This week at a global nomad dinner party — guest list drawn up virtually by a mutual friend who met the diners all over the world — I had the pleasure of chatting with an artist and his architect wife. Seattle-area residents, they spend a third of their time abroad in places like Kerala, India and the Neapolitan island of Procida, creating public art and advising governments on historic preservation and ways to make it a sustainable choice.
A year before I moved to Penang, the couple was based in that Malaysian state. Patricia worked with local officials on a conservation plan for the Georgetown city center, a collection of vernacular architecture unmatched by other Southeast Asian nations making it a candidate for UNESCO’s World Heritage status. In modernizing, hot-to-trot Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore leveled most of their shophouses. (The New York Times highlights one Singapore restoration this week.) She inventoried a thousand shophouses. These two- or three-story rowhouses mostly built between the 1890s-1930s with a shared five foot-wide covered arcade were both places of work and home, ensuring 24/7 vibrancy in the tropical port city.
To me, shophouses embodied the equatorial island’s melange of cultures and its exotic mercantile history.
I marveled at the crumbling lime facades and the multilingual signs that reflected the city’s waves of traders, immigrants and British administration. A native majority saw $$ in tearing them down, so openly loving these decrepit structures under threat was my foreigner quirk.
Here’s Patricia on the merging of Chinese, Malay, Indian and European styles in Penang’s shophouses:
From the Chinese came the courtyard plan, the rounded gable ends and the fan-shaped air vents; from the Malay came the carved timber panels and the timber fretwork; from the Indians, urban construction techniques, including a hard-wearing plaster; from the Europeans, French windows and decorative plasterwork.
How does architecture influence your understanding of a place, its people and history?
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