Democratic spaces in cities

Cities belong to the rakyat, not municipalities, just like this nation belongs to all of us.

RECENTLY, a private university invited me to be a guest panellist at a forum on democracy and its impact on urban design.

This was a pleasant departure from the many architectural discourses arranged by public educational institutions, the Board of Architects Malaysia and Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia that usually focus on sustainable architecture, heritage, architectural identity, and architectural practice and education. I have always criticised such events as elitist, isolated and not useful in building a Malaysian identity. All these talks do is make architecture seem further out of reach to its most important users, the people of Malaysia.

Thus, it was a very welcome surprise that a private university – known as one of the best educational institutions in this country and the region – wanted to hold this event.

Furthermore, it was organised by its graduate students. In my 34-year career in academia, the only student activism around architecture I have experienced were events organised by Indonesian universities such as Universitas Indonesia, Institut Teknologi Bandung and Universitas Islam Negeri Maulana Malik Ibrahim Malang.

My lecture tours in Indonesia in my younger days, on revolutionising Islamic architecture within the Western principles of modernism, were well received in the largest Muslim nation in the world. Indonesia was, at that time, undergoing an Islamic reformation and exploring modernisation.

The question posed to me at the recent event in Malaysia was “What are the types of democratic spaces that would allow community and administrative engagement that our cities should have?” While the other two panellists, seasoned architect practitioners, gave guarded responses framed within architectural constructs, I had decided to broaden my answer to include politics, philosophical thoughts on education, and social and religious harmony.

As I had less than 20 minutes to speak, I chose to talk only about two fundamental spaces in our towns and cities: public squares at municipal buildings and community centres in neighbourhoods.

To me, democracy means two important things, the first being that we, the people, own this country and that we are responsible for making the country work. To address this idea, I talked about municipal buildings designed by architects who didn’t seem to understand what democracy entails.

To begin with, the designer – and most people, actually – don’t realise that municipal workers are the people’s servants, not our masters. In Malaysia, many government servants at both state and federal levels arrogantly portray themselves as “owners” of the country. They conveniently forget that they serve us and not the other way round.

Architects who are ignorant of this simple concept in a democratic nation reinforce the wrong mindsets by designing municipal buildings like mini palaces.

I would insist that the first thing future architects must do in designing democratic municipal buildings is to ensure that the public have easy and the best access, such as parking bays right up by the main building. Currently, we usually have to park hundreds of metres away on the street (often unavoidably causing traffic jams) and then walk under the hot sun just to pay a bill that pays these workers’ salaries.

Do you notice how at those giant hypermarkets, the designers – and management – ensure customers get the best covered parking to make shopping an easy task? The most convenient parking bays are reserved for women with children and the elderly. Itu macam lah!

Municipal management teams and architects must learn from this sort of philosophy, that the customer is important, first and last, and make the rakyat a VIP.

Another aspect related to municipal structures I spoke about was about including a public square shaded by trees or other architectural devices adjacent to the town hall. This is most important as the public, being the owner of the locality, would then be able to gather while being sheltered from the sun to meet policymakers and enforcement officers and discuss grievances. It would also be a good place for elected officials to take their oath of office in front of the rakyat and organise social events to interact with the people they serve.

What I have seen thus far are municipal buildings with expensive landscape elements but no public squares or meeting places. The landscape and entrances to these buildings have been designed just like palace architecture or places where the public is not welcomed.

I also spoke about how it is up to us rakyat to make change happen, within ourselves and within people in our influence. The rakyat should not just hope for political parties and the MPs we send to Parliament to change our country – we rakyat ourselves must shoulder equal responsibility and blame for whatever is wrong.

On that note, I have proposed before that the Federal Government ensure there are community centres in all housing estates nationwide that have a minimum of 1,000 residents. This was the second aspect of design and democracy I touched on.

Such centres must contain a proper building in addition to the dewan serbaguna (all-purpose hall) that is usually present nowadays.

Each centre must have an outdoor public space, an administrative space for three workers, a meeting room for community representatives, that multipurpose space for events, a reading room where children can study and read, and a cafeteria or sundry shop for socialisation.

Actually, each community within most neighbourhoods already has its own “community centres” – however, they are exclusive to our own races or faiths, like a mosque, church, temple, kongsi house and such. By not having a neutral meeting place, this country has “successfully” divided communities with ignorance, and hence fear, of the “other”; this is a clear recipe for interracial and religious conflict.

For a democratic nation to work, all of us must feel a sense of belonging regardless of race, faith and culture, and there is no urban space that offers to do that in our housing estates. This is why opportunistic politicians can easily use our mistrust to play us against each other, using the race and religion cards to gain votes.

There are several other democratic spaces that I would like to address in future columns, God willing. Architecture is one of the fields that crosses the boundaries of technology, geography, history, politics and spirituality in making liveable spaces for people. Architects can be the makers or destroyers of nations when they put pen to paper and either draw lines that unite us or separate us by race, religion, socioeconomic class and social status.

Kudos to the graduate students of that private university for reminding veteran architects that the new generation of architects wants to create spaces that belong to the people, not those that are designed to reinforce administrative authority. Cities belong to the rakyat, not municipalities, and this nation belongs to all of us.

Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at the Tan Sri Omar Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Studies at UCSI University. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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