Malay Architecture & Traditional Houses

On 22nd January 2022, Ar. Ahmad Najib Ariffin (Nadge) hosted a talk on “Malay Architecture and Traditional Houses” for MVJMM. Following the talk, he gave a detailed tour of Istana Satu, located on Muzium Negara’s grounds.

Below are writeups on the talk and the tour
Evocations of Serenity – by Annie Chuah
Istana Satu – by Aishah Nadirah

Attribution: K. Kamal, Lilawati Abdul Wahab, A. Ahmad.

Evocations of Serenity

by Annie Chuah

In our haste to embrace the ‘modern’ and the ‘progressive’, Malay houses in rural areas have been and are being abandoned in favour of modern structures in the city. However, some scholars and traditionalists have come to appreciate the intrinsic philosophy and beauty of Malay houses not only in Malaysia, but also throughout Nusantara and the wider Malay World.

Elevated dwelling spaces built with organic materials, these examples of vernacular architecture are prone to the ravages of climate, and many have not survived the centuries. Conservation efforts are being undertaken to preserve some fine examples of built structures, which stand testimony to the architectural mastery and artistry of the peoples of the Malay World.

Ar. Ahmad Najib Ariffin (Nadge), Director, Nusantara Academy of Development, Geoculture & Ethnolinguistics, is at the forefront of preservation and conservation of some of the existing structures of traditional buildings in Malaysia. Historian, conservationist and educationist, this zealous architect is fervent in his mission to raise awareness of the value of Malay architecture and tradition.

In a talk to Museum Volunteers on 22 January 2022 titled Malay Architecture & Traditional Houses: history, traditions and transitions, he explained how architectural heritage plays an important role in providing a wealth of materials in comparative forms of styles and their applications in structures meant to be comfortable dwelling spaces in harmony with the natural environment.

In his opening slide of a Malay Kampung in Klang, Nadge introduced the setting as ‘one of the most environment-friendly civilisations in the history of Earth’.

Attap houses close to the banks of the Klang River, circa 1920. Attribution: Cheah Jin Seng. (2011). Selangor 300 Early Postcards (p. 160). Editions Didier Millet.

In a virtual experience with Nadge, we heard five Malaysian stories spanning 15,000 years. He spoke on:

  • Sundaland, the submerged continent.
  • Sungai Batu in Kedah. Dating to the 8th century BCE, it is Southeast Asia’s oldest-known built site. It was an iron smelting and export complex made of brick structures.
  • The Melaka Empire, which was the centre of trade and religion in the region until the Portuguese conquest in 1511. 

Through these stories, Nadge shed light on the architectural origins of the Malay House. The layout of traditional Malay houses is seemingly random and gives a non-uniform look but the wisdom behind Malay architecture surprises the uninitiated. The well thought out design, use of natural resources and the overall functionality represents the identity of a people who have lived in harmony with nature since ancient times.

Raised on stilts, the post and lintel structure with wooden or bamboo walls, topped by sloping roofs of thatch with gables on both sides, the typical Malay houses are a fine example of sophisticated rural domestic architecture.

Stilts ensure minimal impact on the ground, the earth space they respect, to avoid human-animal conflict. The raised dwelling is also a safeguard from floods. Height of stilts of hard, durable wood such as cengal, vary according to location – inland or coastal. Being in the tropics with generally high daily temperatures, the earth-floor space allows temperature regulation, ventilation and unimpeded air circulation. A member of the audience commented that it also facilitates sweeping the floor with the dust and dirt passing through the gaps of the wooden floor to the ground beneath!

Of the three sections of the house, the main section is the Rumah Ibu where the family eats, relaxes and entertains guests. The length of this section is determined by the span (depa) of the mother’s/matriarch’s arms. Windows along the walls are long and the entrance is through a short flight of steps or stairs.

Rumah Dapur is the kitchen annexe. It is a separate building but linked to the main section by a passageway. It is an ingenious plan for when the kitchen catches fire – the stilts are cut off and thrown away from the house to be doused or into the river if there is one nearby.

