The challenge of designing culturally

At the crossroads of globalisation and urbanisation, how can we continue to evoke identity through allusions in modern design and construction?

In his seminal book “Leaves of the Same Tree: Trade and Ethnicity in the Straits of Melaka”, Professor Leonard Andaya paints a picture that reaches out in time, beyond the confines of the present geographical boundaries of nations. The memory of lands bordering the Straits of Melaka—known as lands within the Sea of ‘Malayu’—were rich and ‘rhizomic’ in expression, filled with multicultural crisscrossing of forces.

For centuries, this Southeast Asian region was a dynamically-charged field in which traders from China, India and the Middle East met and exchanged goods, services and cultural ideas.

Each ethnicity, race and group had their role and place, yet they were able to sustain their own identity amid a system of mutual benefits. Then, art and architecture co-existed, collided and criss-crossed with one another in varied syncretic forms of expression. Syncretism refers to two different cultures, beliefs and sets of principles and forms fusing and grafting onto each other, breeding new visions, patterns and forms, including its own identity.

At the epicentre of the region, Malaysia and its settlements, populations and urban centres have historically been a cultural quagmire of influences, with its own forms of tensions and hybridity. In the early 1900s, for example, local timber masonry designs appear to offshoot from each other into different forms, yet they support and sustain one another as they grow from the same ‘root’.

A city, with its forms and language, should forge its own pathway and find its own identity by enculturating from its own ancient past. 

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