Conservation in S.E. Asia

5 01 2011

By Aaron Murphy

A previous blog by Harve Dhillion entitled ‘“Kuala Lumpur’s lost identity – Heritage buildings that have fallen victim to redevelopment in Malaysia’s modern makeover” inspired me to write this blog. Harve’s observation on the loss of heritage to make way for modern redevelopment was something which really struck me when I was travelling around S.E. Asia last summer. I went to S.E. Asia maybe rather naively expecting to find areas of well preserved traditional architecture and design. However, I was disappointed to find that in comparison to previous travelling that I have done in Europe there was little well conserved architecture.

It is startling to witness how the pressures for modern day living, driven by globalization and mass consumerism have affected our cities. Whether travelling in Europe, Asia or most other continents, high streets are dominated by the same companies and shops and much architecture is designed to the same standards. Rapidly expanding and developing countries such as those in S.E. Asia have sacrificed much of their built heritage to make way for high rise, high density developments which can accommodate the fast pace of modern life. As Harve discusses Malaysia is no stranger to this phenomenon. When walking around Kuala Lumpur I was struck by the scale of various modern developments and concerned by the lack of context that these developments embodied. The photographs I have included here show areas with older buildings and a greater sense of character; areas which appealed to me. Other cities which particularly struck me as being over dominated by high rise modern developments were Ho Chi Min/ Saigon and Bangkok.

On arriving in Hue, the former capital of Vietnam my boyfriend and I visited all the suggested tourist sights. We were slightly disappointed by the lack of care in the conservation of these sights. For instance, the citadel contained various pastiche efforts at reconstruction, many of which were still underway. However, what I found particularly refreshing was that if you look in the right places you can see that conservation is beginning to take hold in S.E. Asia. Whilst reading an arts magazine on display in cafe I noticed an article about the restoration of An Dinh Palace in Hue. The article stated that the Palace had just reopened following an extensive restoration; in partnership with German Conservation body GCREP ‘German Conservation Restoration and Education Projects’. We decided that we should visit the Palace but were surprised to see that it was not included in any of the guide books, and that no one in the tourist information seemed to have heard of it. We eventually found the Palace later that day, and were greeted by the very helpful workers who informed us that we were the only visitors there. The Palace had been carefully restored by 15 local crafts people under the supervision of German conservationists. The staff told us how the local people had learnt new skills through the project and how they hoped to work on other projects in the future. The visit proved to be a great day out, videos and books in the gallery showed how the Palace had been painstakingly restored and it was refreshing to see local people getting involved in traditional crafts. It was just a shame that other tourists had not heard about the work. The funding and guidance by the German body, in collaboration with the local government is a great example of how countries which have spent all their efforts and time on redevelopment can learn to restore and value their heritage. More information on the project can be found here http://www.gcrep.org/en/index.php

Further sites which interested me, and had seen more careful restoration were those with UNESCO world heritage status such as Hoi An, Vietnam and the temples at Siem Reap, Cambodia. The small scale architecture intact at Hoi An was what I had hoped to see more of on my travels and I think it is a great shame that more is not intact. Overall I‘d say that my travels made me more appreciative of the English Conservation System and of the work of conservation bodies such as English Heritage.

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One response

7 01 2011
Harveen Dhillon

Thank you for this post Aaron! I think you have identified a critical issue, which is not only happening in Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia, but the lack of conservation seems to be an issue in South East Asia in general. Both mass scale development and the lack of conservation of our heritage buildings relates to both Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton’s failed principles of why our cities are not sustainable.

It’s interesting how in both Hoi An, Vietnam and the temples at Siem Reap, Cambodia, there was more careful restoration but this may be because these are given UNESSCO world heritage status. In South East Asia I feel such conservationists are not given enough power and recognition, governments need to collaborate with such organisations in order for there to be an allocation to preserve such assets.

In conclusion, what needs to be realised is that development and modernisation can occur hand in hand and does not necessarily mean that a city needs to neglect it’s history, neither does it need to focus on large scale developments in order to be a successful place both aesthetically and economically.

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