For a long time, the architectural landscape of Penang Island had largely been preserved in its nostalgic British colonial heritage.
That all changed when the state government decided to build a modern 10-storey building in Downing Street, at the site of an old godown. The completion of Bangunan Tuanku Syed Putra in 1962 made it the tallest building in Penang, with colourful facades of yellow and red, and “wrapped” at the ends with greyish-blue walls. It housed various offices of the state and federal governments.
For the man in the street, the most frequented office was the General Post Office – located (appropriately!) on the ground floor.
Over the last 50 years or so, this once “tallest-and-colourful” iconic building has been dwarfed by countless nondescript high-rise structures all over the island, and is currently painted a sad yellowish white colour!
Never mind if no buffaloes roamed and, no deer and antelope played.
But each of the 3888 units of dwelling in the 9 blocks of flats gave thousands of economically-disadvantaged folks a home.
They were tiny, averaging only 360 sq feet! Built in the mid-to-end 1960s, the Rifle Range Flats, Penang, were the first high-rise apartments in the state. I still remember watching intently from the adjacent Batu Gantong cemetery as the pre-cast concrete slabs were lifted up by cranes and put into place. Many people in Penang wondered if this kind of ‘Lego block’ assembly technique was safe.
Well, half-a-century has gone by, and they are still standing there as solid as ever. Unfortunately the super-high density design spawned many social problems that have worsened over the years.
I believe the Federal government has a plan to demolish these flats and re-develop the area.
Sometime in 1970s, on a visit to my relatives in KL, two iconic buildings caught my attention, namely the Parliament House and, Wisma Angkasapuri. The simple elegance exuded by the geometric orderliness of the facades had (and still have) a curious attraction for me.
Wisma Angkasapuri really struck me — I asked my uncle who was driving us, “Why do they put up so many spades on the outside walls ?” Uncle kept silent (he was a civil servant). Well, according to the architects, “the shield-like form at the facade was inspired by the shell of a horseshoe crab….” oh ya ke ?
Perhaps the architects were asked to convey an unspoken message, that messages beamed from this tower would be truthful, calling a spade a spade, 296 times over — no craps, or crabs, horseshoe type or otherwise ! Hear ! Hear !