Rumah Tengah is the area for sleeping. The rooms are partitioned off, usually by curtains. The lavatory and bathroom are not within the main house, but built some distance away. The outside of the house is usually shaded with trees and vegetation. A short flight of steps or stairs leads to the elevated main section. The steps may be plain or decorated with tiles.

Example of a Malay house in Kampung Bharu

It can be observed here that the house is of a modular construction. As the family expands, additional units are added on, as in the longhouses of Sarawak.

Every region has its own style and this is most prominent in the style of the tropically suited roof – the long ridge roof with slopes for humble dwellings. Wealthier families have the five-ridge roof. Carved panels below the roof edges cut glare during the day while they adorn and add a touch of finesse to the home.

Sometimes a crossed frontal structure is used to anchor and stabilise the roof edges against strong monsoon winds and heavy rain as experienced in the east coast although this crossbeam is a feature on palaces and public/government buildings. Look out for this in Museum Negara’s front entrance.

Traditional Malay houses have their own form of geomancy. The ‘tiang seri’, a freestanding pillar without any joints, is the main pillar of the house and is in the main section.

A defining characteristic of the traditional Malay house is its construction without nails or metal supports. Builder artisans are adept in the art of cutting wood in such a manner that pieces slide together and solidly interlock. Interlocking edges and ends of wood are tightened by wedges. What a genius of wooden carpentry! Such a construction can withstand earthquakes. Another advantage is that it can be easily dismantled and rebuilt in another location.

Traditional Malay construction methods have been applied in palace and mosque architecture, with details that are more intricate, scale and complexity. Nadge cited Istana Kenangan in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, and Istana Sri Menanti in Negeri Sembilan as buildings with great cultural aesthetic value.

Istana Lama Seri Menanti, an elegant five-storey timber palace, was built in the 20th century by expert Malay craftsmen and carvers. Designed by two skilful local master builders, no piece of iron nail or metal screw was used. It is recognised as the tallest wooden palace in Southeast Asia. Recently restored, this architectural gem was opened as a Royal Museum in July 1992. A visit by Museum Volunteers with Nadge as guide is scheduled on 2 March 2022 for an on-site study of the elements of Malay architecture incorporated in its construction.

Istana Kenangan was once a royal residence, but now the Royal Museum of Perak. This 2-storey building was built in 1925 without a single nail. Its facade is beautified in its state colours of yellow, white and black. The elements of Malay architecture – the stilts, long windows for ventilation, multiple roof ridges and carved overhangs – are plainly  evident.

The flexibility of Malay architectural designs in traditional mosques is another fascinating area of observation and study. Built of wood, old traditional mosques are in need of conservation. Among these are Masjid Lama Kampung Kuala Dal in Kuala Kangsar, Perak and Masjid Tanjung Sembeling Lama Seri Siantan in Negeri Sembilan.

Masjid Tanjung Sembeling Lama Seri Siantan before and after conservation. Image credits:

Other extant examples of palaces, mosques and houses with designs and range of Malay craftsmanship can still be seen in Malaysia. With increased awareness in the value of these buildings comes renewed interest in their conservation.

Restoration of Rumah Empang Batu, Negeri Sembilan. Images taken from Nadge’s presentation slides.

Internationalisation and mechanisation leading to shorter building time have led to rejection of traditional architecture. Ardent architects such as Nadge and those of like mind draw attention to the Malay contribution to the technology of architecture. The Malays were among the pioneers in the art of modular construction and prefabrication long before these ideas re-surfaced in architectural journals.

Let us not forget and discard previous knowledge of principles of building construction that were very suitable in the circumstances where people lived. Although some may appear outdated, it is only because we have forgotten the wisdom that came with traditions. Have modern designs and technologies that replaced those solved present living problems while creating new unsustainable ones?

Next: Istana Satu


Presentation Slides – Malay Architectural Houses History Tradition Transitions Najib Nadge Ariffin.pptx 2022.


Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

%d bloggers like this: