Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Art Deco Walk 1: Central Market

This is the first in my series of posts on Art Deco structures in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

Seeing as that I was at the Central Market Annexe on Tuesday evening, it is inevitable that a post on Central Market would follow. It is, after all, one of my favourite places to hang out in.

Why Art Deco? My fascination with Art Deco began in the mid '90s when my love of big band and swing music grew, along with my love for the works of authors of the Jazz Age, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, and poets of the 1920s such as WH Auden and Cecil Day-Lewis.

The Roaring '20s was a glorious period in the history of the world. World War 1 had just ended, and never had there been a better time for industry and innovation. Even art forms embraced and celebrated technology and modernity.

There have been arguments propounded by the narrow-minded and mean-spirited that buildings such as the Kuala Lumpur Central Market aren’t part of our Malaysian heritage at all, but that of our colonialists. I beg to differ. In the first place, Malaysia wasn't a British colony, but a protectorate. Huge difference there, my friends. Secondly, what is Malaysian heritage, if not a miscegenation of cultures, faiths, ideas and shared histories? I think it is wonderful that the communities existing in Malaysia in the 1920s saw so much potential and beauty in Kuala Lumpur that they were inspired into constructing a building so elegant and so sophisticated for its time as the Central Market.

Central Market hasn't always been an Art Deco building. It was constructed in 1888 as a wet market for the then growing town of Kuala Lumpur.

The old Central Market. Black-and-white photos reproduced from "Malaysia: A Pictorial History 1400-2004", by Wendy Khadijah Moore, without permission but in accordance with the principles of fair use.

The new Central Market as we know it today was constructed in the 1930s. This photograph shows it in its completed stage in 1937. It must have been such an architectural and aesthetic gem even in its day.

Europe was then abuzz with fresh ideas in architecture and industrial design after the
1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, and the enthusiasm it generated was carried all the way across the oceans to the expanding and vibrant city of Kuala Lumpur.

I recall my first visit to Central Market as being in 1986, after it was saved from demolition, renovated and reopened as an arts and culture market. My father has always been very big on taking us to local places of interest as soon as they are open to the public. Our family made it a habit to travel miles to visit new highways, bridges, dams, parks and buildings weeks before the official opening ceremonies. This is just one of the benefits of having a Geography teacher for a father.

I remember a comic book specialty store on the first floor of the Central Market back in 1986 where we could purchase DC and Marvel comics. It was probably the first such store in Malaysia. I remember also the artists on the ground floor of Central Market, and the breathtaking portraits they painted, as I watched a little distance away, not quite 8 years old, not quite daring to breathe in case I ruined their paintings in some way.

Later, in my teenage years in the 1990s, Central Market became less of a showcase for local art and culture and more of a place where cheap, tacky souvenirs from neighbouring countries could be bought. Still, it was a colourful and friendly place to hang out in.

There used to be a pub called "the Bull's Head" to the left of Central Market where my buddies and I watched most of the football matches during the 1998 World Cup.

I remember a young man named Eddie who had a stall selling Native American crafts in Central Market, although I am positive that he is not of Native American descent any more than I am, and his merchandise were probably made in some warehouse somewhere in Selangor. I wonder where he is today.

Central Market received another facelift in 2008, in an effort to upgrade its facilities, regulate the merchandise sold and to divide the shops into zones. Hence the new Central Market now has "Lorong Melayu", "Straits Chinese", "Lorong India" and “Lorong Kolonial” zones.

The interior of Central Market, with its booths and stalls in the wide corridors.

The Asli Crafts shop has always been one of my favourite shops.

I am pleased to see that the renovation work did not destroy the original Art Deco details in the interior of Central Market. Here, the 'flat-against-the-wall' fluted columns and mock pillars have survived several facelifts and renovation exercises.

The illusion of pillars and columns and ancient architectural designs such as pyramids and ziggurats is frequently employed in Art Deco.

Central Market at dusk. Again, we can see that the architect has chosen a bold ziggurat design. A ziggurat is a terraced pyramid with each storey smaller than the one below it. King Tut's tomb was discovered in 1922, and it wasn't just the archeological community that was excited over the find! Artists, architects and designers all wanted to incorporate pyramids, ziggurats and other Egyptian motifs into their work.

The subtle horizontal band of pink textured concrete running across the breadth of Central Market is also characteristic of one of the techniques used in Art Deco, in which bands or columns of contrasting materials are used to create a sense of line or division.

One of the best adjectives used to describe Art Deco design is 'theatrical', the entrance of the Central Market is just that! The recessed 'second entrance' creates the illusion of a passageway to a stage set. Symmetrical receding abstract planes and aerodynamic streamlining are typical of later Art Deco and Art Moderne details.

The back entrance of Central Market. You've got to love the Deco typestyle in the signage! Most Art Deco typestyles are completely in capitals, emphasising the swank and boldness of the era right before World War II. Take note, yet again, of the ziggurat design and the repetitive geometric patterns and the combination of materials used. Art Deco isn't about moderation -- it was all about eclecticism and glamour!

Central Market is one of the best success stories in Malaysia when it comes to heritage buildings. We didn't just 'preserve a building left by the British', we combated stasis by making it our own. Dare we hope that City Hall and the Ministry of Federal Territories would apply the same strategy in conserving and revitalising other heritage sites in the City?


Shehzad Martin said...

Thank you for this stunning article series. Yes, we have a surprising treasure trove of Art Deco architecture all around us in KL, yet most of us seem to be quite blind to it. The combination of the industrial-style design with bold, old-world colours and our very own tropical setting is truly enough to take one's breath away.
In Jalan Tun H.S. Lee there is a small branch of OCBC Bank - every time I visit one of the money changers across the street, I cannot take my eyes off the fine, filigree mosaic detail on its outer walls. Unpretentious yet stunning.
Yet another aspect in which KL can live up to a 'Miami of Asia' moniker!
Please keep up the great work; your intellectual curiosity, sense of easthetics, patriotism and patient, non-confrontational outlook are sorely needed in our society, and right here in KL, these days. Syabas.

~Covert_Operations'78~ said...

Dear Shehzad Martin,

Thank you very much for your kind comment. There is so much beauty around us, if only we'd take the time to notice and appreciate it. There are many more photos of Art Deco buildings in Kuala Lumpur that I have not used for the Blog4FT contest due to time constraints, but each time I sift through the photos I am astounded afresh by the beauty, vision and sophistication of each structure.

I really appreciate your visit and I hope you will come again!

Anonymous said...

Thank you indeed for your insight on KL Art Deco!
I am researching on Southeast Asia Art Deco and am about to pay a visit to KL in a few weeks. Finding your pages very fascinating and resourceful prior my trip.
I would like to urge you a bit further in exploring why and how Art Deco reached this part of SEA- was it purely the architects or was there any local effort as well?

~Covert_Operations'78~ said...

Dear Anonymous @ 9.05p.m.,

Thank you for dropping by. I don't have any academic or professional qualifications in architecture or history, so I don't think I am qualified to comment on why and how Art Deco came to be so popular in KL in the Roaring '20s and '30s.

My speculation, however, is that it became a status symbol for commercial property owners in KL to be able to commission the construction of a building designed by A.O. Coltman. If you were able to afford it, it was probably a sign that your business has arrived.

It also helped that the pre-war years was a period of growth and modernity -- it was the golden age for rail transport, shipping and electricity -- and everyone was keen to embrace Art Deco and all that it represented -- modernity, individuality, courage and economic progress.