Cover Malaysia's iconic Parliament Building at sunset - Image from Unsplash

One of Malaysia's first modernist buildings, the Parliament Building was designed to encapsulate the hopes of a progressive country

A newly independent democracy requires a venue for the country's representatives to run said country and this was the task our first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, undertook when Malaya achieved its independence in 1957. Tunku put this suggestion forward in 1959 and on August 31, 1962, the foundation stone was laid to mark the beginning of construction. But what would the central administrative building for a multi-cultural progressive country look like?

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THE DESIGN

The design was conceptualised by Sir William Ivor Shipley, an Architecture Association-trained architect with the Public Works Department. Somehow the building's language needed to portray a nationalist architecture vocabulary which balanced the government agenda of achieving racial unity while maintaining its Malay roots. A tall order to be sure but it can be surmised that the building's modernist expression could be partly attributed to a prior trip the architect took to study the Chandigarh designed by Le Corbusier.

THE SITE

A sprawling site about 16.2 hectares in size near Lake Perdana (Lake Gardens) was selected for the construction of the building. Then known as West Folly Hill, this lush green elevation was chosen due to its strategic hill-top location while still being near to Kuala Lumpur city centre. The hilltop had to be levelled about 61 meter from above sea level to accommodate construction of the three-storey podium block and 17-storey tower block. To complete its infrastructure, a bridge was built to allow access to the building from the main road network.

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THE PODIUM

The podium block houses the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives) and features a “toast rack” roof which were formed as a pleated shell with a five-sided section but later refined into a more triangular one. This has led to it being interpreted as being a 'Malay house roof', which, it is interesting to note, was not the architect’s original intent. More an ornamental gesture than a functional one, the 11 triangular pinnacles which make up the roof, coincided with the number of states that made up the Federation at that time.

A 'prickly' pineapple-skin facade made of terrazzo clads the whole block and was chosen to control the entry of natural light and consequently regulate the temperature of the building itself. Its unique appearance was no accident, the terrazzo was precast to resemble the skin of a pineapple, an important cash crop in many parts of Malaya.

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The Tower Block

Separating processes of Parliament from governmental establishment, offices were contained in the tower block whose reticulated façade of pre-cast terrazzo cladding panels became its signature. Its design was informed by the adaptation of the building towards its environment where the façade is being set back to shade the interior from direct sunlight. Cutting-edge engineering techniques of that time were employed to build this skyscraper like embedding steel frames into its structural system.

Using advanced technology available at that time, the building was completed in record speed and on November 2, 1963, the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong officially opened the building with these words: “‘There can be no grander witness than this great structure itself of the ideals and hopes that people of Malaysia share—no finer gesture to the future of the faith and confidence they have in the continuing, peace and happiness of Malaysia. The deep and lasting significance of the building does not lie in the fact that it is an architectural harmony of concrete and glass, steel and stone. The significance is in the function and purpose for which the building is conceived, created and constructed for. What is profoundly important here is that this building symbolises our highest ideals of democracy."

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