Seeking out the Taj Mahal in the city built on tin

18 01 2011

Fresh from an excursion to Kuala Lumpur (KL), I found myself some two hundred kilometres north of KL in a rather quiet city that features some wonderful pieces of architecture from a time when it was thrived on the harvest it made from the ground. The city, Ipoh, the administrative capital of the northern Malaysian State of Perak, lies in a beautiful setting surrounded by limestone hills in the Kinta Valley of Perak, an area rich in tin, and it was from the tin mines around the area that provided much of the wealth that city was built on. In KL, motivated by a desire to learn more about the development of the Malayan Railway fed by nostalgia fueled by the knowledge that the shift of the KTM station to Woodlands by the time the second half of 2011 arrives (which would be that after more than a century of running through Singapore, the Malayan Railway would cease to operate across the island), I sought out two of Arthur Benison Hubback’s railway inspired masterpieces, the Railway Administration Building, and the grand old Railway Station, both built during the turn of the 20th Century and feature the Moorish inspired designs that give old KL a distinct flavour. I found myself doing the same in Ipoh, where another two of Hubback’s great architectural works, the Railway Station and the Town Hall proudly stood.

Arriving early at the Ipoh tree in the main square, two of Hubback's masterpieces that Ipoh is blessed with in the area around the Square were shrouded in morning's mist.

But, the mist soon lifted to reveal the magnificent dome dominated structure of Ipoh's grand railway station.

Although plans for a grand station in Ipoh were put forward in the first decade of the 20th Century and work was supposed to commence in the early part of the next decade and completed by 1914, it was only in 1914 that construction on a station “worthy of the town” started (in 1914). That coincided with the Great War of 1914 to 1918 and due to a shortage of funds and material due to the War, it was only fully completed in 1917 with the completion of the Station Hotel which opened on 1 May 1917. The station building which is fondly referred to as the “Taj Mahal of Ipoh” by Ipoh residents for its magnificent dome dominated structure. Plans for it were described by the Straits Times in 1915 as “the palatial station and hotel, somewhat after the plan of the one in Kuala Lumpur”, and by the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser in 1914 as “in many ways an improvement on the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station structure, which had so far remained supreme as one of the finest railway stations in the East”. Built in concrete and steel, due to what was described as a “lack of any good building stone in the Federated Malay States” on the site of a hospital, the Neo-Classical styled station was to provide a “front door worthy of Ipoh’s status as the second city in the F.M.S.” and form part of a “fine entry” into the town along with the Town Hall and Town Square facing the station.

The Neo-Classical styled A. B. Hubback designed station building features a main dome as well as minor domes and was said to be a station building that were among the most magnificent buildings East of the Suez. The building is also referred to as the

The station building stands across the main square from another of A. B. Hubback's works, the Town Hall. Both buildings together with the square were meant as buildings that would be fitting of Ipoh's status of the FMS' second city and to provide a "fine entry" into the city.

A corridor at the front of the magnificent building.

Wondering around the imposing façade of the whitewashed station in the shadows of the towering cloud shrouded tops of the limestones hills in the background that early New Year’s eve morning, I couldn’t help but be held in awe of the 183 metre arched loggia that dominates the front of the station’s ground level as I stood below it, giving me a sense of how grand the station would have been in the setting of the early 20th Century Ipoh. Although resembling its sister station in KL in many ways, the station in Ipoh is much more refreshing in many ways with a lighter and a happier feel to it, being smaller than the one in KL. It certainly is worth a visit to and is one where (for the time being at least), you will discover the quaint old Station Hotel that now occupies most of the upper floors of the building that once had also held accommodation (a total of seventeen bedrooms) for the station’s own officials, a throw back to the days of old when it would have been thought fashionable for the well heeled traveller to put up at a station’s hotel. Ipoh had in fact been one of three FMSR stations that had been afforded this luxury, with the one at KL and at Tanjong Pagar being the other two, and is the only station currently in Malaysia (and Singapore) that still has a hotel functioning at the station.

The platform side of the station building.

The station and the main platform ... a modern styled awning has been erected over what is now the electrified tracks of the KL to Ipoh line.

An alternative view of the awning over the platforms.

A peek at the ticket counter through a window on the platform.

Part of the 183 metre long loggia at the front of the station.

The part of the station leading up to the hotel entrance.

The entrance to what is currently the last of the three station hotels to remain in operation in Malaysia and Singapore.

Stepping into an old world elevator, the shaft of which staircase wound around, reminiscent of the old world (and somewhat dingy) hotels (and sometimes youth hostels) that I usually found myself putting up in travelling on a budget in Europe during my days as a student, was a sign of what was to come. In it, I was transported up to the lobby at the top and into a world that somehow seemed frozen from a time when perhaps railway travel would have been thought to be not just fashionable, but romantic. The ceramic tiled floor that I stepped out on certainly exuded that old world feel, as did the wooden counter of the hotel’s reception and the armchairs that sat opposite the counter. The lobby led to a wide and expansive balcony to which some of the rooms opened to that offered a splendid view of the city’s main square, the front of the station building itself and the magnificent Town Hall. In one corner of the long balcony, guests were having breakfast in a wonderful old style setting and at the other end, more old style armchairs and coffee tables were arranged as if to convince the visitor of the old world charm of the hotel.

The old world elevator that transports you into a world that time has left behind.

The ceramic floor tiles, the reception counter and the old armchairs that greeted me at the elevator landing certainly belonged to a forgotten time when perhaps the romance of train travel was very much alive.

The balcony on the top level of the station hotel ... also serves as a wonderful place to have breakfast at.

More views of the top level.

The hotel did seem a little run down, seeing much grander days when its clientele would have boasted of the who’s who of the British administration, when it could perhaps have rivaled the likes of Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the E&O Hotel in Georgetown, but nonetheless still has the charm to pull a few romantics (like me) in – and on another day, I might have been tempted to check in there and then but I had a date with the new year in KL. Stepping down into the mezzanine level, it was apparent that the world that I had visited had yet another dimension to it, and for a while, it looked as if I had stepped into a correctional facility with the cell like rooms arranged around a large corridor or lobby. But taking time to adjust to my surroundings and the soft light that streamed into the area from the skylights above, the level certainly had a charm of its own, with painted cemented floors reminding me of some of the old seaside hotels by the sea that I had stayed in previously. It certainly was a world apart, and I suspect that the rooms which were facing the two sides of the station building would be well furnished as well as open up to some nice views, particularly those that are on the reverse side of the station which face the pretty limestone hills beyond Ipoh. Looking at the layout of the rooms and the relatively low ceiling on the mezzanine, I believe that the area which I had walked down into might have formerly been the units which has served as the rooms which accommodated the servants or “boys” for whom, as described by the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, in an article dated 16 May 1914, the provision of “would be a great advantage”.

The stairway back in time.

The different world on the mezzanine level ...

A fan seen against the awning which must have been added later.

Ventilation louvres ...

Rooms that look like cells ....

An old window that opens to an air well ....

Wooden panelling ...

After a short, but satisfying visit to the station and the hotel, it was now time to discover more, and to indulge in the wonderful mouthwatering offerings that Ipoh has in store … about that I had previously posted, but before that, I had another date with a delightful old lady that had not been in the pink of health, but has obtained a new lease of life just up Jalan Panglima Bukit Gantang Wahab (Club Road) on which I should be writing another post on.





Architectural masterpieces of KL: The Railway Station

13 01 2011

Of the four grand pieces of Moorish influenced architecture that the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur is blessed with, the old Railway Station is the one with which I have had the most interaction with, with it having been the destination and starting point of the many train journeys I made on the Malayan Railway. It was a place that brings many memories back of these journeys, and particularly of the first I had taken from the station on the return leg of that first journey I had made from Tanjong Pagar which I remembered for the wrong reasons.

The Moorish styled Railway Station in Kuala Lumpur is one of a quartet of buildings that Kuala Lumpur has long been associated with.

