Merdeka Special: The untold stories of 5 historical Malaysian structures

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Let’s take a walk down memory lane this Merdeka, as we share with you various fun facts and never-seen-before, black and white images of 5 iconic Malaysian structures which are central to our nation’s identity.

A country’s buildings, structures and architecture, can go a long way in defining its history and cultural identity. Think about some of the iconic cities throughout the world, like New York City, London and Sydney. These cities are held in high esteem because they all have a unique identity and character, part of which has been shaped by their rich architectural history, respectively. After all, landmark buildings and structures often bear witness to key historical events or hold a special purpose for its citizens.

Malaysia is no different. This Merdeka, at the dawn of a new Malaysia, we thought it would be fitting to highlight our heritage by revisiting the five most significant structures that have helped define Malaysia’s cultural identity and shape its early years as a free nation.

We’ve done this with the help of architectural historian, Dr. Lai Chee Kien, and architect, Ang Chee Cheong, who recently co-authored The Merdeka Interviews, a 688-page book which pays homage to some of  Malaysia’s most iconic structures. This massive documentation of historical facts and stories was made possible via research and 17 interviews conducted with the key architects, engineers and artists operating in Malaya during the Merdeka period (mid 1950’s – mid 1960’s).

Now, sit back and enjoy the ride!

#1 Parliament House

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(Left) The Parliament Building, back then. Source: The Merdeka Interviews (courtesy of the authors). (Right) Image Credit: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

The ‘Bangunan Parlimen’ or The Malaysian Houses of Parliament, was inaugurated in November 1963. It was designed by Ivor Shipley, a British architect who was working in the Public Works Department (JKR). He had spent his first six months in Malaysia supervising the maintenance of existing buildings, an experience that taught him the essentials of designing a building that was sustainable in our climate. The building was built on a site formerly known as West Folly Hill.

The now instantly recognisable and iconic terrazzo panels before they were installed. Each of the panels weighed 88kg and were constructed in two variations, the S and H panels, in a Petaling Jaya fabrication yard. Source: The Merdeka Interviews (courtesy of the authors).

His original interior design incorporated open-air landscaped courtyards with water bodies that were intended to provide the building with a natural cooling system. These features have gradually been removed over time.

Fun Fact: Till today, the Parliament House is used in Jabatan Kerja Raya’s logo, a rare instance of a building being a logo of a major government institution.

The building and its internal structure has gone through many refurbishment exercises over the years, which in many ways have severely ‘ruined’ Shipley’s original design. However, the very fact that some of the original terrazzo and timber staircases have been conserved and retained until today, nearly 55-years later, shows the depth of thinking that went into its architectural execution. Not only that, but the original construction was done utilising mostly local materials and labour, which was remarkable when you consider the limited resources of those times.

DID YOU KNOW?
There were plans for a mural by the late, revered artist Datuk Chuah Thean Teng that would’ve stood behind the Speaker’s rostrum on a 60 ft x 80 ft wide wall. The mural would’ve shown the people of Malaysia then, totalling 52 different ethnicities from the main races, the ‘orang asal’, the Siamese and more. Such a pity that it was not executed.

A picture of the original grand design of the Parliament hall. Chuah Thean Teng’s mural would’ve stood behind the speaker’s rostrum. Source: The Merdeka Interviews (courtesy of the authors).

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#2 Masjid Negara

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(Left) The road leading to the Masjid Negara as it was back then. Many of the road structures in the surrounding area has remained the same until today. Source: The Merdeka Interviews (courtesy of the authors).

The construction of the Masjid Negara or National Mosque began in 1963, and its doors opened to the public in 1965. The mosque was designed by a three-person team from JKR, then consisting of Scottish architect Howard Ashley, and Malaysians Hisham Albakri and Baharuddin Kassim. It was built on the site of a church, the Venning Road Brethren Gospel Hall, which was appropriated by the Malaysian government.

Fun Fact: The construction of the mosque was partly funded by a donation drive with contribution from all Malaysians. Malaysia Boleh, indeed!

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Key Malaysian leaders visiting the building site of Masjid Negara. Source: The Merdeka Interviews (courtesy of the authors).

The roof of the mosque was considered controversial and progressive for its day, eschewing the more common dome design in favour of the 16-pointed folded plate structure instead. The designer went on to explain that given that the King was positioned as the Keeper of religion, the roof was meant to symbolize an umbrella that provides shelter. From a practical perspective, they’ve also said that the design provided better acoustics.

There were many debates about where the mosque should be located. PWD architects and UN Town Planner, Vlado Antolic, recommended another site closer to where Parliament was but Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman insisted on the current site, which was closer to the train station. He wanted the mosque to be a place where the weary traveller could seek refuge.

DID YOU KNOW?
There is a series of 48 taller columns over what was previously a pond. These were what the architect Dato (Dr.) Baharuddin Abu Kassim called his ‘coconut trees’ as a reminder to his childhood kampong in Klang.

