Cities rise and fall on the booms and busts of economic fortune.
Whether the source of wealth is trade, precious metals or empire, the party inevitably ends and both the fortunes made and those who made them move on. What is left is the architecture; an often eclectic historical built record of urban destiny.
The Malaysian city of Ipoh began as a small village on the banks of the Kinta River. Long known as a rich source of tin, the Kinta valley witnessed its first major tin rush in 1884 with an influx of predominately Chinese miners. Ipoh expanded rapidly, albeit haphazardly, and a devastating fire in 1892 was seen as an opportunity to develop the urban centre in a more orderly fashion. Subsequently laid out in a conventional grid, the town emerged anew and continued to prosper on the back of a second mining boom that lasted until the latter half of the 20th century. From late 19th century shophouses and Art Deco cinemas to post-war Modernist office blocks, representative architecture from this relatively long period of prosperity can be found throughout the city.
Split roughly in two by the Kinta river, the area to the west is referred to as the ‘old town’, where many examples of British colonial era architecture can be found. This includes the grand Edwardian Baroque train station which opened in 1917. Referred to by locals as the ‘Taj Mahal of Ipoh’, it was designed by British architect Arthur Benison Hubback who was also responsible for Ipoh Town Hall (1914) situated opposite. Hubback was involved in many important architectural projects throughout British Malaya including the spectacular Moorish government offices in Kuala Lumpur, now known as the Sultan Abdul Samad Building (1897).
The old town district also possesses a wide range of domestic and commercial architecture from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, primarily in the form of shophouses. Many are painted in bright colours and display the original owners name in embossed Chinese characters on external pillars.
The eastern side of Ipoh, or ‘new town’, was largely developed in the early 20th century by wealthy miner Yau Tet Shin. Born in 1859, Tet Shin started working as an illiterate tin mining coolie in Seremban before becoming a street hawker. He later opened a grocery store in Ipoh and was soon successful enough to begin investing in the tin mining industry, from which he eventually made his considerable fortune.
Built with better infrastructure and wider roads for the benefit of motorcars, new town provided a more contemporary urban site for the increasingly Modernist architectural styles that were emerging throughout the 1930s and 40s. Berthel Michael Iversen was a Danish architect who came to Malaysia in 1928, settling in Ipoh. He designed a wide range of Modernist structures in his new home, most notably a series of cinemas constructed from the late 1930s to the 50s. One of those still standing is the Art Deco Ruby Cinema, sited prominently on a street corner.
Scattered throughout Ipoh are an interesting assortment of low rise, post-war offices, many displaying the characteristic South-East Asian Modernist motifs of deep egg crate facades and expressive blade forms. This is, of course, primarily a method of passive climate control in a region of unrelenting heat and sun, but it also lends an interesting textural quality to the streetscapes.
The tin mining industry had been in decline for a couple of decades before prices crashed in 1985. The population of Ipoh stagnated along with the economy as people left, seeking work elsewhere. In the last few years, however, the city has witnessed something of a revival. Hip cafes and boutique hotels now inhabit once derelict shophouses and numerous museums enable visitors to explore a diverse and fascinating past. Trading primarily on its abundant built heritage, Ipoh, the third largest city in Malaysia, is once more a bustling centre of activity.