The station, another one of Arthur Benison Hubback’s magnificent works of architecture, complements another, the Railway Administration Building, just across what is now Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin (Victory Avenue prior to independence), which I introduced in an earlier post, with its whitewashed façade spotting the distinctive arches and domes that give the building a grandeur fitting of an old world railway terminal. Together with the Railway Administration Building and Masjid Jamek (both of which were set in motion on the Hubback’s drawing board), as well as the grandest of them, the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, the Railway station makes a quartet of Moorish influenced buildings that for a long time was what the city that grew out of a muddy confluence of rivers, had been identified with. These days, unfortunately, Kuala Lumpur seems to be identified with the monstrous pieces of modern architecture that rob these four buildings of the attention that they deserve.

From one of Hubback's masterpieces looking across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin to another. A view of the Railway Station from the Railway Administration Building.

The Railway Station in Kuala Lumpur was built during the period when a certain Mr. Charles Edwin Spooner (after whom Spooner Road in Singapore and Ipoh is named after), oversaw the expansion of the Malayan Railway, known as, with the formation of the Federated Malay States (FMS) in 1896, the Federated Malay States Railway (FMSR), which included the link through the state of Johore which connected Kuala Lumpur with Singapore (although then the absence of a Causeway meant the crossing to Singapore was carried out by boat), in his capacity as the General Manager of the FMSR. Mr. Spooner was certainly influential as the Chief Engineer of the Selangor PWD, his prior appointment before taking up the position in the FMSR, having had his say in the design of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building in Kuala Lumpur, and skewing it towards a Moorish styled design, befitting of Kuala Lumpur’s position as the capital of a protectorate, the FMS, rather than a colony. He would have certainly had an influence in the building of the station as well, but unfortunately, he passed away in 1909 before the completion of the grand old building in 1910.

The Station Building (on the right) as well as the Railway Administration Building (on the left) across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin were built during the turn of the 20th Century and were designed by A. B. Hubback.

Besides that first ever journey that I made in the less than comfortable wagons of the Mail Train, I have had many more encounters with the station. It was in the early part of the 1990s that I made frequent trips by train, often catching the overnight sleeper, the Senandung Malam, from Singapore’s Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, on which I would be able to catch a reasonable enough rest, often waking up a the sight of strange bedmates in the form of the resident cockroaches. The approach to the station from Salak Selatan station was always something that I looked forward to with anitcipation as the train took a slow course past the Lever Brothers Building in Bangsar, and past the Brickfields area before the grey truss Sultan Sulaiman Bridge over which Jalan Sultan Sulaiman runs came into sight. The bridge would be the last sight before the station came into sight, with its distinctive domes atop minaret like structures which complemented the many arches that gives the building its Islamic flavour.

The Sultan Sulaiman Bridge provides is the last sight before the passenger catches the grand sight of the station on the north bound train.

The northbound approach to the station.

Stepping out onto the platform was always nice after the long journey where I would usually be greeted. Back then, non-passengers could get on the platform to send-off or receive passengers by buying a platform ticket for a small cost, and I was pleasantly surprised to find on my recent visit to the station that the ticket dispensers were still where they were. More often than not I would end up catching a ride from the side across from where the front of the station building was where the main public carpark was at. It was there as well that I could catch a taxi, buying a prepaid coupon from the taxi counter, wherever I did not have a ride. The occasions on which I had seen the front of the station was when I caught a lift in, either to catch the return train or to purchase tickets (I would buy my return tickets in Kuala Lumpur to avoid paying for tickets which were priced at the same amount in Singapore Dollars as they would in Malaysian Ringgit if I had bought them in Singapore). Trips to the station to purchase tickets did on many occasions end in frustration as I would very often be greeted by a sign at the ticket counter which read “Maaf, Komputer Rosak“, which meant “Sorry, Computer Breakdown (or Failure)” in Malay, which meant I would need to make another trip down to the station. It was on those occasions that I got to explore a little, walking around the driveway where security guards would be busy trying to get traffic moving as there would be many cars and taxis stopped there, from which I could get a peek at the equally magnificent Railway Administration Building across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin.

