SEAARC Symposium Abstract 6: “Batik into Blueprints: the International Style in Pre- and Post Independence Malaya”

by Assoc. Prof. Mark Hinchman, Taylor’s University

A group of modernist architects was active in the Malay Peninsula in the 1950s and 1960s, including E.S. Cooke, Berthel Iversen, T.Y. Lee, Yoon Thim Lee, and Kington Loo. Their collective works constitute a parallel to the prominent government buildings built over the same period. Lai Chee Kien labelled the government’s architectural statecraft as ‘Building Merdeka’. The architects who operated in the commercial sector brought modernism to a larger public. In contrast to architects such as Vann Molyvann in Cambodia, or Juan O’Gorman in Mexico, who fall under the category of critical regionalists, these architects were united by their belief in modernism’s universal qualities.

The day when a canonical narrative explains architectural modernism is long past. Prakāsh argues that third world modernism should be considered “not as a derivative project, but as an equivalent project”. Lu helpfully adds categories that she sees in developing societies, all of which resonate with this group’s work: globalism, developmentalism, nationalism, and postcolonialism. Writings on the new third world are often in the name of countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, and Sri Lanka. For many reasons, the architecture of the Malay Peninsula calls into questions the mono-nation paradigm. For one, the German historian and academic Posener wrote in 1960 that the British and Chinese shared the architectural scene. He highlighted one complication when he noted that “the local British architect cares more about a tropical architecture . . . than his Asian colleagues.” Lee, Lee and Loo were members of a Chinese diaspora that crossed boundaries; their clients were Chinese, Methodist, Muslim, and Malay sprinkled across Malaysia and Singapore.

Chang offers the model of a global network, which figures into an analysis of some of these men; Lee was an expert in hospitality, Iversen in cinemas. This research into understudied figures with their respective areas of professional expertise brings to light accomplished figures who have been absent from modernism’s global narrative. Many of them are scarcely known in their own countries.

Another unique situation regarding these architects is that they brought to the region the architecture developed in Europe in the 1930s, of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe, at the same time as they were interacting with the third generation of European modernists, a group that included the Smithsons, and Maxwell Fry and Buckminster Fuller, the last two of whom travelled to Malaysia during the period. In the time frame of two decades, some architects progressed through phases in which their works bear obvious traits of Art Deco, High Modernism, and the beginnings of brutalism.
Modernism did not arrive in Southeast Asia unquestioned. As their buildings were rising, these men contributed to a lively debate in the architectural and general press questioning what constituted Malaysian architecture, an effort one referred to as ‘putting batik into blueprints’. Regarding nation, ethnic allegiance, temporality, and the meaning of form, this accomplished body of work contributed to a modern ethos that did not spring from a system of absolutes. Will an assessment of their work recuperate the term ‘The International Style’?


Mark Hinchman worked for Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM), and the Environments Group (now Perkins and Will) in Chicago, and for Phillipp Holzmann in Frankfurt, Germany. He has a B. Arch from Notre Dame, a M. Arch from Cornell, and a MA and a Ph.D in art history from the University of Chicago. At Notre Dame and Cornell, he studied with Colin Rowe. He has written two interior design textbooks, History of Furniture (2009) and The Dictionary of Interior Design (2014); he has just contracted to write a Who’s Who in Interior Design. A monograph on French colonial domestic architecture in West Africa, Portrait of an Island: Architecture and Material Culture on Gorée, is being published in 2014. He spent a year in West Africa as a Fulbright scholar, and subsequent research was funded by the Getty Museum, the Graham Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Prior to his appointment at Taylors University, Malaysia, he was a Professor in the College of Architecture at the University of Nebraska, USA. He has written for Interiors, The Journal of Interior Design, The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, and the Société Voltaire.


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