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Wednesday June 12, 2013

A towering shame

THE Kuching Civic Centre was hailed as a landmark when it opened on Aug 1, 1988. International critics agreed. Architect Hijjas Kasturi won accolades for the work, including the 1989 Honour Award from the American Institute of Engineers.

Built to commemorate the day Kuching was granted city status, Hijjas had this to say about the architecture:

“Conceived to rectify the city’s lack of public spaces and amenities, the complex is located on an old golf course. Much of the centre is raised off the ground in the manner of conventional tropical architecture and allows easy circulation and dispersal between the different functional areas and extensive landscaped pedestrian spaces.

“The focal point is the tower supporting a restaurant floor offering the only vantage point for panoramic views of Kuching. Each of the three pavilions accommodates a specific function — the first planetarium in the Asean region, an exhibition gallery and a large multi-purpose hall.”

Hijjas has since contributed more buildings to Sarawak. His work includes the new Sarawak Legislative Assembly Complex, the Syariah Court, both Kuching city council headquarters and Stadium Negri.

Nationally, Hijjas is an architect of distinguished status, having designed the headquarters of Maybank, Telekom Malaysia and landmarks like the Putrajaya International Convention Centre.

Within the architectural community, few have the credentials as distinguished as Hijjas’. His designs are evocative, placing equal emphasis on form and function, although some criticise him for this.

For Kuching Civic Centre, it was Hijjas’s first bold attempt to create a modern architectural language for Sarawak – the Assembly’s new complex is the latest attempt — much in the same way the Petronas Twin Towers have impacted architecture in Kuala Lumpur.

But just look at the pictures here. Kuching Civic Centre is in poor state. Much of the neglected parts lie with the observation tower. The restaurant floor has been haphazardly divided into three sections, with none serving its intended use.

For some years, the restaurant floor was a Thai eatery. When that closed about a decade ago, most of the space was converted into a bar, which then closed just a few years later, leaving the entire space unoccupied.

In April last year, a 1Malaysia Co-op Restaurant opened, aimed at serving affordable meals in a great location. But the new establishment began on bad footing. The space was never properly converted back into a restaurant.

Only months after, it stopped opening for daily businesses. Instead, another restaurant was started, this time on the level above at the observation deck, serving steamboat meals.

Meanwhile, the actual restaurant space is now only open for functions. I’ve visited the observation tower twice in the last month. What I can see shows me that the north-facing portion of the floor is now mostly used as a storage area. The former bar’s centrepiece counter remains, as does the disc jockeying platform.

Other remnants of the bar like lounge chairs are still there, the walls remain painted black, and the glass-floor entrance can still light up in disco colours.

At the eastern portion – the section that was briefly the Co-op restaurant — it is also mostly an empty space. The walls are festooned with banners from its opening little over a year ago. Parts of the ceiling show evidence of water leakage that has caused brown stains.

At the south facing portion, there is a prayer room next to several closed off rooms, which according to the notes on A4 papers pasted on the doors, are apparently music recording studios.

Almost everywhere, non-usage has left the space in significantly deteriorated conditions. The worst of the water leakage problems is in the female toilet, where the entire ceiling has given way.

The situation was like this a month ago, and mostly the same last Sunday when I returned for photos. There does seem to be some repair work going on, judging by gypsum boards kept in the emergency stairwell, right alongside a pile of discarded plastic food containers.

The list of defects is long. On both the restaurant floor and the observation deck, there are wires haphazardly installed that are hanging off the walls and columns. There are doors fastened, not with locks but with wires. Other doors are missing their knobs.

Portions of wall tiles are broken and have fallen off into piles on the floors.

Kuching Civic Centre deserves much better upkeep.

For as long as it remains neglected, it will be perceived as incompetence on the authorities’ part. If the public sector cannot maintain such an important building, then the authorities have lost the moral high ground when it comes to policing private sector standards.

The deterioration of Kuching Civic Centre is symptomatic of more than a few government-run facilities.

Maintenance plans are often not adhered to. There is a general lack of initiative and ideas on how to keep public facilities relevant with activities.

This is especially true considering that the Le’Park (formerly Kuching Integrated Recreational Centre) built within the civic centre’s car park, is so popular with the public.

Its good management and promotion has led it to much success in attracting a multiracial crowd of both young and old.

If Hijjas were to visit the area today, he would surely shake his head in disbelief that it is the carpark that has become the focal point.

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