Stepping out onto the platform was always nice after the long overnight journey.

The public could gain access to the platforms in the old days by buying a platform ticket from one of these dispensers.

Trips to the station to purchase tickets were very often frustrating affairs as I was often greeted by the sign "Maaf, Komputer Rosak" at the counter.

A disused Train Departures board at the rear side of the station building.

The rear of the station building where the large public car park is.

What used to be the taxi booking counter where coupons could be purchased for taxis taken from the station.

The driveway at the front of the station.

This time around, my visit was very much prompted by the nostalgia I have for the many journeys I had taken out of Tanjong Pagar, as well as to visit the Railway Administration Building across the road. I had also thought of seeking out the Station Hotel, which wasn’t operational during my previous visits to the station. I had heard about the revival of a so-called Heritage Station Hotel at the station only to be frustrated by the chains and padlocks that greeted me as I walked towards the entrance. The Railway Station was one of three that had a Station Hotel, the others being the other Hubback designed station in Ipoh, and the southern terminal of the FMSR at Tanjong Pagar. The one at Tanjong Pagar had long ceased operations, leaving possibly the one in Ipoh to be the last of the Station Hotels. The hotel had initially opened with six rooms in August 1911 before ten more rooms were added, and in a report in 1915, the hotel was said to “compare favourably with any (hotel) in the country”.

A sign showing that a "Hotel Heritage" had operated at the station. The station was one of three that had a Station Hotel operating in the building, the others were the stations at Ipoh and Tanjong Pagar.

The quest to visit the Station Hotel ended in disappointment as the chain and padlock greeted me instead of opened doors.

A peek through a window and through another window of the lobby of the former Station Hotel.

The station now serves as a commuter train station, with the brand new KL Sentral taking over in 2001 as the main train station in Kuala Lumpur. Housed within the station in what was the main hall is a Railway Museum which opened in 2007. This was a little disappointing on the whole, but does provide displays of memorabilia associated with the history of the railway, including old station clocks, weighing scales and even the bone of an elephant that had been hit by a train trying to protect its herd.

The station is now used as a Commuter Train station ...

... as well as a museum. Some of the exhibits include old signs, weighing scales and old station clocks along with other memorabilia.

Another exhibit from one of the predecessors to the FMSR ...

There was even a bone of an elephant who died defending his herd from an oncoming train.

More views in and around the station.

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Architectural masterpieces of KL: The Railway Administration Building

28 12 2010

These days most would associate Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, affectionately referred to as KL, with some of the modern landmarks that have risen in a city that itself rose out of the confluence of the muddy Gombak and the Klang Rivers. KL is a city that I have been very fond of, visiting it on an annual basis since the 1970s when it took six hours on the old trunk road in the back of my father’s car. It is a city that I have long associated with food and shopping, usually ending up staying in budget accommodation off the main shopping belt of Bukit Bintang which also gave access to the wonderful street food in the Jalan Alor and Tong Shin Terrace areas.

Kuala Lumpur features some magnificent architectural masterpieces from the turn of the 20th Century including the Railway Administration Building which was completed in 1917, which is sadly now overshadowed by the new icons such as the Petronas Twin Towers.

It wasn’t until perhaps the 1990s that I started to notice some of the wonderful architectural masterpieces from the turn of the 20th Century, having had the independence to wander around some of its streets, such as the beautiful Sultan Abdul Samad building and Masjid Jamek, and using the trains as a means to travel to KL, who could not but notice the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station and the magnificent Railway Administration Building just across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin from the station.

One architectural masterpeice, the KL Railway Station, seen through the arches of another, the Railway Administration Building (now the KTMB HQ) across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin. Both buildings feature Morrish influences and were designed by A.B. Hubback.

