October 19, 2017 5:30 pm JST

Concern grows as Kuala Lumpur's historic buildings crumble

Billions spent on modernizing city, but iconic heritage sites face collapse

KATE MAYBERRY, Contributing writer

The domed Mughal-style Sultan Abdul Samad Building is a magnet for tourists in Kuala Lumpur, but there are fears that the clock tower may collapse. (Photo by Kate Mayberry)

KUALA LUMPUR -- The clock on the tower of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building strikes 10 a.m. as a group of tourists follows a guide to the edge of Dataran Merdeka, an expansive grass-covered square in the heart of Kuala Lumpur where the flag of the newly independent state of Malaya was first raised just over 60 years ago.

From a vantage point on the grass, the group admires the Mughal-style architecture, the copper domes and the honey-colored bricks of the 120-year-old building, which is a favorite backdrop for camera-toting tourists, wedding couples and architecture buffs, and an icon of the city.

"It is the essence of Kuala Lumpur," said 25-year-old Christine Ong, a Kuala Lumpur resident who joined the walking tour, organized by the city authorities. "The buildings are our heritage, and it's important for the younger generation to know about the past."

But even as the government spends billions of ringgit to improve the river that skirts Dataran Merdeka, the building that is so integral to the city's history is crumbling. So are other landmarks around the square; victims of an unforgiving climate and years of under-investment. Plants are pushing their way through walls and roof tiles, bricks are flaking and some of the distinctive domes have collapsed. Conservationists fear the Sultan Abdul Samad Building's clock-tower may fall down if remedial works are not soon carried soon.

"It's a facade," said Elizabeth Cardosa, executive director of Badan Warisan Malaysia, a non-profit heritage group. "It's a backdrop. You might as well do a cardboard cut-out: 'Thanks for the great memories.' If [these buildings] are that significant to the story of Kuala Lumpur then get off your bums and do something about it. We need a paradigm shift."

Although Dataran Merdeka is not where independence was declared -- that was in the purpose-built Stadium Merdeka a couple of kilometers away -- the field has come to symbolize modern Malaysia and remains the location of choice for official celebrations, including the annual national day parade at the end of August.

This year, tens of thousands turned out to watch a 60th anniversary re-enactment of the moment when Tunku Abdul Rahman, the country's first prime minister, proclaimed independence from British colonial rule.

The Sultan Abdul Samad Building was built to house administrators of the Federated Malay States, one of the British colonies that preceded independent Malaya. Named after the reigning sultan of Selangor, now a Malaysian state, it was the first example of the Mughal-eclectic style in the country -- "an architectural fantasy," according to Lim Take Bane, an architect who specializes in conservation.

Nearby, the City Theatre, famed for its dome-shaped pavilions, known as chhatris, was built in 1896, while the Federated Malay States Survey office, completed in 1910, is renowned for its 122-meters-long arched colonnade. Both were the work of A.B. Hubback, a British engineer who became one of the most significant architects of the time.

All are listed as national heritage sites, but the Federated Malay States building has been empty for nearly 15 years. Its elegant doorways are cluttered with rubbish, stray cats laze between the columns, and there is an unmistakable smell of urine and excrement. Last year, the spire of one of its domes collapsed.

Muddy waters

Nearby, the Klang and Gombak rivers meet in a muddy mingling of waters that gave Kuala Lumpur its name. The waterway is now at the center of a 4.4 billion ringgit ($1.04 billion) government project known as the River of Life, inspired by similar initiatives in Seoul and Singapore.

New canopies and date palms have been installed at Masjid Jamek, the city's oldest mosque, and the first to be built of brick. The decades-old banyan trees along the river bank have survived, but they have been joined by a series of glass structures and a new pedestrian bridge.

Critics say the additions obscure long-established historical vistas, and have absorbed money that could have been used to repair some of the area's iconic architecture. "They are spending a lot of money putting in new things," Cardosa said. "The glass cubes, the sidewalks, the marble on the bridge. They have changed the landscape around it, but they haven't addressed the problems the buildings themselves are experiencing."

A newly-opened "Dancing Symphony" fountain along the banks of the river has added to the concerns. Bathed in blue light at night, the fountain has more than 1,000 water jets, and also creates a fog effect. "We try to keep our buildings dry," said Steven Thang, co-chairman of the Heritage and Conservation Committee of the Malaysian Board of Architects, known as PAM. "This mist is creating a lot of moisture to be absorbed."

Many of Kuala Lumpur's older buildings have been bulldozed as the city has developed. Most of those that survive are owned by government ministries. So too are the graceful mansions and manicured grounds of Carcosa and Seri Negara.

The two-story Carcosa building was the home of Frank Swettenham, the first administrative head of the Federated Malay States, and Seri Negara was the administration's official guest house. It was also the place where British officials and the Malay sultans -- the traditional rulers of much of what became Malaysia -- signed two crucial documents that led to the country's peaceful transition to independence in 1957.

Despite this rich background, the properties lay empty for years. It was only recently that a new lease was signed, and the buildings opened their doors again -- as the Asian Heritage Museum.

Tunku Zain Al-'Abidin Tuanku Muhriz, who chairs the museum's council of advisers, said the group was shocked at the state of Carcosa, which had been empty for eight years. "It's shameful that the government seems to find so much money for significant but temporary events," he said, noting the huge sums spent on hosting the Southeast Asian Games this year.

"I'm not saying those things aren't good. But for a tiny fraction of that we could maintain a heritage building in which so much of our history occurred, for future generations."

The National Heritage Department was given 30 million ringgit for repairing buildings in 2006, but an unnamed official told the local Star newspaper in July that the money was almost exhausted. The department and the Tourism Ministry have requested additional funds, but have yet to receive them, the newspaper added. Tourism Minister Nazri Aziz did not respond to a request for an interview, nor did the mayor's office at City Hall.

Heritage experts say that the government needs to commit to regular maintenance if the city's landmarks are to survive the population and pollution pressures of the 21st century. PAM is urging the authorities to agree a timetable of regular maintenance and establish a list of priorities for remedial work.

"If you do [maintenance] regularly it doesn't look a lot," Thang said. "Little and often. That's what people are doing overseas, and we should do the same."

Back at Dataran Merdeka, the walking tour ends on the verandah of the Royal Selangor Club, a Tudor-style building that dates from 1910 and faces the Sultan Abdul Samad Building across the square. The historic building's copper domes shimmer beneath the sun, but only a few tourists brave the heat for a photograph as the clock strikes midday.

Gazing out across the grass, it is not difficult to imagine the scene a century ago. But behind the facade, time is running out for Kuala Lumpur's most historic landmarks.

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