An Iconic Emblem of Kuala Lumpur History

Sultan Abdul Samad Building

Written by :
Zurien Onn

Being an inhabitant of Kuala Lumpur for more than 26 years now (finally coming back in my teens after years of moving around the country), with many of my daily activities involving trips to or through the city centre, I always pass by many of the city’s iconic buildings, and still marvel at the design and architecture of each one, each time I pass by them. Yet, I have never really stopped to really admire them up close. Sure, I would try to take photos of the beautiful Moorish-style Kuala Lumpur Railway Station against a bright blue sky, dotted with the odd clouds here and there, while being stucked in traffic on the flyover from Jalan Damansara. However, the photos on my smartphone never turned out as good as it looks in real life.

Similarly, I have always admired the Sultan Abdul Samad building on Jalan Raja, which sits prettily opposite the popular Dataran Merdeka, but I usually admire it from afar, busy as I would always be, attending to other events nearby and then shooting off back home once it was over.

However, upon joining the KL Car-Free morning event one weekend - an event taking place every first and third Sunday of the month where the public can walk, run, cycle or skate along a vehicle-free, 7km route in the morning in the city centre - allowed me to get up close with this impressive building, and I am finally able to take in all of its glorious aesthetic beauty right in front of me. The road where the Sultan Abdul Samad building is on, Jalan Raja, is not on this 7km route, but right next to where it starts and ends, so when the car-free period ends at 9am my friends and I would walk over to Jalan Raja, and start posing for photos at whichever spots that make for an interesting background.

When the Sultan Abdul Samad building was being built, the British Empire was in control of what was then known as Malaya, their administration running from 1824 until 1957 when Malaya gained its independence. Normally, when the British colonies contribute to the development of a country, especially in architecture, you would find European or English-style buildings constructed for their administration or residential purposes. These colonial buildings can be seen in India, Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau. There are English inspired buildings in the Malaysian state of Penang, as a result of the island state being part of the British Straits Settlement.

However, in the Kuala Lumpur city centre, it seems that the administrators and architects had gotten a little bit more creative and adventurous, and perhaps it would seem more exotic to house their administrative offices in a Neo-Mughal style structure. For this, we have Charles Edwin Spooner to thank.

Spooner was appointed the State Engineer of the Selangor Public Works Department in 1891, and other than organising a better structure with better reach for the railway system of the Federated Malay States, he was also responsible for creating the landscape of this part of Kuala Lumpur as we know it today. When the British colonial administration needed new offices to house their expanding workforce, a new government office building was proposed to be built lower down on the plains.

Initially, the proposed design was to be in a Classical Renaissance style. However, Spooner had other ideas. Perhaps influenced by his time stationed in Ceylon before his placement in Malaya, Spooner asked for it to be reworked based on styles that would be usually described as Moorish, Neo-Mughal or Indo- Saracenic. Spooner himself described it as “Mahometan”, referring to Islamic architecture in South Asia, and using the names the British would use for Muslims at that time (also known as “Mohamedans”).

" However, in the Kuala Lumpur city centre, it seems that the administrators and architects had gotten a little bit more creative and adventurous, and perhaps it would seem more exotic to house their administrative offices in a Neo-Mughal style structure. "

 

Indeed, looking at the Sultan Abdul Samad building evokes feelings of being in India or parts of North Africa or Spain where Ottoman architecture flourished. In fact, the two towers that stand guard on either side of the building is said to be possibly influenced by the Muir Central College of Allahabad in India. The Sultan Abdul Samad building itself is constructed with red-and-white brick-and-plasterwork, with the two towers at the side and the taller clocktower in the middle. With a height of 41 metres, the clock tower houses a bell-clock weighing one tonne and it strikes every hour and every half an hour. All three towers are topped by a copper-clad onion-shaped dome.

Originally known as “Government Offices”, it was later renamed as the Sultan Abdul Samad Building in 1974 after the reigning Sultan of Selangor at the time construction commenced. That year, with Kuala Lumpur designated as the Federal Territory, it was no longer under Selangor, but the renaming of the building solidified its history as once being a part of the state.

The biggest building in the whole of Malaya then, I believe that Sultan Abdul Samad building was the city centre in its day. It was made even bigger when a rear extension was added, while the building to its left, built in the same style so that it looks like one cohesive structure, was for the General Post Office. Today, the Sultan Abdul Samad Building is a must-see for visitors of Kuala Lumpur. The clay-red-and- white brick walls are a beautiful backdrop for memorable holiday photos.

To get a better view of the whole building, we made our away across the road to Dataran Merdeka, a field that has hosted many Independence Day celebrations over the years, including the actual day of the proclamation on 31 August 1957. This was when the British flag, the Union Jack, was lowered, signalling the departure of the British administration and then, the Malaysian flag was raised. This is why you will see a big and tall flagpole here at Dataran Merdeka, to signify this historic moment. The flagpole, at 100 metres tall, was once the tallest flagpole in the world.

Nearby is the Royal Selangor Club, where high-ranking officials of all races and nationalities used to spend their time socialising and fraternising in the old days. It was built based on Mock Tudor style, designed by A.C. Norman, who also contributed to the design of the Sultan Abdul Samad building and other colonial buildings around Kuala Lumpur. These days, the club still host certain cricket matches. We managed to capture a few photos here, in front of the facade, another nice addition to the photos we have already snapped. Observing the building is a great way to explain more about the history of Malaysia to the young ones.

" This was when the British flag, the Union Jack, was lowered, signalling the departure of the British administration and then, the Malaysian flag was raised. "

 

As the day was getting rather hot, we started to hear our stomachs grumbling, thus, we made our way back towards the Sultan Abdul Samad building. We also saw the Straits Trading building - A building with its own history that you may read about from posters hoisted on its walls. It houses shops and restaurants where visitors can get a bite to eat or have a drink while resting tired legs. We settled at one of the Indian-Muslim restaurants serving roti canai, and called it a day. A tiring but satisfying day.

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