From the ground up
Compact exhibition reveals role of modernist architecture in Malaysia during the post Merdeka-era.
THE Parliament House, Masjid Negara, Subang International Airport, Universiti Malaya’s Great Hall (now called Dewan Tunku Canselor) and Stadium Merdeka are just some of the early examples of Malaysia – a newly independent nation in 1957 – making great strides in the world of modernist architecture.
These historic buildings are part of the 16 scale models that are featured at the Manifest: Modernism Of Merdeka exhibition, which is currently on at Galeri Petronas in Kuala Lumpur till July 30.
The exhibition showcases how Malaysian architecture shaped the transformation of the nation during its heady pre-and post-independence period of the 1950s and 1960s. The buildings featured in Manifest were built between 1957 and 1969.
“This exhibition is not to dwell on nostalgia. The idea is to capture that sense of empowerment in Malaysia back then. The country was moving forward and architects were at the forefront of the urban debates, giving shape to planning and (answering) architectural questions that were part of the many challenges of a new nation,” says Ang Lee, director of Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival 2017 (KLA2017).
This Galeri Petronas exhibition is a collaboration with the Malaysian Institute of Architects and it is part of the KLA2017 programme, which is making a more pronounced public presence this year, with the Manifest show, and also the Zaha Hadid Architects: Reimagining Architecture exhibition at the
White Box, Publika in KL, which ends on July 26.
“For Manifest, we wanted to relook at what was happening during our Merdeka-era development, and how modernist architecture came into play. This show spotlights
the landmark buildings and the unique architecture that reflected all those ambitious and progressive ideas,” adds Lee.
Grand projects are not the only highlights at Manifest. For a modern housing project, the Terendak
Camp military complex in Melaka – funded by Britain, Australia, and New Zealand in the late 1950s – serves as a reminder of how a remarkable and adventurous repertoire of modern buildings (Olympic-size swimming pool, two schools, ancillary buildings, three churches, canteen and cemetery) came into existence at the height of the Emergency.
The Suleiman Court, in terms of a pioneering project, was the first high-rise apartment complex in KL. It was the government’s first foray into providing multi-storey housing for low-income families. Similar projects, like Razak Mansion and Pekeliling Flats, are also featured.
In presenting the legacy of modernist architecture in Malaysia to the masses, Manifest, though compact in size, does manage to cover the significant relationship between architecture and nation building. In many ways, Manifest follows the blueprint of Dr Lai Chee Kien’s book Building Merdeka: Independence Architecture In Kuala Lumpur, 1957-1966, which was also the subject of an exhibition at Galeri Petronas in 2007.
Apart from scale models, the Manifest exhibition also assembles building plans, books, sketches, and historical photographs to communicate the achievements and ideals of the pioneering generation of Malaysian architects.
“This exhibition is designed with the public in mind. It’s accessible and the history behind some of the buildings will continue to amaze. Malaysia’s architecture stories, and the heroes behind them, must not be forgotten,” says Lee after finishing a recent curatorial walkthrough.
Manifest: Modernism Of Merdeka is on at Galeri Petronas, Level 3 in Suria KLCC till July 30. Opening hours: 10am-8pm. Closed on Mondays. Free admission. For more info, visit galeripetronas.com.my and klaf2017.com.
A model of the Masjid Negara dome, which has 16-points and resembles an open umbrella, is a highlight at the Manifest exhibition. The Masjid Negara complex was built between 1963 and 1965.