Malaysia · 26 September 2022 · 12 min
Known as a regional food paradise, and with a bustling, multicultural street life, Penang’s historic old town and UNESCO World Heritage Site saw the inauguration of its newly restored seawall and public promenade in May 2022. These major public works, part of a revitalisation plan for the area, were the result of a strategic partnership between the Penang State, City Council of Penang Island, Think City and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC).
Visits to Southeast Asia by the His Highness the Aga Khan and members of his family date back to the early twentieth century. His Highness’s visit to the Philippines in 1963 laid an important inspirational marker for burgeoning educational and intellectual activity amongst Muslim populations in the region. Agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) have worked in the region since the 1980s, including collaborations in education and urban social development, facilitating dialogues, high-level conferences, as well as exchanges, study visits and workshops. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture was hosted in Indonesia in 1995 and Malaysia in 2007; the Aga Khan Museum exhibition “Architecture in Islamic Art” toured Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in 2012. Under a Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2013, AKTC and Think City began providing technical assistance for the protection, development and enhancement of Penang’s historic George Town.
In this spotlight on Penang, Hamdan Majeed, Managing Director of Think City, and AKTC architect Francesco Siravo discuss their work in George Town, the balance of tradition and modernity when restoring historic areas, how development can be environmentally sensitive and the wider benefits of improving public spaces.
Why is it important to invest in public spaces?
Hamdan: An unexpected outcome of the recent COVID pandemic has been the realisation on the part of decision-makers of how important public open spaces can be. Of course, we have always known that residents are attracted to, and tend to congregate in, pedestrian-friendly, well-designed public spaces, but the pandemic highlighted just how vital they are for social well-being.
The popularity and success of our most recent improvement project, the creation of a public promenade along George Town’s seafront, is a further confirmation of the importance of public places. When they coincide with heritage assets, as in Penang, they become an indisputable part of community identity. This is the merit of planning policies that safeguard and enhance the quality of the public realm, and the commitment that the State and Penang Island City Council made with the adoption of the Public Realm Framework prepared by Think City and AKTC in 2014 as a follow-up to the UNESCO World Heritage nomination.
Investing in public spaces is also good for economic and social reasons. It is good for business, as a welcoming pedestrian environment attracts people who support stores, coffeeshops and restaurants. It is good for residents, who appreciate a walkable, safe and healthier environment, and it is good for communities as public open spaces strengthen social bonds, reinforce cultural values and promote inclusiveness.
Right: Interior of an Indian temple in George Town. AKTC / Masood Khan
What is the historical importance of George Town?
Francesco: Modern human settlement in Penang started when a Sumatran ethnic group established a fishing village in Batu Uban in 1734. The present-day urban form developed when British Captain Francis Light and the English East India Company established a fort on the island’s northeast cape in 1786. Eight years later, when Light died, George Town had already become a free port with a gridiron of streets around the tip of the settlement. The growing commercial activities attracted a diverse population that introduced varied cultural practices, social customs and architectural forms. People came from the surrounding Malay regions, the distant Chinese mainland and the Indian sub-continent, not to mention far-away Europe.
These characteristics epitomise George Town to this day and constitute the justification for the UNESCO nomination of 2008, which recognised its distinct history and architectural qualities. As detailed by the UNESCO nomination criteria, George Town is an exceptional example of a multicultural trading town in East and Southeast Asia, with its many distinct cultural traditions and ethnic groups. These make the town’s intangible heritage unrivalled in the entire region. Moreover, the town possesses to this day the highest concentration of well-preserved historic buildings in the region, buildings that have virtually disappeared from cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong. It has a most distinguished complex of public 19th- and early 20th-century colonial buildings set in a vast green expanse facing the sea, and the largest variety of shophouses and townhouses, the low-rise structures that distinguish and characterise George Town’s traditional fabric. These exceptional characteristics and historic circumstances justify the current efforts aimed at preserving the town’s cultural assets and the search for a different, more sustainable model of city development.
