Wrecking balls on our city’s identity

A 1991 photo of Panggung Odeon, Jalan Dang Wangi, Kuala Lumpur.

KUALA Lumpur seems to be losing its sense of identity. Remove the Petronas Twin Towers and KL Tower and this could be any skyline in any city in the world.

We are losing what little there is of the city’s historical legacy unless something is done, and fast.

Heritage could encompass traditions or customs, here I refer more specifically to the loss of our built heritage – buildings that still evoke unique architectural, aesthetic and social features of a different time even after more than a century since it was built.

When StarMetro recently highlighted that the old Odeon Cinema building, one of the few remaining art deco-style buildings in Kuala Lumpur, could soon make way for a multi-storey retail and service apartment project, there was an outcry online.

The only remnant left indicating that this used to be the Odeon Cinema is an aged bunting across the top of the building. — FilepicThe only remnant left indicating that this used to be the Odeon Cinema is an aged bunting across the top of the building. — Filepic

It was heartening to see so many people upset over its potential demise and many reminisced on how integral the cinema was during different periods of their life, and what a loss it would be to lose the building.

They also voiced frustrations that the 83-year-old building was to be sacrificed for yet another skyscraper.

The Odeon building was designed by architect A.O. Coltman, who also imprinted his characteristic art deco style when he designed several other buildings in Kuala Lumpur such as the Rubber Research Institute in Jalan Ampang, the Anglo-Oriental Building (now known as Wisma Ekran) in Jalan Tangsi, as well as the former Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation building in Lebuh Pasar Besar, among others.

In an interview with Badan Warisan president Elizabeth Cardosa, she said while heritage conservation did not necessarily mean not changing, it was important to bear in mind if something better was going to replace the space.

“There are many ways of assessing this. Is it better for the city, for the surrounding environment or the people?

“The whole building was a cinema and by nature it served to welcome people in. The place which used to be a ‘marketplace’ all of a sudden becomes exclusive. Is that better?” she asked.

Kuala Lumpur mayor Datuk Nor Hisham Ahmad Dahlan said a portion of the building’s facade would be integrated into the development.

While some may take heart that at least the facade of the building might be retained, some critics believe that preserving a building’s skin is shallow heritage preservation.

Although there is a general consensus that building and landowners have a right to develop their properties, some consideration should be placed on what was there before.

There is potential for buildings such as the Odeon to be conserved and given a new lease of life.

Just a stone’s throw away is a great example of this – the rejuvenation of the old Rex Cinema building in Jalan Sultan by a team of architects and investors.

Although the original cinema burned down during the 1970s, it was later rebuilt before ceasing operations in 2002.

Early this year, the space was rebranded as REXKL and now serves as a creative space for entrepreneurs and artistes.

This effort aims to bring back the community spirit of the space, without changing the structure of the building but refurbishing to return functionality to it.

Taking a page from other countries, we need to embrace our built heritage and strive to preserve them because they are visual representations of the stories of our people and country.

They are worth protecting regardless of its economic value.

Let’s not leave heritage conservation only to certain groups – historians, conservationists, and other conservation experts but an all-encompassing effort with the public.

A combination of the authority’s intervention and the people’s participation are very much needed in preserving our built heritage.

Understanding the history our built heritage represents, with proper management of resources could still see these buildings having a place in the city’s landscape.

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