#3 Subang Airport

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(Left) Subang Airport’s Terminal 1 which was used for international flights. (Right) Subang Skypark was originally known as Terminal 3 and catered for domestic flights.   Source: The Merdeka Interviews (courtesy of the authors).

Before we had KLIA, all international travel was done through Subang International Airport, which was opened to the public in 1965. While it currently continues its operation as the hub for airlines such as Firefly and Malindo Air under Subang Skytracks, there was a time when the airport stood out as one of the most state-of-the-art airports in the region – it had the longest runway in Southeast Asia when it opened.

The black and white image above shows the original structure of Subang Airport Terminal 1, which is no longer running. Instead, all commercial operations have been shifted to Subang Skypark, which was renamed from Terminal 3 in the late 2000’s. 

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The progressive umbrella roof design was meant to give travellers a sense of being in the forest and looking at the tree canopies above. Source: The Merdeka Interviews (courtesy of the authors).

This airport which was renamed Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport in 1996 was also the first public project commisioned to a private architectural firm, Booty Edwards & Partners.

DID YOU KNOW?
The large colonnaded hall design was a forerunner for its time and would be later replicated in the design for KLIA and even Stansted Airport in London.

#4 Tugu Negara

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(Left) Actual Security Forces personnel, posing for the sculpture that would eventually be the Tugu Negara. Source: The Merdeka Interviews (courtesy of the authors).

The Tugu Negara or National Monument was erected as a remembrance to honour Malaya’s fallen heroes. It was proclaimed as a memorial park dedicated to the 11,000 people who died during the 12-year Malayan Emergency. The monument was the work of Austrian-born American sculptor, Felix de Weldon, who also worked on the Marine Corps War Memorial – which was the inspiration for the Tugu Negara. It was commissioned in 1963 and unveiled in 1966.

Fun Fact: Our National Monument was originally conceived as a non-figurative sculpture but was changed when Tunku Abdul Rahman visited the Washington Marine Corps War Memorial in 1960 and was moved by the power of the piece.

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Scaffolding that was erected to determine the height of the Tugu Negara. Source: The Merdeka Interviews (courtesy of the authors).

#5 Stadium Merdeka & Stadium Negara

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(Left) Stadium Merdeka, halfway through its construction. Source: The Merdeka Interviews (courtesy of the authors).

The pair of stadiums were built to commemorate Merdeka or Malaya’s independence. Stadium Merdeka was opened in 1957, just a month before the historical Merdeka celebrations which saw the transfer of power in Malaya from the British Empire to the newly-formed Malayan government.

Both stadiums were designed by Tan Sri Dato’ Stanley Jewkes, an American architect who was then the Director of the Public Works Department (JKR) who was also a close friend of Tunku Abdul Rahman. In the belief that sport was a good agent in uniting the people, Tunku gave special emphasis on this project.

Fun Fact: Already up to his neck with work as the Head of PWD, Jewkes designed the pair of stadiums mostly after work and on weekends on his kitchen table at home.

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The erecting of the Stadium Merdeka floodlights. These were designed using concrete drainage pipes to save cost. Source: The Merdeka Interviews (courtesy of the authors).

Working on a tight budget, Jewkes had to be innovative in his design to keep the project going. One such example was the construction of the flood-lighting towers for Stadium Merdeka, made from large precast concrete drainage pipes that were stitched together.

Similarly for Stadium Negara, to meet budgetary and technical demands, the suspension roofing which had to be lightweight was clad with compressed paper and resin sheets. This alternative had to be devised as aluminium and steel costs were prohibitive during the time after the wars.

(Left) The Stadium Negara roofing, built from compressed paper and resin sheets to meet budgetary and technical demands. Source: The Merdeka Interviews (courtesy of the authors). (Right) Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Fun Fact: As land was excavated to form the bowl upon which the stadium was built, the earth was relocated to the Masjid Negara site to fill in the valley, thus establishing a mutual bond with each other sitting on ‘common ground’.

Stadium Negara was also planned to be a convention centre and concert hall apart from its function as an indoor sports hall. Thus its technical requirements were quite stringent – attention was paid to flexible space planning, indoor comfort (no wind drafts as badminton is played regularly!) and lighting.  The stadium chairs were another impressive innovation, these were ventilated with jet streams built into the seats, much like plane seats of that era.

We hope these images and background stories have instilled you with much national pride as it did us. A lot of blood, sweat and tears were involved in the conceptualisation of these buildings and structures. And just as how these historical landmarks have stood the tests of time, may we all continue to foster unity and harmony while working towards the betterment of our nation together. #SayangiMalaysiaku and wishing everyone a Happy Merdeka!

Special credit is given to Ang Chee Cheong for his generosity in sharing the necessary images and historical facts. For those who are interested, The Merdeka Interviews book can be purchased here. 

Edited by Reena Kaur Bhatt

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