With much of the focus on the new icons of KL, less attention is now placed on these mainly Moorish architecture inspired buildings – the work of the Public Works Department, the PWD (which was incidentally led by the very able Mr Charles Edwin Spooner at the end of 19th Century, before he was appointed the General Manager of the FMS Railways in 1901 – thus having a hand in the Railway Buildings as well). The Masjid Jamek, as well as the two Railway Buildings built in the early part of the 20th Century were designed by an architect with the PWD, a Arthur Benison Hubback, who incidentally rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the British Army during the First World War, and had the good fortune of working under the architect of Sultan Abdul Samad Building, Arthur Charles Alfred Norman. Besides being responsible for some of the iconic architecture of KL Hubback also was responsible for works such as the Ipoh Railway Station and work in the sister colony of Hong Kong, the most notable work being the terminal station of the Kowloon to Canton Railway at Tsim Sha Tsui (which sadly was demolished in 1977, leaving only the Clock Tower, which now serves as a landmark in Tsim Sha Tsui, behind).

The former Kowloon Railway seen during construction in 1914. It was demolished in 1977 with only the Clock Tower, now a landmark in Tsim Sha Tsui, remaining. The station was designed by an architect with the Selangor PWD, A.B. Hubback who was responsible for some of the iconic buildings of Kuala Lumpur (source Wikipedia).

Tsim Sha Tsui's historic clock tower (1915) ... the last remnant of the Kowloon Railway Station.

The Railway Administration Building, now the Headquarters of KTM Berhad (KTMB), has been one that I had longed to visit for a long time, but somehow never got to in all those years passing through the Railway Station. It was one that I would always hold in awe, with its age browned façade dominated by moorish styled arches and domes. Based on the information plaque at the entrance to the compound, the building is a “fine example of Moorish architecture reflecting the Ottoman and Moghul glory of the 13th and 14th Centuries blended with Gothic and ancient Greek designs of the 14th Century. The ground floor is adorned with 97 large frontal Gothic arches and 4 smaller arches. The high and wide verandahs skirting the building create a cooling effect and are suitable for the constant high climatic temperatures in Malaysia. The first floor has 94 large arched windows of Gothic design and 4 circular arches of smaller size. The second floor has 171 Gothic arches and 4 large and 12 smaller circular arches. Five domes sit majestically on top of the building, each surrounded at four corners entwined columns. They are of orthodox Greek design typical in the 14th century. This historical building suffered serious damage twice in its lifetime, firstly during the Second World War when its North wing was bombed and secondly when the same wing on the second floor was gutted by fire in 14 November 1968.

The moorish inspired age-browned façade and the main central dome of the Railway Administration Building in KL.

Another view of the age-browned façade of the Railway Administration Building through one of the arches.

Stepping into the building for the very first time, I could not but be amazed by the sheer splendour of its Moorish inspired design. As the information plaque rightly describes the verandas, they are indeed cool and airy, and dominated by a wonderful row of Gothic styled arches that brings to mind those of the interiors of some of the magnificent Gothic cathedrals and churches of Europe and perhaps the Mosque of the Caliphs in Cordoba and to an extent CHIJMES in Singapore. Unfortunately, the upper floors of the building are out of bounds, being where the offices of KTMB are located and my exploration of the building was confined to the ground floor. One of the features that can be appreciated from the ground floor at the main entrance lobby of the building is the beautiful central staircase which spirals below the central dome of the building, featuring some wonderful wrought iron work on its banisters for which a visit to the building is certainly worthy of. If you are ever in KL, do take the time to visit this magnificent building, one that is often passed over for some of the more modern icons of a city that is in fact blessed with some wonderful architectural masterpieces, particularly those given by those highly talented colonial architects who played a big part in the infrastructure development not just of KL but in some of the other British colonies at the turn of the 20th century.

The central staircase below the central dome provides access to the upper floors of the building (which is out of bounds).

The central staircase.

A photograph in the hallway showing the building and the railway station.

The building also features some beautiful ironwork.

A window seen through one of the frontal arches.

A view across Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin through one of the arches.

Magnificent gothic arches from the exterior corridors of the building.

A view of the Gothic arched corridor at the back of the building.

A broken part of the buildings cornice lying at the side of the building.

A view of the staircase at the wing of the building.

A semi-circular flight of steps at the wing of the building.

An old signal post on display at the front of the building.

The frontal arches.

In the gardens in front of the building.