Oriental Building: The tallest Art Deco masterpiece of Kuala Lumpur

Oriental Building
Oriental Building when bathed in the warm light of the late evening sun.
Photograph by Zain Abdullah - All rights reserved.
Art Deco architectural style started to gain popularity and became the preferred choice of architectural style by the building owners in then Malaya (now Malaysia) especially in major towns like Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Ipoh between early 1930's and 1940's.

Art Deco architecture started to be popular worldwide since 1925 after the World War I until early 1940s when its popularity declined after the World War II.  It is also referred to as the interwar period. One of the largest Art Deco buildings in Kuala Lumpur besides the Central Market is the Oriental Building. According to a report by The Straits Times newspaper dated 26 November 1931 entitled "Big building for Kuala Lumpur" the construction work for a five-storey building would commence soon.  The building, once completed, would stand at 82ft tall and would be the tallest building in Kuala Lumpur.  It would also change the skyline of Kuala Lumpur and would add the welcome liveliness to the commercial centre which seemed to be stagnant at that time perhaps partly because of the Great Depression when its effect was felt worldwide.

The report also stated that the Oriental Building was built for the Oriental Government Security Life Assurance Company. The company responsible for its construction was said to have been Gammon (Malaya) Ltd. while its architect was Messrs. Booty and Edwards. There was also a consulting reinforced concrete specialist by the name of Mr. Steen Sehested entrusted to oversee the concrete work.  Later I learnt that the architect of this handsome building was Arthur Oakley Coltman or more popularly known as AO Coltman who worked as a manager for Messrs. Booty & Edwards based in Kuala Lumpur.  The Oriental Building is located at the corner of Java Street (renamed Mountbatten Road before it was later changed to Jalan Tun Perak) and Malacca Street (now Jalan Melaka).

Oriental Building
The Oriental Building captured in 2015
Photograph by Zain Abdullah -All rights reserved.

Upon its completion, The Straits Times came up with its report titled “Tallest building in Kuala Lumpur – Insurance company’s new headquarters” dated 26 December 1932 stating that The Oriental Building was ready for use and would be officially opened the next day on 27 December 1932 by the British Resident of Selangor, Mr. T.S. Adams.

It was reported that The Oriental Building which housed the new Malayan headquarters of the Oriental Life Assurance Company Ltd. standing in the centre of Kuala Lumpur and finished in white and grey tone was an impressive symbol of the commercial life of this city.  From its roof, 85 feet above the pavement the building commanded a majestic view and was crowned the tallest building in Kuala Lumpur. Triangular in shape it covered an area of 5,000 square feet with a curved facade of 123 feet in length. The building was five storeys in height while the offices of the Oriental Life Assurance Company Ltd were situated on the entire third floor over an area of 3,310 square feet.

The Oriental Building upon its completion in 1932. Photo by OY Kok. Reproduced from The Straits Times archive.
The building is of reinforced concrete frame with brick panelling from the design of Mr. Steen Sehested.  It was finished in two kinds of external plaster, grey and white, which was executed by hand from local small tones and cement and was unique in that no was sand was used. It was reported in the The Straits Times that its ground floor which included a shop, godown, basement and the usual conveniences was self-contained. The basement itself was rat-proof and in case of floods doors could be fitted into specially constructed grooves over the basement windows to prevent water from entering the building. Tiles made in England decorated the staircases and passages while office floors were covered with Italian tiles.

The Oriental Building from an old postcard.
The postcard was published by A.S.M.K & Co, Singapore. Year not stated but it is believed to be in 1950s.
In The Straits Times report nowhere it was mentioned that the building was designed in Art Deco style because this architectural style was given its name as Art Deco only in 1966 by the renowned architect Le Corbusier, who penned a series of articles in his journal L’Esprit nouveau under the headline “1925 Expo: Arts D├ęco”.

However the building was designed obviously in Art Deco style judging by the ubiquitous Art Deco characteristics it possesses.  In fact this is a fine example of an Art Deco architecture which was popular during the interwar period beginning in 1925 and the popularity declined after the World War II.  One of the most prominent traits of Art Deco building is its flag pole at the top of its building.

Besides, its tall and slim windows are another Art Deco significant identity. Art Deco also frequently utilises contrasting materials to emphasize differences in colour and texture. The white frieze with a bas-relief of interlocking coins/disc frames the entire panel on its exterior which is flanked by two tower-like pylons. The projecting panels of walls in between the slim windows are stepped, creating the illusion of depth. Stepped pillasters begin at the 3rd floor, flanking the windows. The sharp, clean lines that beam out from the archway suggest a sunburst motif. These are the significant characteristics of Art Deco architecture which can be found all over the world.

Although the building is currently left vacant it is learnt that the building is still leased to a local bank and perhaps it is waiting to be renovated before being occupied again. Let’s hope it is well taken care of no matter who the owner is. This elegant edifice deserves to be safeguarded and preserved as it is one of the national precious heritage.

Oriental Building
The Oriental Building in its present day taken in 2015.
Photograph by Zain Abdullah - All rights reserved.
Oriental Building
The Oriental Building in its present day taken in 2015.
Photograph by Zain Abdullah - All rights reserved.
Oriental Building
Along the curved of the five-foot-way on the ground floor of the Oriental Building.
Photograph by Zain Abdullah - All rights reserved
Oriental Building
Part of the Oriental Building facade is bathed in the beautiful warm late evening light.
Photograph by Zain Abdullah - All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Great work. Please consider (if you hv not yet done so) publishing a book wth all yr wonderful and informative research compilations.

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