How did AKTC get involved in Malaysia? Why Penang specifically?
Francesco: Through its Historic Cities Programme, AKTC has worked for three decades rehabilitating historic areas in the Muslim world, with the aim to spur social, economic and cultural development. George Town, the historic portion of Penang, was an ideal urban setting for AKTC. It was a recently nominated UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS) at the time of our initial involvement and was experiencing a surge in tourism and related infrastructural needs. Local institutions and community organisations were eager to promote a conservation-based agenda. In addition, AKTC and Think City shared a common approach to intervening in historic sites, one that foresees a close integration of physical and social activities and that considers cultural assets as the paramount springboard for urban regeneration and development.
AKTC and Think City have collaborated since 2013, preparing a strategic master plan and implementing numerous high-profile projects within the heritage area. Work has taken place under the public-private George Town Conservation and Development Corporation (GTCDC), established in 2015, and the ongoing management collaboration agreement between GTCDC and AKTC.
What does rehabilitating the seawall accomplish and how does it fit into the wider Master Plan?
Hamdan: Two pressing reasons determined the significant public investment needed to improve the quality of George Town’s seafront. The first was the need to intervene urgently to prevent the collapse of the dilapidated seawall and narrow public promenade on top. The second hinged on the desire to create an appropriate setting for the Esplanade, the vast green expanse known locally as the Padang, and its associated spaces and public buildings. This monumental complex remains to this day the town’s administrative and cultural centre and the principal place of social gathering for the entire city of Penang.
Because of its significance in the wider context of a heritage city, the project was conceived as part and parcel of the general rehabilitation and upgrading of George Town’s north seafront. It is an effort that entails the gradual rehabilitation of 100,000 square metres of public open space. This includes the central Esplanade and encompasses the spaces around Fort Cornwallis, the Town and City Halls, and the Dewan Sri Pinang, a multi-purpose auditorium and performing centre built in the 1970s. Parts of this large system of public open space, including the seafront promenade, the Esplanade itself and the east portion of Light Street, or Lebuh Light in Malay, have already been completed, with others due to commence. In particular, the reinstatement of the west and south moats of Fort Cornwallis, which in the 1920s were filled in and are still preserved underground, are expected to begin in early 2023.
The renovated seawall looking west.
AKTC / Mohamad Faizul Bin Ismail
This is a major undertaking that will completely transform the nature of the central public space and enhance appreciation of the 18th-century fort that, without its former moat, may appear today as an incomplete and diminished landmark. This attention to reconstituting the north seafront’s physical setting and urban significance within the wider WHS Master Plan distinguishes our approach from most contemporary planning initiatives. Very often, the latter consist of an accidental combination of piecemeal and uncoordinated developments. These inevitably disregard the harmony and coherence of past urban ensembles and the sense of place and continuity that characterise the cities we have inherited from previous generations. We endeavour to re-establish these urban continuities and put back, at least in part, what has been so hastily and inconsiderately destroyed following the town’s more recent urban transformations.
How does this partnership model between Penang State, the City Council of Penang Island, Think City and AKTC work?
Hamdan: Over the past few years, Think City and AKTC have focused on creating a coherent framework and making the urban investment programme set up by the Penang State and the City Council of Penang Island operational.
After thorough consultations and approvals with not only the necessary authorities, but also community organisations and residents, Think City and AKTC have jointly led the implementation of several special projects and given support and advice on many others. This hands-on role was justified by the lack of expertise in restoration and traditional construction amongst local contractors and their unfamiliarity with selecting and applying building materials compatible with the historic fabric.
We established an effective synergy between AKTC’s international experience with conservation projects and Think City’s familiarity with local ecosystem stakeholders, professional capabilities, administrative processes, convening powers and potential private financing. Unlike conventional public-private partnerships aimed at securing additional private financing for public projects, we aimed to strengthen the public-sector capacity in the heritage sector and ensure the operational efficiency and quality of the results in a highly sensitive cultural and environmental setting.
