the twenties to the sixties. However, due to its universality, it was a style that never really died out; evolving and developing, while maintaining an identity that is instantly recognisable. Many new buildings continued to be built on the maxims of the period even after the climax of International style in the 1960s. Speaking recently to a local architect, he said that many of the new buildings in KL are going back to some of the essential elements of International style. "Many architects today are looking back at some of the old masters for ideas," he said.

Looking at the architecture of early KL, most buildings in KL in the post Merdeka (Independance) period use strong symbolism and boldness to create a nationalistic image. Looking at the post-merdeka and post-WWII period, many countries around the world were also looking for a new identity in their architecture while leaving the roots of traditionalism behind. Local government architecture was the first means of depicting this new phase of development in the post-colonial period. Parliament House with its large grounds and bold facade and the Dewan Bahasa building with its nationalistic murals; epitomise the convergence between International style and patriotism; akin to how architect Oscar Niemeyer's buildings developed in the face of nationalism in Brazil. International style was also a departure from 'imperialist' Georgian and Victorian period architecture, which marked the colonial period in Malaya.

The most overwhelming element that influences any design in the tropics would be the climate. Some of the essential trappings of International style never made it to KL in its purest form; for example the liberal use of glass on unstressed exteriors. The beauty, space and lighting that glass provides is unfortunately problematic in the tropics. The first problem being heat trapped behind glass, resulting in warm interiors that leave spaces for want of comfort. Building owners are also faced with costly air-conditioning bills.

Probably one of the earliest and finest examples of International style is Federal House on Jalan Raja. A product of the 50s, it was once the tallest building in KL. This 12-storey structure is probably one of the few buildings that took on the 'pure' form of International style. Its unstressed façade allows liberal use of glass. Unfortunately, the new heavy tint installed on the glass does little to the overall aesthetic of the building nor does it help in abating heat.

The local climatic conditions have warranted the use of many ingenious means to adapt International style to local requirements. The liberal use of grilles and louvers is probably the most common means to keep these buildings cooler.Early buildings like Hotel Malaya (196x), the EPF building in PJ, Parliament House (1963) and the Angkasapuri building (196x) all make heavy use of louvers, shading panels and grille work. Often regarded as 'unsightly', the gradual use of grillwork, typified most of the up and coming buildings that would begin to dot KL's skyline. 'Basic form' wasn't able to cope with the local climate. 'Form' meets its demise, and 'need' steps in as the catalyst for adaptation.

Many of KL's adapted International style buildings in reality have very clean and unmistakable lines that were convoluted by grilles and large panels to keep the sun out. The next time you pass any of these buildings, imagine the grilles and panels being absent and you will see an otherwise un-fussed exterior typifying any building from the International period.

Another adaptation came with indenting the exteriors so walkways would form the perimeter allowing the fitting of staircases to the exterior. This solved a few problems; the walkways shaded the walls and windows and placing the staircase on the outside simplified construction and reduced building cost. The most prolific of these buildings are the 'standard issue' government offices that we have all become familiar with.

What does this mean in terms of style? Even, until the advent of post-modernism, many architects chose to lavish their buildings with elaborate stucco reliefs and plaster work. The evidence of this is clear in most of KL's early colonial architecture, which is based on Victorian/Edwardian neo-classical themes (not forgetting re-incarnations and adaptations during the Art Deco period). International style, which has its origins in Germany, was an attempt to reduce and simplify buildings to their basic form.

Many will remember the contribution of the Bauhaus school for great architects like Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breur who were instrumental in defining International style. However, International style was not meant to be defined regionally, but like all forms, localisation was inevitable. International style evolved and manifested in its temperate origins. Not realising how this style would proliferate worldwide, these great masters probably never thought about adapting their masterpieces to suit warm weather.

Our climate lead to changes and adaptation of the style as more buildings appeared in the course of development. International style has endured the persistence of time and still remains a common theme for many new buildings in KL. Style can't end, it just evolves or changes.

Some of KL's best known architects have brought a wave of new buildings that clearly address the needs of our weather while maintaining excellent styling. Kudos go to Hijjas Kasturi & Associates on the Securities Commission building. Clearly addressing energy efficiency and keeping a comfortable work environment, the building succeeds at being asthetically very pleasing without having a convoluted exterior.

Strangely, despite the resurgence of International style as a theme for new buildings, it's amazing that even some of the latest buildings in KL are repeating mistakes from the past. One of them is the Suria shopping mall's glass and steel facade that faces the park.This glass and metal facade's styling are, however, the world renowned architects Cesar Pelli & Associates failed to address problems addresed by the early architects of KL; heat. Some sections in the building near windows were registering 27 deg celcius which is 5 degrees off from the norm of 23 deg celcius that the rest of the mall adheres to. This was finally fixed when more airconditioning ducts were installed at one establishment.

The small louvers placed over some of the windows are clearly inadequate at providing shade and worse still; the glass and metal facade faces the rising sun. Shops on the upper levels are exposed directly to the heat while those on the lower floors benefit from the insulation of a small atrium. Perhaps the architects could have learnt a thing or two from KL's architectural heritage. It never hurts to have a chat about the weather...

[This article was published in 'The Sun' in Jan 2002, All rights reserved]

| back |