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Through the Looking Glass

by Stacy Liu 1 Nov 2011
Through the Looking Glass

Architecture is a reflection of time, culture and influence. As the city of Kuala Lumpur continues to progress, and the development of Putrajaya pushing the nation’s boundaries, the structures present are a constant reminder of our journey through time.

Malaysia is incredibly rich in culture and history and its architecture is a time capsule that preserves the nation’s journey into present day. By taking a closer look at the architecture, Malaysia’s melting pot can be truly recognised with the influence of different nations apparent in many of its structures.

In Kuala Lumpur alone, there are myriad examples of stunning architecture, with influences drawn from across the globe, and a little outside Kuala Lumpur, the planned city of Putrajaya is the greatest example of architecture standing as a mirror of time, culture and influence. Here, we look at few architectural marvels in Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya built over the years and reflect on their design and history.

Sri Mahamariamman Temple (1873)

Founded in 1873, the Sri Mahamariamman Temple is the oldest functioning Hindu Temple in the city. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple for private use by local millionaire K Thamboosamy Pillai, the Sri Mahamariamman Temple rested in the hands of the family until the 1920s when it opened its doors to public.

The temple was originally situated near the KL Railway station before moving to its current location along Jalan Tun H S Lee, close to Petaling Street, in 1885. The Sri Mahamariamman temple was reconstructed a few times before the current temple building which was completed in 1968.

The impressive 23 metre five-tiered gopuram (tower) that nests over the gateway to the temple is the threshold between the material and the spiritual world. Representing the feet of a person lying on his back, the gopuram is decorated with 228 idols of deities and was completed in 1972.

The temple’s gopuram is a prominent feature of Koils, Hindu temples of Dravidian style. Dravidian architecture is an architectural style that emerged thousands of years ago in the Southern part of India. They primarily consisted of pyramid shaped temples called Koils, which are dependent on intricately carved stone to create a step design.

The temple has an east-west layout with its feet, the gopuram, facing east and the head, the main temple, in the west. This is an important feature of Hindu temples as the principal temple needs to face east, relating to the gradual advancement into the spiritual world.

Pudu Jail (1885)

Pudu Jail was a prison built by state engineer and director of the Public Works Department, Charles Edwin Spooner, completed in 1895. Built in a jungle clearance named Pudu Village, the prison’s location seemed ideal at the time, being a convenient distance from the city but close enough to be a threat.

Pudu Jail is one of the architectural fragments left behind by the British. The main prison structure of Pudu Jail is the cell block, built in the shape of St. Andrew’s cross. Eerily, from above, the prison buildings appear to form a shape of a person surrendering, with arms and legs wide open. Moorish architecture is also present in the two domed towers at the front gate, showing how Spooner incorporated the local climate and culture into his design, in addition to the numerous courtyards, jack roofs and overhangs present.

In the 1970s, Minangkabau style watchtowers with wood carvings were built and appear to have been constructed to increase the presence of the local culture and encourage the modern regional architecture.

A 394-metre wall which surrounds the prison adorns a beautifully painted mural of tropical scenes by one of the inmates, Khong Yen Chong, in 1984. Though Chong didn’t manage to complete his mural during his term, as a free man, he volunteered his time to completing it. Strongly influenced by British colonial style, Pudu Jail used to house drug offenders and was a location for administering corporal punishment.

It was also used by the Japanese during World War II as a P.O.W. camp. In 1996, Pudu Jail was evacuated to give way for development. In June 2010, the eastern wall of Pudu Jail was destroyed to make way for a road widening project. Most of the prison still stands unharmed today and can be clearly seen while on the city’s monorail between the Imbi and Hang Tuah stations.

Sultan Abdul Samad Building (1897)

Located in front of Dataran Merdeka, the Sultan Abdul Samad Building is one of the city’s most famous landmarks. It borrows its name from the reigning Sultan of the time, Sultan Abdul Samad of Selangor, and was designed by A.C. Norman during the British Administration in Malaysia.

The building was completed in 1897 and previously housed the superior courts until the courts moved to Putrajaya in 2007. Today, the building houses the offices of the Ministry of Information, Communications and Culture of Malaysia.
The design of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building originally drew its inspiration from Renaissance architecture; however, it was then discovered to be unsuitable for the local climate. The plans were then redesigned and based on the Moorish architecture that Norman saw while in Africa, with a hint of Islamic design based on the mosques he saw in India.

