Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Categories and Planning Principles of Shophouses in the Historic City of Melaka and George Town, Malaysia

In general the shophouses the Historic City of Melaka can be divided into
five categories and in the Historic City of George Town into six categories
depending on their façade design and the period they were built.
However, in term of internal planning, all these building share similar
characteristics.

Each shophouses is not a free standing building, rather it is connected to
several other houses to form a block. A block may consist several units
and they stand parallel with similar block along the same street. The
planning principles were traceable to Chinese origins which were austere
and formal. The principle underlying this is bilateral symmetry along
a single axis running north to south. All the primary elements are
arranged along this axis and the secondary elements developed
transversely to it. This automatically results in the typical shape of
Chinese buildings, either a rectangle or a square.

Houses built in the town are planned with a view to economise in
materials, space and street frontage, and to guarantee security against
theft. Even the general layout of a cluster of buildings was formal in
character. It was impossible to place minor rooms around an air well
because of the limited width of the building, therefore, the houses
resorted to a series of rooms after successive courtyards arranged
longitudinally.

The important elements of the house were the ancestral hall, the
sitting room and the air well. The ancestral hall was the most
important element in a Chinese building. It was here that ceremonies to
the dead were performed. The room consisted of an altar and straight
back chairs lining the walls. According to custom an air well must be
placed before the ancestral hall so that the first person to pray could call
in the spirit of the deceased. The sitting room came next in importance.
It was here where guests were received. It was usually along area that
was split in sections, for men and women.

In China the open courtyard with trees and bushes was an essential
element in a building. When this concept was brought to Malaysia it was
modified by paving much of the courtyard. Later, the whole area of the
courtyard was paved and made smaller, hence the term “open air well”.
According to the Chinese, air and water are symbols of wealth, peace,
tranquility and good luck which may be the reason why no attempt was
made to put a roof over an air well. Geomancy or "Feng Shui" (the art of
divining the future for good or ill-fortune based on prescribed principles)
played an important part in the orientation and the site planning
concepts. It is believed that bad luck would befall those who were too
ostentatious about exhibiting wealth, so these houses, though they were
virtual mansions, conformed modestly to their neighbors. Also, houses
were never oriented to face a back lane or a road junction because it was
considered an invitation for evil spirits to enter the house.

The decorations on the buildings had symbolic meanings and the figures
had mythical backgrounds such as:
􀂃 Dragon and Phoenix - emblems of royalty
􀂃 Bats - good luck symbols which signify loyalty and longevity
􀂃 Lion - emblem for loyalty and bravery. Often used to ward off
invisible forces
􀂃 Deer - emblems of status of high official position and wealth

These figures embellished ridges, eaves, gables, walls and columns. The
selection of a colour scheme was based on the principle of harmony and
composition, as well as the symbolic nature of colour:
􀂃 Blue signifies peace
􀂃 Red signifies good fortune and happiness. This colour is used
widely
􀂃 White signifies sorrow
􀂃 Black is used for outlining
􀂃 Yellow is seldom used in domestic buildings, being the colour of
the Emperor
􀂃 Gold is used for the fine details of the ornamental woodwork and
molding.

Lacquer is painted to the doors, windows, curtain walls and furniture for
renewing looks and to withstand weather:
• Dragon & Phonex are considerd as emblems of royalty
• Bat is believed to bring prosperity and good luck; and signify
loyalty and longevity
• Lion is the emblem for loyalty and bravery. Often used to ward off
invisible forces
• Deer is the emblem of satus of high official position and wealth.

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