Kuala Lumpur stands out as a global city where antiquity and the urban
sprawl co-exist. Heritage sites complement the city’s modern skyline and this unique mix serves as a strong draw for discerning tourists. Although this winning formula is widely acknowledged, rampant construction has placed a question mark over some of these sites and the burning question is: Are we doing enough to preserve our heritage buildings?
UCSI University lecturer Teoh Chee Keong believes that architectural conservation is not solely about nurturing appreciation for heritage buildings.
“It’s also about sentimental value,” opines Teoh who teaches at the School of Architecture and Built Environment. “Each building represents more than just its market value. It’s about creating a collective memory in a community that recognises a
common building, which existed in the time of our forefathers; one that provides a connection to each member of that community.”
Teoh’s infectious passion for architectural conservation has rubbed off on his students, who voluntarily join him on some of his projects.
One key example is the ‘Knowing Our Neighbour’ initiative that was part of the Hulu Langat Art Festival. “Before proposing this project to my students, I visited the olden houses in the Hulu Langat area to see if the residents there were willing to host our students for three days.”
“Three households – one Chinese family and two Malay ones – agreed to my request
and I proposed this idea to my students,” he explains, adding that several voluntarily spent part of their semester break on this project.
The project necessitated students to measure, sketch and photograph their respective ‘home’ as well as conduct investigation surveys before presenting their artwork in an exhibition to their host family at the end of three days.
“Such hands-on projects not only enable students to feel a sense of ownership in their learning but also opens their minds to a world of opportunities in terms of architecture-related careers,” enthuses Teoh, adding that students became more well-rounded and better adapted to handle stress and changes in life.
“As for the host families, they were definitely impressed with the exhibit and were able to better appreciate their own home.”
No other home
Another project that Teoh had taken under his wing was the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Control Centre. Known as the Valley of Hope, the Centre – one of the largest leper settlements in the world – which was set up in the early 1930s was about to be relocated due to redevelopment plans.
“Generally, leprosy sufferers are treated like exiles because of their disease, regardless of age, and were forced to live in isolation from the rest of society,” says Teoh, expressing his concern over the issue.
“After visiting the site, I did my best to create awareness – by organising public talks and publishing articles – that the Centre
was indeed a heritage site. The effort paid off and many international scholars visited the site during the campaign.”
Teoh later roped in UCSI students for the project and adds: “Our students were required to investigate ‘problem areas’ in the settlement and to use their creativity to design concepts and models for the residents.
“If the Centre is preserved as a heritage site, it needs to be open to the public. And if
there are tourists, the Centre would need a museum to educate visitors about its history and perhaps even a café.”
“I am certain that our hard work paid off as our presentation gave the residents a sense of pride and appreciation for their community and the place they call home.”
Teoh describes the project as a great experience for his students, as it allowed them to develop a better grasp of cultural preservation and to work closely with members of a community.
“Through such assignments, students become better architects because they are exposed to other elements like historical value, social implications and cultural significance, to name a few,” he adds.
“Only then will they be able to produce designs that will positively impact the community or even the world.” Commenting on his efforts, Teoh explains that social engagement is pivotal for the advancement of knowledge. He carries on by lamenting that most universities lack the holistic emphasis when in architecture.
“Many institutions equip their students with professional knowledge and skills,” he
muses. “However, I believe that the love for humanity is just as important.”
“One may be an expert in his field – for example, an architectural conservation professional – but may not know how to mingle with others or to reach out to society. I believe that is vital for our students, who are budding architects; not only will this be beneficial for them in terms of their studies but also when they step into the working world.”
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