Architecture Conservation: Protecting Our Past (Part 1 Of 2)

Do you ever get awestruck when you see a 100-year-old building? The fact that it was built more than a century ago without any modern technology fascinates me. My curiosity grew when I was studying architecture at Taylor’s University (2015-2019). During these four years, I had a memorable experience with Malaysia’s heritage buildings and architecture conservation. It might not seem that big of a deal, but to me, it was something new.

Architecture Conservation: A photo of Rumah Tok Su, the built heritage that Atiqah studied and documented during her studies in January 2018.
Rumah Tok Su, a traditional Malay house located in Alor Setar, Kedah. Conserved by Negeri Kedah Museum for future generations to learn about. This is the built heritage that I had helped document during my architecture studies at Taylor’s University.
Image credit to Atiqah Ghazali

Revisiting My Past

I spent my childhood all over the world, away from my own cultural heritage. When I was 10, my family and I moved to Saudi Arabia due to my father’s work. Over there, I enrolled in an international school and mixed with schoolmates from all over the world. We even have a community of other Malaysian families. I remember going to gatherings filled with Malaysian food and celebrating the same traditions together. However, I realised that I still lacked knowledge of my own culture. Whenever we visited Malaysia during our holidays, I would have a hard time fitting in with my relatives. That was why in 2015, I made the decision to come back to Malaysia. To continue my studies and revisit my heritage and culture.

If I didn’t study architecture, I wouldn’t have known what conservation is. You’ve heard of UNESCO World Heritage right? They select sites from all over the world, that has an important value and identify them as World Heritage. So that the future generation can value it as well. The word conservation itself means “to protect”. They protect our past, but there’s so much more than just that.

My First Experience With Architecture Conservation

In secondary school, I never liked history class. I couldn’t find a way to enjoy it no matter how hard I studied. But despite that, I’m always fond of heritage buildings. There’s just something mysterious about them that makes me feel… nostalgic. So at Taylor’s University, I had to study in depth about a heritage building during a two-month class called Methods of Documentation and Measured Drawing. In a group of 20 people and one lecturer, we received a heritage building in Malaysia to study, measure and document.

Architecture Conservation: A photo of Atiqah's sketch on details motif in a traditional Malay house. Use for further study and analysing.
The importance of conservation is to keep records of it. A way to document our findings was to draw it out, so that it can be referenced for further research.
Image credit to Atiqah Ghazali, 2018

For the project, our group had to study the heritage building, Rumah Tok Su. Rumah Tok Su is a 122-year-old Malay traditional house located in Alor Setar, Kedah. The house, originally owned by a nobleman, was used for political gatherings by Malay Nationalists. The one who initiated the conservation project was the former Menteri Besar of Kedah, Tan Sri Sanusi Junid. Thus in 1995, the house was moved from Kampung Permatang Kerat Telunjuk to Alor Setar, Kedah.

1. I Measured A Traditional House!

When we received our assignment, the first task was to gather information about it. Where is it? What is it? Who owns it? Knowing some basic information about the house would ease the research process when we are there. Then we had to divide the groups into teams. 20 people might seem easy-peasy but it was a lot to handle. That was why we had two leaders managing the big group. But the challenging part was to plan out how we can measure an entire house in five days.

A photo of Atiqah's group in front of the Rumah Tok Su.
Our group photo in front of Rumah Tok Su. My lecturer, Mr Zafar, is the seventh from the left, standing and making a double peace sign. I am standing second from the right, wearing a blue headscarf. A memorable time where we worked closely together.
Image Credit to Shazleen, my team member

Site visit day arrived and we were off to Alor Setar, Kedah. Upon arrival, we were each paired up with another member and given a designated area of the house to measure. The measurements included every element of the house, from concrete footing to the roof cover. This also included the wood carvings of the house as well. So during that five days in Alor Setar, I was happy to say that the house made me feel so much closer to my heritage.

A photo of Atiqah's team member measuring the outside part of the house by standing on a ladder.
My team member, Adam, measuring the wood carving motif of Rumah Tok Su, known as “Kelopak Melayu Daun Hidup”. These measurements were needed to create the 2D drawings and 3D model of the entire house. Adam had to stand on the ladder to measure the motif, while Allaa was holding the ladder for safety and me (back facing camera) writing down the measurements.
Image credit to Taylor’s University

2. Putting It All Together

The end of our field trip signalled the beginning of our sleepless nights. With the data from the trip, we divided into three teams – report team, drawing and 3D team, and physical model team. The report team had to write a detailed study of the house from history to architecture. At the same time, the drawing and 3D team was in charge of producing the 2D drawings and 3D model. This was the team I was in! I wasn’t confident of my skills but I learnt so much from my peers every day. The final task that ended the project was creating a physical model of the house. That marked the satisfaction of having the chance to protect our heritage.

A photo of the final physical model of Rumah Tok Su. This model is currently at the house itself for visitors to see.
The physical model of Rumah Tok Su that was produced by mainly balsa wood, a common material used for models. It is fragile and lightweight but very easy to cut. The model is now currently on public display at Rumah Tok Su.
Image Credit to Atiqah Ghazali

How Does Architecture Conservation Make Us Appreciate The Past?

I had this one class during my studies called Architecture Conservation. Instead of going through slides, our lecturer, Mr Azim, would teach us through movies and class trips. My favourite class trip was the trip to Badan Warisan Malaysia, a leading national heritage NGO. We had a tour to a traditional Malay house that they had conserved, Rumah Penghulu Abu Seman. At the end of the day, I had the opportunity to witness another heritage, still standing after 100 years!

Badan Warisan Malaysia conserved Rumah Pengulu Abu Seman, and relocated it right next to their centre. This house was the one that I managed to visit during my trip to Badan Warisan Malaysia.

UNESCO World Heritage has indeed given a fresh breath of air for many historically important sites. Stay tuned for the next part, where we explore another well-known heritage site in Penang, Malaysia, The Clan Jetties.

In the meantime, if you have an interest in preserving a tradition, check out A Forgotten Wau Bulan: Preserving The Tradition by Najwa Maihazam. She talks about a traditional kite in Malaysia called the Wau!

Atiqah GHAZALI

About Atiqah GHAZALI

Grew up overseas in a melting pot of global culture to expat parents, Atiqah is well read, and expresses herself best through writing, art and photography. Architect by qualification, but makes a living as an interior designer.

2 Replies to “Architecture Conservation: Protecting Our Past (Part 1 Of 2)”

  1. Do you mind to explain more about the design of the motif (kerawang) and the fascia board ? Why do they ‘ukir’ like that, i think there must been something they represent off.

    • Hi! Thank you so much for reading! And yes, I don’t mind at all to share more about the motif designs. Most motifs around the house are inspired by natural elements (plants). Usually, the plants motifs are mostly selected from significant plants in Malay culture with edibility, medicinal values and aesthetics such as beautifully shaped leaves and fragrant scent. However, the motifs are not carved exactly like what they looks like in nature, but instead interpreted according to their appropriateness with Malay culture and values by the carvers. The ornaments on the fascia board which is known as “papan pator”, is also a flora motif. Carvers would get inspired from the plants growing around the house and add their own geometrical creativity to it. I wish I could share more because this is a very interesting topic to talk about. But thanks to you, I might have the next idea for my next article! Thank you for your interest!

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