Just a quick update. I wrote a short op-ed on some of the threats facing Melaka and George Town – Malaysia’s UNESCO-listed historic cities – for New Mandala. For me, the two cities highlight issues of urban governance that are relevant to Malaysia as a whole.
The mounting urban crisis in these historic cities highlights a couple of issues. Firstly, the weak enforcement of building codes – especially to protect heritage. Secondly, the need for careful planning to mitigate the unintended social and spatial consequences that accompany rapid development.
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.
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.
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.