Central Market, Kuala Lumpur
Central Market is one of the architectural gems of Kuala Lumpur and a living proof of the existence of Art Deco Architecture in Kuala Lumpur. The history of the Central Market started circa 1888 when an open wet market was set up at the same location where the present building now stands. Later a permanent single-storey structure was erected to house all vendors under one roof.
Central Market when it was a single-storey structure circa 1900
Central Market in its present structure said to be taken circa 1940s
In 1936, Kuala Lumpur Sanitary Board invented Tenders for the construction of the Central Market. Messrs T.Y Lee was appointed the Architect and Designer whilst Mr. R.H Steed was the Town Engineer. 21 contractors bid for the project which was eventually awarded to contractor Brizary & Co. from Singapore for a contract sum of $249,000.00.
However, the original cost escalated to $330,000.00 in view of the additional deco works which eventually saw the size of Central Market measuring 123.7 meters long, 60.8 meters wide and 7.9 meters high, all cladded with “Calorex” glass to minimize the entry of too much sunlight.
The present structure was completed in 1937 and it served as the central market for wholesalers and retailers until the end of 1970s.
What makes this heritage building so interesting to architectural heritage buffs is its Art Deco Architecture. Art Deco is an influential visual arts design style introduced in France and is said to have begun from 1925 when the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes was held in France to showcase new ideas in applied arts. World War I had just ended then and the world especially Europe was full of inspirations and abuzz with fresh ideas. It was a glorious period during which rapid industrialization and innovations were flourishing so much so that even art forms had embraced technology and modernity. It gained popularity internationally from the end of 1920s but its popularity waned in the early 1940s.
Art Deco is an eclectic style that combines traditional craft and ancient architectural motifs with Machine Age imagery and materials. The style is often characterized by rich colors, bold geometric shapes and lavish ornamentation. This distinguishes Art Deco from the organic motifs favored by its predecessor Art Nouveau or Neo-classical.
Historian Bevis Hillier defined Art Deco as “an assertively modern style…[that] ran to symmetry rather than asymmetry, and to the rectilinear rather than the curvilinear; it responded to the demands of the machine and of new material…[and] the requirements of mass production.”
Geometry and symmetry characterize Art Deco.
During its heyday Art Deco represented luxury, glamour, exuberance, and faith in social and technological progress. In addition to this, the ancient architectural design such as ziggurats and pyramids are frequently employed in Art Deco. As we can see a bold ziggurat design has been chosen by the architect in many parts of the building such as its terraced gable on its main entrance and other entrances. Notice also the interlocking rings on each of its entrance – among the geometric motifs used.
The recessed entrance and ziggurats
Meanwhile its recessed main entrance is said to create the illusion of a passageway to a stage set. And symmetrical receding abstract planes and aerodynamic streamlining are typical of later Art Deco details. Do take note of the subtle horizontal band of pink textured concrete running across the breadth of Central Market as it is also the characteristic of one of the techniques used in Art Deco, in which bands or columns of contrasting materials are used to create a sense of line or division.
The contrasting band and the Colorex glass
Ziggurats and geometry
This elegant Art Deco building used to be under threat of demolition in the 70s to make way for the rapid development in the area. The problem with the philistine Malaysian Government is a new development almost always has to sacrifice the old and historic buildings that can become precious heritage buildings in future. Why can’t they find a new location without having to tear down the old one especially if it has a historical value to the nation? If not for the strong protest by Malaysia Heritage Society, other NGO’s and civil societies Central Market would have been demolished and gone forever now.
During construction of Dayabumi near Klang River banks in 1981 the market was survived from its demolition. In 1985 Central Market which once was a wet market was converted to a centre for arts, handicrafts and culture. It was renovated into vibrant and colourful new style as it is now to befit its new function. On 15 April 1986 it was officially opened and launched as Pasar Seni by Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz who then was Minister of Public Enterprise.
Central Market is considered the best success story in Malaysia when it comes to preservation of heritage buildings. It is fervently hoped that the Malaysian Government would apply the same strategy in preserving and revitalising other heritage buildings in Malaysia. They are the priceless national heritage that should be accorded with the special treatment and status they so deserve.
Let me quote what Todd Gipstein a National Geographic photographer said about architecture. He said “Every building is a snapshot of a particular time and place – the raw materials that were on hand, how far the builders’ technology had progressed, and the aspirations of its creators. But architecture also makes a powerful statement about the unique culture it reflects, whether the elegant simplicity of a grass bungalow, or the dramatic complexity of a chrome skyscraper. One whispers, the other shouts, but both are enduring reminders of cultural identity.”
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