Buildings and nation-building tend to go hand in hand in most countries, and it is no different in Malaysia. Key landmarks were constructed around the Merdeka year, 1957, including Parliament House, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Universiti Malaya and Stadium Merdeka.

Erecting such iconic structures involved great effort and planning in terms of design, as well as endless hours of hard physical labour – don’t forget that decades ago, building technology was not as advanced as current times.

The Merdeka Interviews attempts to document all this; it is a hefty publication whose framework of interviews was inspired by a speech made in 1963 by the country’s third Agong, Al-Marhum Tuanku Syed Putra ibni Al-Marhum Syed Hassan Jamalullail, which highlighted the virtues of citizenship closely linked to key buildings and institutions.

These include the Parliament House which represents democracy; stadiums which celebrate sports and groom patriotic, healthy citizens; and a university that educates the people.

The 688-page book is a collaborative effort between architectural historian Dr Lai Chee Kien and architect Ang Chee Cheong, director of the Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival 2018 which begins next month.

The Merdeka Interviews

Aerial view of the National Mosque, one of the buildings discussed in ‘The Merdeka Interviews’ book. Photo from Dr Lai Chee Kien

The Merdeka Interviews brings together in a single volume the research and interviews conducted over a decade with key architects, engineers and artists on 10 projects: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Masjid Negara, Merdeka Park, Muzium Negara, Parliament House, Stadium Merdeka, Stadium Negara, Subang Airport, Tugu Negara, and Universiti Malaya.

The book also pays homage to the women and men who have contributed to the development of Malaysia’s built heritage. In an e-mail interview, the book’s authors share the challenges they faced in putting it together and their views on the architectural landscape then and now.

What was the key challenge in creating this book, besides the time needed to locate, travel to, and interview the architects?

Ang: The interviews were conducted between 2001 and 2006 by my partner for the book, Dr Lai Chee Kien, who embarked on that journey for his doctoral thesis. From the tape recordings and materials collected, we found new sources and materials.

I would say our biggest challenge was to work out an appropriate organisational structure and to develop key themes to piece together the dense information we had collected. There were many ways to do this, of course. We had started by planning it as several volumes, before finally settling on one single large publication.

It’s by no means complete, and it’s not meant to be, but we are satisfied that it’s a reasonable collection of voices representing that period of nation building at our country’s birth.

The Merdeka Interviews

Ang feels the book brings together voices representing that period of nation building. Photo: The Star/Norafifi Ehsan

From all the interviews conducted, what is the one comment that has stayed with you?

Ang: It’s not possible to reduce the 668-page book to a few comments or quotes. We like to think that each of the subjects bring something to their areas of practice … that either brought to light unknown facts or confirmed certain understandings.

This, to us, is the import of the interview medium as a historical document. The value of placing all of the interviews in one volume is so that many perspectives on the same topic or incidents may be compared for a more comprehensive or multifaceted reading, like watching a Kurosawa movie.

What were one or two architectural achievements or improvisations that stood out for you among all the buildings?

Ang: The book details many of these, from the Subang Airport to Parliament House and the two stadia, Stadium Merdeka and Stadium Negara. In each of them, there were very interesting responses to contextual and circumstantial limitations of the day.

It should be clear that the architects, engineers and artists working in that period did not have unlimited budgets nor access to all materials. Indeed, they worked to quite stringent budgetary limitations in a Malaya that was finding its way in the world.

As they speak of their experiences in their own voices, it brings to life the issues and achievements of their work as a collective, the problems faced and the solutions they gave. And this was what made this period such a fascinating study.

The Merdeka Interviews

In 1957, Merdeka Stadium’s lighting towers were the tallest prestressed towers in the world, and the shell roofs were the furthest cantilevering of their kind globally. Photo from Stanley Jewkes and Dr Lai Chee Kien

The book recognises the unsung heroes of Malaysia’s nation building story including the lai sui mui or kongsi women. Do you think more should have been done to recognise these women earlier, or even now, and why?

Ang: While reviewing the hundreds of images of construction work during the Merdeka period, we both noticed the prevalence of women workers on the sites. Noticeably, too, as this is not really seen on construction sites today, as that role is now taken over by mechanisation, etc. As we worked through the interviews, some of the subjects also commented on the critical role they played in the building of the projects.

So quite quickly, it was something we could not ignore. History is often filled with such missteps. Sometimes, when someone or events are overlooked, it’s our duty to pay acknowledgement and give due credit when new insights are available. We are happy to do our part in this.

The Merdeka Interviews

Construction workers of the Merdeka Stadium in the 50s, which included many female workers. Photo from Dr Lai Chee Kien

What are some of the ways modern architecture differs from the 10 buildings in the book in terms of aesthetics and sustainability?

Lai: Modern architecture began to be transmitted to other countries from their trans-Atlantic origins rapidly after World War II. In Malaysia, we were lucky that the transmission and translation into state architecture was more than capably made by a dedicated group of architects both in the public and private sector, and by expatriate and local architects returning from abroad.

The Merdeka Interviews

Lai feels the period covered in the book was a halcyon period for architecture that will not be repeated. Photo: The Star/Norafifi Ehsan

They understood the tenets of modern architecture well, but also the demands made by tropical weather on such buildings. The result is a group of buildings that espouse the aesthetically-relevant, climatically-modified and functionally-workable aspects of modern architecture that were, at the same time, uniquely Malaysian.

What are some key lessons that the present generation of architects can learn from the 17 subjects interviewed in the book?

Lai: I think the period in which the architects, engineers and artists worked was a halcyon period which will not be repeated.

We can, however, still learn from their immaculate design, engineering skills and understanding of architecture and engineering. And then there was their path-breaking design thinking and their perseverance in completing these buildings despite so much adversity and working at a time of scarcity, and how they placed the betterment of the state before their personal interests.

The Merdeka Interviews book can be purchased at Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia’s online bookstore, pamonlinestore.com. For more information on the Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival 2018, visit klaf2018.com or the event’s Facebook page and Instagram account. The festival will be held from June 28 to Aug 26.