Constructed in 1917, the Railway Administration Building in Kuala Lumpur is the administrative headquarters of the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) which is the current name of organisation operating railway services in Peninsula Malaysia.
The Railway Administration Building is on the opposite side of the road to Kuala Lumpur’s old main railway station which was built 7 years earlier in similar style.
About the Railway Administration Building
The Railway Administration Building is a magnificent building which is often overlooked in favour of the nearby railway station which was designed by the same architect, A.B Hubback. A.B Hubback was Assistant to the Director of Public Works for the state of Selangor, C.E Spooner. During the time Hubback held this position he designed over 20 major buildings in Kuala Lumpur and Perak State. Along with the Railway Administration Building and Kuala Lumpur Railway Station, Hubback is best known for the two grand mosques he designed, the Jamek Mosque in Kuala Lumpur and the Ubudiah Mosque in Kuala Kangsar.
The architectural design style employed in the construction of the Railway Administration Building is both beautiful and controversial at the same time. To understand the controversy you need to remember that the Railway Administration Building was designed and funded by colonial power, and the construction was carried out by Indian convict labour. The accusation is that the building itself can be seen an expression of British dominance and power in a foreign land.
The issue of whether the architectural design hold some deeper meaning comes clear when you compare the Railway Administration Building with other buildings in Malaysia from the same period. Hubback’s other great railway station was the one he built in Ipoh. For Ipoh Railway Station, as for Ipoh City Hall, the British Government chose a classical European design style. For the Railway Administration Building and Kuala Lumpur Railway Station they did not, but instead a completely different design style which is often characterised as ‘Indo-Saracenic’, and similar to the design of buildings constructed by the British during their time as Colonial rulers of India.
The Indo-Saracenic architectural style is something which developed while the British East India Company controlled increasing portions of India. The style combined Mughal architecture with elements of Greek and Roman architecture and Gothic architecture with, bizarrely, the architecture of the Moorish Empire as seen at the Alhambra Place in Grenada. The resulting buildings were European in layout and function, with some modifications for the hot and humid climate, but from the outside had a mixture of architectural styles from the ‘Orient’ which to the British at the time meant anywhere East of Venice. Indo-Saracenic architecture is quite unlike the traditional architecture of any of the cultures of Asia, but at the same time contains elements of many Middle Eastern and Asian design styles along with the classical architecture of Europe. It is interesting to note the Hubback’s original designs for the Railway Administration Building were more along the lines of the Neo-Baroque architecture of Ipoh Railway Station and his Director, C.E Spooner, asked him to redesign the building to make it more sympathetic to local Islamic beliefs.
There are two ways you can view this. One way to look at this is that the British were guilty of ‘cultural appropriation’ as a Colonial Powers taking local architectural styles and using them in their public building to legitimate their position as rulers of a foreign land. Only that in this instance the ‘cultural appropriation’ was a bodged job as the British had failed to identify the traditional architecture of the Malay peninsula to use as a design element in the building they were creating. The British, it could be argued, were establishing their own Sultanates and building places to emphasise the point. The other ways of looking at this is that British were constructing public buildings, such as train stations, in a part of the world where their had been none before and the Government employees charged with the task were carrying it out every bit as efficiently as they would have done in mainland Britain, and at least trying to create buildings that were sympathetic to the locations in which they built with few examples of notable architecture in the Malay peninsula to guide them.
Location of the Railway Administration Building
The Railway Administration Building is located off Jalan Damansara in Kuala Lumpur.
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