Komtar on Failed Architecture

Komtar on Failed Architecture

Eyesore or icon, Komtar has come to represent George Town. Its transformation will be a barometer of the direction the city takes in the early twenty-first century. Across the historic centre, homes have made way for spaces of consumption, and old traders have given way to new businesses. The reinvention of Komtar’s main tower, with the seat of local government crowned by a rooftop restaurant, may well be an apt metaphor for the neoliberal city George Town is becoming.

Just another quick update. It’s not every day that one of your favourite websites agrees to publish you, but the good folks at Failed Architecture have done just that. My piece for the website looks at the fraught history of an architectural icon (or eyesore), and how redevelopment is once again making this building a contested space.

I’ve got another piece in the works for Failed Architecture — one which will look at the architectural politics of Malaysia’s planned capital, Putrajaya — but for now, please enjoy this latest love-letter to Penang.

Advertisements

Getting around in Penang; hearth and home in Singapore

Getting around in Penang; hearth and home in Singapore

I’ve been meaning to write something about Penang’s Transport Master Plan, which is an ambitious but (I think) highly-flawed document. That piece is still in the works as I read up more about the plan, but in the meantime, the new Penang Monthly has hit the shelves. My byline appears twice in this issue.

The first piece looks at transport and mobility for those without cars of their own. I know some of these challenges well enough — when I lived in George Town, I got around mostly on foot, sometimes by bike, and by bus when I wandered further afield.

For this piece, I spoke to confirmed pedestrians, cyclists, people in wheelchairs, and fans of ride-sharing apps to tease out how Penang’s public transport networks could be improved. What becomes clear, I think, is that planners must go beyond the abstract act of ‘planning’ and truly understand the needs of users. If we’re to break the stranglehold the car has on our cities, Malaysians need viable alternatives to the private automobile.

The second piece anticipates my recent move south.In HDB Republic:,’ I look at how Singapore’s Housing and Development Board, as well as the Urban Redevelopment Authority, manage the challenges of housing, homeownership, and heritage in this land-strapped island nation.

Singapore’s rapidly changing skyline is the product of intense spatial pressures, but increasingly, authorities here are engaging with questions of architectural heritage and urban identity when making decisions about what stays and what goes. In this respect, I think Singapore offers valuable lessons for a city like Penang and indeed the rest of the world. How do we root our sense of place in an ever-changing city?

I hope you enjoy both these articles!

Header image: Singapore’s Central Business District skyline. Image courtesy of the Urban Redevelopment Authority

Liquid assets: two pieces on Penang’s water infrastructure

Liquid assets: two pieces on Penang’s water infrastructure

I’ve written two pieces for the March issue of Penang Monthly. The first is a look at the island’s colonial water infrastructure, illustrated with historic picture postcard views. In a place known for its built heritage, the sometimes hidden heritage of the state’s waterworks turns out to be an important legacy. You can read the full story in Penang Monthly.

The second article addresses more contemporary concerns about water management. Penang is Malaysia’s thirstiest state, and while the state’s water management is the most efficient in the nation, climate change and federal politics both have the potential to stop the taps flowing. Once again, you can read more in Penang Monthly.

Get off my lawn: when public parks aren’t so public

Get off my lawn: when public parks aren’t so public

In London, debate over the Thomas Heatherwick-designed Garden Bridge continues. Will Self’s piece in the Guardian this week was a particularly lucid contribution to the discussion. As Self argues, the bridge is significant for what it represents — corporate encroachment into public spaces:

In a London increasingly characterised by the erosion of genuinely public space and its replacement by pseudo-public spaces controlled by private corporations (with the assistance of the police, now that Public Space Protection Orders are being introduced), the bridge is the flagship for a new corporatist capital. Capital being the operative word.1

This phenomenon isn’t confined to London alone, however. New York’s Highline and Chicago’s Millenium Park are similar examples of pseudo-public spaces that have been built on private money, and are thus beholden to private interests. In a 2013 article in CityLab, Alex Ulam notes that ‘unlike the great public parks built in previous eras, the new generation of flagship parks is almost completely dependent upon massive private support for its survival.’2

We may soon see a similar phenomenon in Malaysia: a place called Gurney Wharf.

Continue reading “Get off my lawn: when public parks aren’t so public”

Speaking of Raffles

Speaking of Raffles

A quick update this time — and a rather more personal one too.

Yesterday I accepted a job offer in Singapore. I’ve a couple more bureaucratic hoops to jump through before I get my work permit, but once that’s done, I’ll be contributing to this nation’s much-lamented brain drain once again. Like so many of my fellow countrymen and women, it seems I’ve succumbed to the, uh, “Singapore grip” — the grip it has on so many young Malaysian professionals, at least.

I’m really excited about the new job, a research assistant gig at an architectural conservation lab. I’ve been wanting to get involved with built heritage in a much more hands-on way, and this job seems like the perfect opportunity to do just that. The lab is doing some great interdisciplinary work, and I’m particularly looking forward to seeing how new technology and a scientific approach can help better our understanding of architectural heritage.

I’m also looking forward to learning more broadly about approaches to built heritage in Singapore, and how similarities and differences between the Lion City and Malaysia play out in both policy and practice.

This doesn’t mean I’ll stop writing about Malaysia. There are far too many interesting things happening here in terms of architecture and the built environment right now. But the scope of this blog will slowly extend from George Town to Singapore, via KL, and I hope this proves interesting to readers.

On the subject of readers, I’d like to thank everyone who’s shared these posts — and your thoughts along with them. I’ve particularly enjoyed the discussion prompted by the piece on Runnymede and Kampung Siam in Facebook groups. I firmly believe open conversation is vital to heritage conservation. If heritage is about how we manage change — what we think is worth keeping, and how we go about doing that — then it is essential that we talk about what it is we value in our historic urban environments. So I’m delighted to see such lively discussions of our cities prompted by my little blog posts, and look forward to more of the same.

Stay tuned.

Bricks and mortals: two kinds of heritage, the same sad outcome

Bricks and mortals: two kinds of heritage, the same sad outcome

2016 hasn’t been great for Penang’s heritage. On 9 February, a number of buildings at the Runnymede site on Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah were demolished.1 While families across the island were tucking into Chinese New Year lunches, a demolition crew was picking away at the remains of George Town’s colonial past. The demolition was controversial for two main reasons: firstly, among the buildings destroyed was a bungalow associated with Sir Stamford Raffles, widely regarded as Singapore’s founding father; that the demolition was carried out during a significant public holiday also raised eyebrows.

Less than two weeks later, villagers in the nearby Kampung Siam began preparing to leave after the High Court threw out their appeal to remain in their ancestral homes.2 The historic village will soon give way to new development. The two incidents, though not directly related, reveal how Penang’s rich heritage — both tangible and intangible — is under considerable pressure from development. And the outcomes at both sites give cause for concern about the future of this island’s historic legacy.

Continue reading “Bricks and mortals: two kinds of heritage, the same sad outcome”

When home is a foreign country

When home is a foreign country

Hello, Internet! I finally bit the bullet and got myself a blog. Just what the place needed — another voice crying out in the wilderness. I’m hoping to use this space to write about the things I’m interested in: architecture, heritage, and urbanism, mostly. I’ll be using this blog to explore ideas in a more fluid way than I might when writing for a magazine. I figure if some things (like cake batter and cookie dough) are better before they’re fully baked, perhaps the same can hold true for ideas. So with that caveat lector, let’s begin.

Continue reading “When home is a foreign country”