The Classical Language of Architecture in British Malaya, 1867-1941
AffiliationArchitecture, Building and Planning
Document TypePhD thesis
Access StatusThis item is embargoed and will be available on 2023-02-19.
© 2020 Soon-Tzu Speechley
In both Malaysia and Singapore, thousands of historic buildings sport facades with architectural vocabulary drawn from Graeco-Roman Antiquity. Despite the ubiquity of classical ornament in Malayan architecture, to date there has been no comprehensive study of the classical style in Malaya. This thesis addresses this gap by undertaking the first survey of classical architecture in British Malaya. This thesis charts how classicism was transmitted and translated in Malaya between 1867, when the Straits Settlements became a Crown Colony of the British Empire, and 1941, when the Japanese invasion of Malaya interrupted Britain’s colonial influence. Through a stylistic analysis of selected buildings from the Straits Settlements, Federated Malay States, and the Sultanate of Johor, this thesis traces the parallel development of imperial and vernacular modes of classicism over this period. Drawing on the work of the architectural historian John Summerson and a range of post-colonial scholars, this thesis argues that the imperial language of classicism was creolised in the hands of Malaya’s architects and builders, becoming a local vernacular. It argues against a prevailing reading of the Malayan vernacular as a ‘coarsened’ form of classicism. Instead, it argues that an imperial architectural language was translated into an eclectic, cosmopolitan, but ultimately coherent vernacular. This thesis argues that Malayan classicism was heterogeneous in terms of both production and reception. For Malaya’s colonial administrators, classicism was the language through which British governance, and power, was symbolically articulated. Classicism in its various guises, from Palladianism to the Edwardian Baroque, became a potent symbol of British authority in Malaya. This language was soon appropriated by local elites, however, becoming a symbol of both regal and religious patronage in the Johor Sultanate. Classicism was also adopted by a range of other communities. From Catholic missionaries to Chinese merchants, the classical language provided a means by which Malaya’s diverse faith and cultural communities could articulate both belonging and difference. While schools in Malaya taught in a Babel of languages, classicism became their architectural lingua franca. Classicism also became a symbol of Malaya’s mercantile wealth, adorning warehouses, godowns, and banking chambers. Perhaps more than any typology, however, it is in the terraced shophouses of British Malaya that classicism was most fully realised as a local, if fundamentally eclectic, architectural language. The syncretic grafting of both Western and Eastern ornamental vocabulary onto a largely classical framework on the facades of these buildings came to characterise this Malayan typology. The near universal adoption of classicism would only be challenged in the 1930s with the advent of Modernism. The 1930s saw the supremacy of the classical language increasingly challenged and questioned, even as imperial classicism reached its zenith with the construction of the Supreme Court in Singapore. The Japanese Occupation of Malaya, which interrupted over a century of British colonial influence in the region, put an end to classicism’s dominance in Malaya. Today, these buildings endure as a significant part of both Malaysia and Singapore’s architectural heritage, making the study of classicism integral to the region’s architectural history.
KeywordsClassical Architecture; Vernacular Architecture; British Malaya; Straits Settlements; Malaysia; Singapore; Architectural History; Classical Reception
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