by Jacqueline Wong (MArch I ’23) — Recipient of the James Templeton Kelley Prize, Master in Architecture I.
When Malaysia gained independence from the British in 1957, it took on a national architectural identity that was rooted in the language and neutrality of tropical modernism, which was deemed appropriate for the multiethnic Malaysian society. At the turn of the century, the government of Malaysia built a new capital city, Putrajaya: a singular ethnocentric construction, modeled after architectural forms of Arab nations, that elevates Malay-Muslim identity above others in the plural nation. As opposed to the homogeneous, imposed ethnocentrism of Putrajaya, the former capital city of Kuala Lumpur embodies a hybridized, heterogeneous accumulation of multiple identities and differences. If Putrajaya represents an extrinsic model that outwardly exhibits a Malay-Muslim identity by reproducing the architectural forms of Arab nations and turning them into consumable artifacts, Kuala Lumpur represents an intrinsic model of a contested city where confrontations and accumulation of differences produce new hybridized conditions in a constant state of flux.
In its search for a national identity, the Malaysian state has oscillated between two extremes: a singular ethnocentric iconography on the one hand and a flattening neutral modernism on the other. This thesis asserts the relevance of iconography for an architectural identity in the context of a plural society. It draws on the found conditions of Kuala Lumpur to propose the intrinsic model as a technique which calls upon culturally diverse referents to produce an inclusive and plural national architectural identity. This technique is investigated against the program of the Malaysian national school: a pervasive and relentlessly banal modernist typology that serves an ethnically diverse populace but is neutralized by prescriptive government pre-approved plans and generic facades. This thesis proposes an intrinsic model for a non-neutral, plural national school.