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Assoc. Prof. Dr. A. Ghafar Ahmad

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Early Malay houses can be described as raised on timber stilts and made of materials which were easily available from the tropical forests such as timber, bamboo, rattan, tree roots and leaves. Usually the houses have pitched roofs, verandahs or porches in front, high ceilings and lots of big openings for ventilation purposes. Although these characteristics are particularly common in all Malay houses throughout the Peninsular Malaysia, their shapes and sizes differ from state to state.

Through many decades, the Malay architecture has been influenced by Indonesian Bugis, riau and Java from the south; Siamese, British, Arab and Indian from the north; Portuguese, Dutch, Acheh, Minangkabau from the west; and Southern Chinese from the east. Due to this fact, the Malay vernacular architecture have modified their styles in order to adapt to these influences. For example, some houses in Kelantan state have a kind of roof which is similar to that of Southern Thailand. This kind of roof style is totally different from the ones in the Negeri Sembilan state which have been greatly influenced by the Minangkabau of Indonesia.

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Factors that govern the styles of the Malay vernacular architecture:


Malaysia is situated in the central part of the Southeast Asia, it is bordered by longitudes 100 degrees and 120 degrees east; and by Latitudes of the Equator and 7 degrees North. The country is sunny, hot anf humid all year round with temperatures range from 25 C to 34 C. It has an annual rainfall from 80" to 100". Due to heavy monsoon rains, the roofs of the Malay vernacular houses are very steep. In some places, flooding occurs after heavy rainfalls. To solve this problem, some houses have used timber stilts to elevate the building above the ground level. The warm climate also effects the style of the Malay vernacular architecture. For ventilation purposes, many buildings have large openings on the sides and grilles are provided at high level in gable ends. Houses raised on stilts are provided with better natural ventilation.


Since Malaysia has a tropical climate, building materials such as timber, rattan, tree roots, bamboo and leaves are easily available from the tropical forests. In a traditional Malay house, timber is used for the building structures, rattan and tree roots are used for tieing up joints whereas bamboo and leaves are used for floors and walls.

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In the Malay culture, buildings such as houses and palaces that are highly hand-crafted and beautifully patterned and decorated reflect the building owners high status. For instance, the old Kenangan Palace in Kuala Kangsar, Perak which was built by a Malay sultan, has mignificiently crafted walls. As Muslims, the Malays have adopted the Islamic principles of orientation of mosques, particularly the prayer halls which have to be designed and faced towards Mecca. In other cases, some of the traditional Malay houses have floors at different levels, indicating the room functions. For instance, the verandah floor is raised lower than the living room floor. This is not only indicating the room functions but also giving a sense of spatial transition in the building.

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During the colonisation periods of the Portuguese, Dutch and British, Malay architecture was exposed to many new building technologies. For example, zinc and clay tiles as substitutes for roofs made of leaves; brick and cement columns as replacements for timber stilts and ladder; glass for windows which were formerly open; and nails as alternatives for rattan and tree roots that tie joints together. These features can be seen at the Alor Setar's Balai Besar or Audience Hall in Kedah state. Built in 1898, the building has clay tile roofs, brick and cement stairs, glass windows with brick and timber walls. Each of these had a profound impact on the Malay vernacular architecture. It can also, then, be observed that the process of adopting new technologies to ancient architecture is not entirely a new idea. Malay architecture has been modified by technological and cultural changes for centuries.

Today, the styles of the Malay vernacular achitecture have inspired many young architects and engineers in designing Malaysia's contemporary architecture. In the past years, many modern buildings have focused their design concepts on the Malay vernacular architecture, particularly the Malay houses and palaces. Various roof shapes have derived from the Malay houses such as from the states of  Negeri Sembilan, Kelantan and Terengganu.

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