Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Building Elements and Materials of the Shophouses in the Historic Cities of Melaka and Penang, Malaysia

The shophouses in the Historic Cities of Melaka and Penang also share
similar construction materials, techniques, ornamentations and elements.

1. Floors
The Chinese community introduced the use of granite as heel stones,
thresholds and the lower steps of staircase to avoid timber steps and
frames being contact with wet floor, as well as symbolizing permanence
and strength. Less prosperous houses raised their timber stairs on brick
and terracotta steps for the same reasons. Granite was also used as
edging along the street side of the five-foot ways, or as five foot ways
themselves, and entrances as seen in the godowns of Weld Quay and the
steps and paths across the open drains. The granite was quarried locally
though large pieces for temple and mansions came from China as ballast
in ships. A public five foot way or veranda-way in front of the buildings
was raised about two feet above the road level as the town was prone to
flooding.

Internally terracotta tiled floors allowed evaporation from the damp earth
beneath, cooling the ground floor rooms in the process. The later
fashionable use of decorative cement tiles reduced the effect though still
allowing some evaporation and cooling. The upper floors, of local timber
planks, were placed on timber joists between the main beams, which
spanned the width of the building. In more elaborate and larger
buildings, granite corbel were set in the brick wall to support the timber
beams of the upper floors, offering greater support.

2. Walls
Most of the buildings in the Historic City of Melaka and George Town
used soft burnt clay bricks. Varied in size over the decades, with the
two-inch brick, or thinner, being used in the earliest buildings.
Lime or chunam plaster and wash was applied as a breathable skin on
the brick and lime mortar jointed walls, allowing moisture to rise from the
base of the walls and evaporate, adding to the cooling effect. In more
noble edifices, the chunam was rubbed with granite blocks until a
polished finish was achieved. ‘Whitewash’ or pale yellow ochre lime wash
walls, of Anglo-Indian origin and typical of Georgian England, was used
to deflect the light and heat on both the interior and exterior walls. As
the fashion changed, indigo, blue and later a pale green were added to
the palette of lime wash colours.

The load bearing walls at both sides of the shophouse support the roof
load through timber purlins which span horizontally across the width of
the building. The party wall which separates each house was at least 15
inches thick from the ground to first floor and 9 inches onwards thick.
The white washed walls act as a backdrop for any architectural elements
which might be incorporated. The height of the walls at the courtyard
area 10 to 12 feet high. It introduces seclusion and introversion within
the protected confines of the enclosed courtyard garden.

3. Roofs
The early timber and brick buildings used easily available attap, palm
leaf, roofs though a series of devastating fires finally led to the
prohibition of its use in 1887. Unglazed terracotta roof tiles were
introduced possibly as early as 1787 as can be seen in Trapaud’s painting
of Fort Cornwallis of that year. These tiles are ideals in hot wet
conditions for their ability to absorb moisture, cooling the air space
beneath. These came in variety of forms, the rounded ‘pan-tiles’, possibly
influenced by the roofs found in what was Portuguese governed Melaka;
the Indian equal sized ‘V’ shaped tiles used mainly for Chinese temples
and shophouses. The more common Indian tiles continued to be
favoured until after the Second World War, though Marseilles tiles
became popular with their introduction in the 1900s. Post-war Indian
tiles tended to be thinner than their pre-war counterparts most likely in
the interest of economy and scarcity of materials.

Some terrace houses were designed with jack-roof overlaps to create
protected vents to facilitate ventilation to cool and reduce radiation
effects. The jack roofs found on most shophouses did not appear in
Malaysia until the British came in the 19th century. Their experience in
India where they used them on bungalows could have been the influence
for this innovation.

4. Windows and Doors
Early shutters were simple framed timber boards, which later took on the
embellishments and traditional carvings of the culture of their builders
and users. To allow both light and ventilation but to also afford privacy
and more importantly security, shutters began to incorporate moveable
louvers. The openings of tall, door-sized shutters, which rose from floor
level, were also embellished with decorative carved balustrades. These
later evolved into air vent spandrels below shorter shutters in the
shophouses and carved balustrade panels of the Strait Eclectic
shophouses.

Glass windows as a single layer, replacing shutters, were introduced in
bungalows built after the 1900s and were possibly added as an
embellishment to older more prosperous shophouses and bungalows,
though usually as a secondary layer with the louvered shutters
incorporated in the opening together with the glazed windows.
Open fanlights above the door and shutter openings allowed cooling
breezes to move through the buildings, also providing spaces for
development of fine carvings and were an extension of the glazed
cartwheel fanlight typical of Georgian England. Doors, significant in their
cultural meaning particularly for the Chinese, were again often carved,
the outer door with sections of lattice and open figures and landscapes
allowing both ventilation and a secure but private view of the street from
within. The inner, solid pivoted, timber doors, were bared only at night
against intruders. Thus the main entrance was a balance of fine and
delicate carving and monolithic slabs of solid timber.

Glass windows as a single layer, replacing shutters, were introduced in
bungalows built after the 1900s and were possibly added as an
embellishment to older more prosperous shophouses and bungalows,
though usually as a secondary layer with the louvered shutters
incorporated in the opening together with the glazed windows.
Open fanlights above the door and shutter openings allowed cooling
breezes to move through the buildings, also providing spaces for
development of fine carvings and were an extension of the glazed
cartwheel fanlight typical of Georgian England. Doors, significant in their
cultural meaning particularly for the Chinese, were again often carved,
the outer door with sections of lattice and open figures and landscapes
allowing both ventilation and a secure but private view of the street from
within. The inner, solid pivoted, timber doors, were bared only at night
against intruders. Thus the main entrance was a balance of fine and
delicate carving and monolithic slabs of solid timber.

5. Ornamentation of Shophouses
The multicultural heritage contributed to the eclectic mix of
ornamentation: the carved wood panels and fascia boards of the
indigenous and Indo-Malay forms; the elaborate and superstitious images
of the Chinese; the arches of Mogul India; and the neoclassical elements
of British architecture of the Georgian and Regency periods. Roof shapes
and gable ends were also ornamented according to the tradition and
culture of building ownership.

1 comment:

Maarten said...

hello!

Thank you for the wonderfull information about the shophouse on this website. I see that the pictures in the front are taken from a book, can somebody tell me what book/magazine etc this is? I would really like to have it for my graduation project.