Built with red and white bricks, the building has three copper domes, one on either end of the building and on top of the clock tower. The verandas have various styles of arches, including horseshoe arches and pointed arches, which are present in many Mughal buildings. The 41.2 metre clock tower in the middle is sometimes referred to as ‘Mini Big Ben’ due to its resemblance to the famous clock tower in London.

On 1st January 1992, the clock tower became the venue of the historical event when the time between Peninsular Malaysia, East Malaysia and Singapore was standardised.

Wisma Ekran (1937)

Wisma Ekran is one of few well maintained Art Deco buildings found in Kuala Lumpur. Designed by A.O Coltman in 1937, Wisma Ekran is located along Jalan Tangsi and was owned by a mining company, Anglo Oriental.

Art Deco is an eclectic design style that originated in Paris in the 1920s and gained popularity internationally in the 1930s. Wisma Ekran has many of the traits found in Art Deco buildings, from the majestic style and structure, however there is an underlying Chinese influence.

It was noted that in Europe and America, Art Deco called for construction, or at least cladding, in stone. As stone was either too expensive or inaccessible in Malaysia, an alternative was used—Shanghai plaster; a cheap, external surfacing material that could be easily applied and worked by skilled craftsmen to look like stone. The craftsmen and technology came from China.

Kuala Lumpur National Library (1979)

The design of the Kuala Lumpur National Library, locally known as Perpustakaan Negara Malaysia (PNM), was inspired by the traditional Malay headgear the tengkolok. The tengkolok shaped roofs are decorated with another element drawn from Malay culture, songket patterns, and join at the courtyard, Taman Ilmu (Garden of Knowledge).

They represent the harmony and unity between the country’s three major races—the Malay, Chinese and Indians—and the library’s three main objectives: to provide education; to satisfy the quest for knowledge; and to promote reading.

Dayabumi Complex (1984)

The Dayabumi Complex is one of the earliest skyscrapers in KL, designed by Arkitek MAA and BEP Arkitek under a joint venture, and constructed to blend in with the city’s existing Moorish and Byzantine influenced buildings such as the nearby Sultan Abdul Samad Building.

The Dayabumi Complex was loosely inspired by Moorish Islamic buildings, covered with stunning latticework elegantly patterned with the eight-pointed stars of the Islamic motifs and painted white to represent the purity of Islam.
Upon completion, the Dayabumi Complex was regarded as the most expensive building ever built in Malaysia.

Today it houses offices, a shopping arcade and an annexe that houses the General Post Office. The Dayabumi Complex is clearly visible from Merdeka Square and signifies a turning point in Malaysian architecture.

Perdana Putra (1999)

The Perdana Putra in Putrajaya is a six-storey building which houses the offices of the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister as well as several other departments. Completed in 1999, the Perdana Putra incorporates several styles drawn from modern Western, and Islamic heritage to shape this impressive structure.

At 50-metres above sea level, the Perdana Putra overlooks the Putrajaya Lake and imposes on its visitors, being one of the most striking structures in the city. The main building in the centre, which consists of the Prime Minister’s office, has a green onion dome on top with four smaller domes around it—a distinct Moorish feature.

The Perdana Putra is built out of natural stone and has two huge wings, influenced by Roman architecture with the appearance of ‘pillars’, to house the various government offices.

Putrajaya International Convention Centre (2003)

Costing approximately RM600 million to construct, the design of the Putrajaya International Convention Centre (PICC) was built based on the wau bulan (Moon Kite) and the eye of the pending perak, a silver Malay royal belt buckle.

The roof of the PICC is creased like a folded origami to add body and dimension to the building while creating huge overhangs to shade the interiors from harsh sunlight. As most of the outer walls are made of glass, natural light is able to filter through, giving the PICC a sleek and modern appearance. Today, the PICC is used for highsecurity events and shows the modernity of the nation.


Dayabumi Complex
Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin, KL.
Kuala Lumpur National Library
232 Jalan Tun Razak, KL.
Tel: 03–2687 1700

Perdana Putra
Main Block, Perdana Putra Building,
Federal Government Administrative Centre,

Pudu Jail
Jalan Pudu, KL.

Putrajaya International Convention Centre
Presint 5, Putrajaya.
Sri Mahamariamman Temple
163 Jalan Tun HS Lee, KL.

Sultan Abdul Samad Building
Jalan Raja Laut, KL.

Wisma Ekran
16 Jalan Tangsi, KL.

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