Modernity Through the Unmodern: Establishing a ‘Modern’ Architectural Style in Kuala Lumpur

One of the most prominent themes when encountering colonial literature is the notion of ‘modernity’. Whether it is a self-congratulatory remark on western-derived actions or the assertion of native ‘barbarism’, the language of modernity is a consistent tool utilised within primary source text. Elizabeth LaCouture, in her talk with the School of Transnational and Spatial History about her book, At Home in the World: Family, House and Home in Tianjin, China, 1860-1960, stated how modernity was constructed only in relation to the traditional1 In the examples of Tianjin domestic space, the western object was assumed as modern because of the ‘unmodern’ status applied to the Chinese object. LaCouture emphasises this concept in her description of the sofa in Chinese homes that distinguished Chinese living space from a traditional Chinese home from a ‘modern’ sitting room.2 By buying and placing a modern western object in a Chinese domestic space, the space had itself become ‘modern’. This definition of modernity is constructed in contrast to existing Chinese sitting furniture, where the sofa was established as modern in comparison to the unmodern Chinese alternatives, including the upholstered armchair or rattan chair.3 In her example, LaCouture emphasises that modernity in style is only constructed in contrast to traditional or unmodern other. I would argue that this understanding of modernity is also applicable to architecture in colonised spaces where the modernity of design was imposed by primarily establishing an unmodern traditional ‘other’ to contrast. This idea is exemplary in the British introduction of Indo-Saracenic architectural styles in Kuala Lumpur, where the style’s modernity was constructed by asserting the ‘simplicity’ of Malay-style domestic spaces. 

The establishment of an ‘unmodern’ other was the first step in establishing the modernity of British architectural styles. Common amongst officers in the Malayan Federated States were descriptions of the everyday life of the Malay people, especially their domestic space. A common term frequently used within the primary sources is ‘simple’. Malay dwellings are commonly described as primitive domestic spaces, simple in functionality, architectural style, and material usage. In its material composition, Richard Winstedt, a colonial administrator of British Malaya in the 1920s, heightens the modernity of European and Chinese dwellings based on the material composition of Malay houses.4 He emphasises their simplicity because the floors are constructed from split coconut trees fastened by rattan, or roofs made of palm leaves or wood could be imagined as ‘tents’.3 Under the pretence of the consistent urban fire outbreaks in wooden housing districts, wood as a material for housing construction is deemed an unmodern feature.5 In contrast, Winstedt highlights the modernity of Chinese and European housing due to their materiality, as both style housings used brick, tiles and glass, fireproof and sturdier materials.6 In addition, the multifunctionality of the Malay dwelling further emphasises the ‘simplicity’ of the Malay space as Winstedt asserts how one room is used for eating, sleeping and working, which contrasts to European domestic spaces, which were much larger and held separate spaces for each purpose. The limited size and multifunctionality constructed a less grandiose and unimposing structure within the urban environment, unlike Western-designed buildings. These descriptions highlight attempts to construct a narrative of ‘simplicity’ that emphasises the unmodern standard of Malay spaces, which is later used to support British architectural styles. 

It is evident that the modernity of the Indo-Saracenic architectural style was established by contrasting it with the Malay architectural styles under the pretence of functionality and material composition. In their article on the completion of the newly constructed Government Offices built in the Indo-Saracenic style, the Selangor Journal attributed the modernity of the building to the consistent use of brick, cement and steel as the primary material of construction.7 The materials are proudly described as fireproof that prevents the potential hazard of a fire breaking out in the complex like in Malay districts built entirely from wood.8 The emphasis on the fireproof nature of the building not only supports the style’s modernity but also contrasts it to Malay style dwellings, which have consistently been prone to fire outbreaks. In addition, the style’s modernity is also attributed to the functionality of the Offices as a grandiose space that appropriately supports the functions of the British colonial administration.9 Its functionality is defined not in terms of practicality, but its ability to represent British colonial power. As described above, the ‘functionality’ of the Malay dwelling was limited due to its small size ‘primitive’ use of space. Thus, the Malay dwelling is viewed as unmodern based on the parameters to support and represent colonial authority, which establishes the modernity of the British style.

It becomes clear that ‘modernity’ is not only the representation of what the object is, but it is also a representation of what the object is not. In relation to architectural styles, the British constructed Indo-Saracenic architectural style was deemed ‘modern’ by primarily establishing an unmodern ‘other’. LaCouture’s application of modernity raises interesting questions of how it speaks to wider discussions of how colonial power and authority is represented in colonised spaces. 


  1. Elizabeth LaCouture, At Home in the World: Family, House and Home in Tianjin, China, 1860-1960.(New York: Columbia University Press, 2021), p. 174. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Ibid. [] []
  4. Richard O. Winstedt, Malaya: The Straits Settlements and the Federated and Unfederated Malay States (London: Constable & Co. Ltd, 1923), pp. 91-92. []
  5. Shapiza Sharif and Arba’iyah Mohd Noor, ‘The Brick-making Industry in Kuala Lumpur in the Late Nineteenth Century.’ Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 90, Part 1, No. 312 (June 2017), p. 62. []
  6. Winstedt, Federated and Unfederated Malay States, p. 92. []
  7. Selangor Journal: Jottings Past and Present, Volume V (Kuala Lumpur: Selangor Government Printing Office, 1897), pp. 219-222. []
  8. Ibid., p. 222. []
  9. Ibid., p. 222-234. []