He is certainly no stranger in the conservation circle, being a figure behind great projects like the restoration of the renowned Cheong Fatt Tze mansion in Penang. In fact, for the past 26 years, architect Laurence Loh has been promoting conservation efforts in Malaysia.
The Cheong Fatt Tze building, also known as the Blue Mansion, won Most Excellent Project in the 2000 Unesco Asia Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Preservation. Another notable project of Loh’s was the restoration of Stadium Merdeka, which won an Award of Excellence in the 2008 edition of the above-mentioned awards.
In the same year, the Suffolk House in Penang received an Award of Distinction while in 2002, the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in Melaka received an Award of Merit (both in the same awards). Loh is also known for the restoration of the Lunas Rubber Smokehouse in Kedah, which was shortlisted for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (2008-2010). Besides transforming the formerly abandoned structure into an important town landmark, the project also united the different communities in the area and created a sense of shared history.
As recognition of his work, Loh was recently awarded the Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia’s (PAM) Gold Medal for his lifetime contribution to the architectural community and landscape. The PAM Gold Medal award is the highest honour that can be bestowed on an architect to acknowledge the person’s accomplishments and contributions to the architectural community both locally and abroad.
“(The award) represents a watershed moment because, by acknowledging my contributions and achievements, PAM has turned the spotlight on the promotion and practice of conservation. By implication, the Institute recognises that conservation is an integral part of its mission and objectives. Until recently, I always had the feeling that conservation practice was a marginal concern and not seen as a powerful tool and symbol to be celebrated in local architectural circles, ” shared Loh via email.
He feels that one of the key challenges hampering conservation efforts in the country is the lack of funding. “An indicator of the emphasis and importance that has been placed on conserving Malaysia’s heritage, or the lack of it, is the quantum of national funding allocated in comparison to other sectors of government, be it at the federal, state or local levels.
“Many of the major heritage buildings and sites are government-owned. Right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, major heritage icons are being totally neglected and falling into disrepair. There is no accounting for the lack of shame about what the poverty of respect for our past signifies in terms of public relations and international reception, ” he said.
Education, Loh added, has a major role to play in creating love for, and awareness of, local heritage, coupled with the understanding and skills to conserve, manage and sustain it.
“The manner in which national cultural policies are framed and promoted also contributes to conflicting views and approaches, with many being left behind. Conservation truly works when there is collective ownership, shared values and shared histories, ” he emphasised.
Loh has been a jury panel member of the Unesco Asia Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation for the past 20 years.
“In all this time, Malaysia has won only six awards. Whilst I helped set the pace in Malaysia in the early years, other countries are performing exceedingly well now. It is frustrating for me because, year in year out, my fellow panellists ask me why there are so few entries from Malaysia, which in the face of very stiff competition, never make the grade. Even smaller countries like Singapore and Hong Kong do better than us.
“Ever since the management of heritage became ‘mainstream’ as a result of the creation of a Department of Heritage in Malaysia, advocacy groups have taken a backseat. The system suffers from a lack of cohesion, transparency, inclusiveness and a sense of priority. There are practically no financial incentives and support given to the private sector, except under special circumstances.
“Heritage should not be for the privileged. It should be conserved and protected to reflect Malaysia’s cultural diversity and to be shared by all communities, ” he opined.
Commenting on the Covid-19 pandemic, he believes that it is turning the focus on inclusiveness, resilience, environmental protection and climate change, some of the targets of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
“The message is strong and clear. We have to look for new ways to engage with the natural and cultural world. It can no longer be big business as usual, dictating how the rest of us consume, produce and service it.
“I am advocating that we place heritage at the heart of sustainable development. By doing so, we will start to return the right to survive to all living things, and in the end, save ourselves.
“Beautiful transformations are taking place because of the global lockdown. Rivers and seas are clean. Animals are reclaiming their original habitats. Temperatures are dropping. Reversal and repair of sites should be the new norm, ” he said.
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