Could you expand on the conservation techniques and processes involved in the seawall and other sections of the city?
Francesco: This last point made by Hamdan is of great importance. Its significance lies at the very core of the conservation techniques and processes we adopted. They do not reflect a nostalgic approach aimed at re-establishing obsolete practices or bringing back the past. Rather, they stem from a better understanding of the distance that separates current planning and building practices from those of the past, and a fuller awareness of the failures and successes encountered in dealing with heritage sites and old buildings in recent decades.
For example, we know today that modern building materials are incompatible with traditional ones. The use of reinforced concrete and cement to repair old buildings, hailed as the magic solution until 50 years ago, had to be followed up by countless interventions to “retrofit” and reinstate the original materials and techniques. Today, as we learn more about the chemical composition of traditional materials and their long-term performance, we can improve on their quality through experimentation and research, while recognising the climate benefits of using and recycling natural materials with low carbon emissions, such as stone, timber and recycled bricks.
These efforts, however, are hampered by the shortage of builders and craftspeople capable of repairing old buildings in ways that respect the integrity and authenticity of the old fabric. For this reason, the projects carried out jointly by Think City and AKTC have included a hands-on training component to sustain and keep up the effective reintroduction of traditional practices.
A parallel effort can be applied at the scale of entire urban ensembles. In planning the north seafront, for example, we examined old maps and photographic records to better understand the urban transformations that had negatively affected the area and return, where possible, the lost spirit and quality of the place. What may seem at first sight an abstract exercise is aimed at avoiding many of the recent planning failures whereby traditional urban landscapes were swept aside and remodelled in ways that ignore the deep, intergenerational connections that link people to their familiar urban places.
How will the collaboration between AKTC and Think City continue?
Hamdan: Many forms of collaboration between AKTC and Think City can be imagined and put into effect in the foreseeable future at every level. Because of its direct experience in the implementation of conservation projects, training programmes, museological ventures and the management of historic and archaeological sites, AKTC is a critical partner to Think City as we engage in advancing the restoration of Fort Cornwallis, installing exhibit spaces and managing regional cultural sites, such as the ongoing Archaeotourism Programme in Malaysia’s Northern Region. Conversely, because of Think City’s focus on environmental issues, discussions have taken place to support AKTC as it broadens its outlook and scope of activities towards climate change and urban resiliency.
Attention to these themes is poised to increase as the issue has now become a high priority in many countries in parallel with the worsening environmental conditions worldwide. Urban rehabilitation and regeneration will increasingly be geared toward issues related to climate and the protection of natural resources. These aspects will need to be coupled and closely integrated with the safeguarding of cultural heritage. Both environmental and cultural resources are now rightly perceived as two sides of the same coin. In the future, they will demand greater efforts and collaborative synergies to orient planning efforts and the construction industries towards nature-based solutions and the use of traditional materials. For these reasons, we are extremely positive about the prospects of collaboration between our organisations.
|Francesco Siravo, AKTC||Hamdan Majeed, Think City|
Francesco Siravo is an Italian architect who specialises in historic preservation and town planning. Since I99I he has worked for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, with projects in Zanzibar, Cairo, Lahore, Mostar and Samarkand. He has also worked for UNESCO, UNDP and ICCROM, and carried out planning works for several historic towns and areas in Italy. He has written books, articles and papers on various architectural conservation and town planning subjects.
Hamdan Majeed is the Managing Director of Think City, an impact organisation established in 2009 to create more sustainable and equitable places for the benefit of all. The knowledge, skills and strategies focus on urban solutions, the environment, social communities and the cultural economy. Hamdan has been involved actively in shaping urban policy and plans in Malaysia. Prior to this, he was Director of Investment at Khazanah Nasional, where he identified strategic investment opportunities to catalyse growth and development in the region.