In the mid-1950s, visionary leader Tunku Abdul Rahman recognised the need for modern infrastructure in what would be the capital of a new nation, the Federation of Malaya.
With the first Prime Minister at the helm, a multinational and multiracial group was assembled to find a new architectural identity that depicted the ethos of our burgeoning nation and signal its assured arrival onto the world stage.
Thus began “a golden moment for architecture in the country, never to be repeated” as described by Ang Chee Cheong, architect and co-author of ‘The Merdeka Interviews’. These iconic Merdeka era buildings - such as Masjid Negara, Stadium Merdeka and Stadium Negara, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Subang Airport and Parliament House - showcase ingenuity, love for local traditions and a spirit of national unity that have stood the test of time.
Necessity nurtures invention
One of the earliest landmarks of our nascent independence was Stadium Merdeka, the nation’s first stadium. Construction was completed in just one year and finalised a mere week before the inaugural Independence Day celebrations.
Ingenuity was the order of the day as monsoon drainpipes were used to construct lighting towers, and compressed paper and resin left over from wartime stockpiles were upcycled to create a plastic-like material used as part of the roof sheeting. Upon completion, Stadium Merdeka held two world records: the tallest lighting towers at 140ft and the biggest cantilever shell roofs.
When it came turn to build Stadium Negara, clever design was employed to render the building fit for purpose. Along with ‘jet stream’ ventilation in stadium seats to accommodate our hot climate, the stadium’s bowl-like design reduces wind, a prerequisite for sporting events such as badminton.
Symbol of shelter and unity
“Masjid Negara is truly a masterpiece of Malaysian architecture,” says Kuala Lumpur-based architect Vishal J. Singh.
“It’s built on the principles of modernism and uses modern materials in its construction - specifically reinforced concrete and steel - but it is also beautifully tempered with local cultural, environmental and religious sensibilities,” adds Vishal, who names the mosque as his favourite Malaysian building.
The revolutionary structure was designed by a three-person team from the Public Works Department comprising UK architect Howard Ashley and Malaysians Datuk Dr. Baharuddin Abu Kassim and Datuk Dr. Ikmal Hisham Albakri.
“Our challenge was to design a mosque that was modern yet still had influences of traditional Malay architecture,” Datuk Baharuddin told the Star.
The iconic 16-point blue roof, which covers the main prayer hall, consists of folded concrete planes stitched together and was inspired by the local paper parasol in an opened position. The accompanying 73-metre minaret, in turn, resembles a folded umbrella.
The unique geometric design not only keeps the building cooler and prevents rainwater from collecting, it is also a symbol of shelter for a multiracial country.
Professor and architect Dr. Mohd Tajuddin Rasdi is impressed by the democratic qualities of the mosque. In his column for Free Malaysia Today, he describes the building’s openness in elevational view, built low and accessible, without vertical hierarchies or elitist ornamentation and barriers, such as imposing gateways and fences.
“This allows the mosque to welcome everyone to come,” Dr. Mohd Tajuddin writes, also citing the reflective pools and flowing fountains that help cool the whole complex down and provide a restful atmosphere.
Modern Malay architecture
Muzium Negara, built to be a repository of the history and culture of the nation, is one of the earliest examples of Modern Malay architecture.
Architect Ho Kok Hoe, who hailed from a Singapore that was still part of Malaysia at the time, helmed the project with help from UNESCO and museum experts from around the world. The final result is a majestic structure resembling the palatial Minangkabau Rumah Gadang. Each wing features 13 pillars, signifying the nation’s 13 states, and the façade comprises further elements of traditional Malay culture, most notably rendered in the magnificent murals which still exist today.
The work of renowned Malaysian abstract artist Cheng Laitong, the two mosaics are made of Venetian glass, with each measuring 6 metres in height and 35 metres in length. They remain a beloved snapshot of the history and culture of a multiracial nation.
A living legacy
To this day, the seeds planted by these forward-thinking architects of the Merdeka era continue to be influential. The approach of interpreting modern architecture to local sensibilities endures in designs throughout Malaysia.
Examples abound, from the late 1960s – such as with the National Library, whose roof is inspired by a traditional headdress - all the way to later projects in the ‘80s by celebrated architects, such as Hijjas Kasturi, who gave us abstracted versions of a Malay drum (Tabung Haji building), a slanted cut of the bamboo trunk (Telekom Tower) and the keris (Maybank tower).
Even today, architects continue to incorporate local elements into their designs. At TRX, the signature Exchange 106 features a multifaceted geometric crown of glass, inspired by Islamic art, another nod towards our nation’s rich history of localised modern architecture.