16 May 2013

Kuala Lumpur: the heritage buildings of Merdeka Square

In Merdeka Square, on 31 August 1957, the lowering of the Union Jack brought an end to the British colonial rule of Malaya and the raising of the Malaysian flag marked the proclamation of Malaysia’s independence.
It’s not surprising then that this is a national heritage site and the focus for many other slices of local history.

The square is the big green area in this image, taken from the top of the KL Tower

The square was developed by the Brits in 1884 and used as a venue for social activities, including the odd game of cricket. The flag pole itself, at 100 metres tall and sporting a huge Malaysian flag, is very impressive and supposedly one of the tallest in the world. Malaysians do like their superlatives!

And nearby there’s a Victorian-era fountain, that was apparently brought in from England in pieces and assembled in situ. My guide book tells me it features some lovely Art Nouveau tile work but it’s currently partitioned off for renovation so the tiles weren’t visible. It did have some rather scary looking gargoyle-like creatures, though.

It’s the buildings that most impressed me about this heritage area, so let me take you on a tour around the square, starting on the side of the square that’s bounded by a very busy main thoroughfare. Here we find some government offices that, when built in 1896, functioned as the city’s General Post Office. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of the building's ‘polygonad (I kid you not!) corner stair towers’.

City Theatre

I did get a photo of the adjoining building, the former City Hall. Built in 1896 and now used as the City Theatre, this shows the influence of the local Islamic culture in its curvaceous arches and its chhatris, the dome-shaped pavilions on its roof. It also has a very grand porte-cochere – that roofed structure out front under which carriages would once have been driven.

The former High Court

Next door is the 1909 former High Court building, with more wonderfully curving arches, these with more of a Moorish influence, and its four towers are finished off with lovely black cupolas.

Across a side road, we come to the magnificent Sultan Abdul Samad building, built between 1894 and 1897. It was formerly the home to the Federated Malay States administration, then from 1972 the High and Supreme Courts, and now houses the Ministry of Information, Communications and Culture. My pamphlet says: ‘The first example of Moghul architecture in Malaysia, this elegant symmetrical brick structure features a 41-metre-high clock tower, arched colonnades and stunning copper-covered domes.’

I've included two photos of this building because I just love those copper domes, especially with the Petronas Towers in the background.

On the next city block is the National Textile Museum, built in 1905 and previously the Federated Malay States Railway Station and Selangor Works department. Unfortunately I don’t have an image of the whole of the building as I was focusing on the contrast between those wonderful onion-shaped domes and the modern but equally stunning building in the background. The museum building features alternating stripes of red bricks and white plaster bands, and also shows Islamic influences both in its façade and in those divine domes. Inside are some fascinating displays of the diverse range of textile designs, patterns and materials produced by the broad range of ethnic groups found in Malaysia.

Crossing the main road and continuing in a clockwise direction around the square, we come first to a building that now houses a restaurant but was the home of the Chartered Bank when it was built in 1919. No photo of that, I’m afraid, but I do have the neighbouring building, what is now the KL City Gallery (note the absence of the word art in that title). Built in 1898, it is another example of Moorish style architecture with a large open interior that was purpose-built to house the large printing presses from its days as the Government Printing Office. Today that space is home to a shop, selling all types of local souvenirs but featuring, in particular, products made of intricately carved and assembled wood veneers. The photo display in an adjoining room was interesting, and the scale model of the central city in an upstairs room was very photogenic and provided an excellent city overview (see below).

One of the City Library's domes

In the corner next to the City Gallery is the City Library. You can see the entire building in my first image as this shot only shows one of its glorious domes. This 1989 building was built to emulate the older buildings that surround it and includes under its roof an auditorium and conference hall, as well as the library itself.

Moving around to the long side of the square facing the road, we find the most bizarre group of buildings, of black-and-white mock-Tudor design with a fake half-timber façade. Built in 1884, these now house the Royal Selangkor Club, an institution that harks back to the days of English gentlemen’s clubs and still bans women from its Long Bar. I could say that I refuse to post a photo of the building in protest against this discrimination but the truth is that I just found the buildings ugly and didn’t take any shots of them.

The scale model of the city inside the City Gallery

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