by Wan Burhanuddin
in Design Policy: Design and Society, 1984, edited by Langdon and
Cross (eds.), pp 28-33.
|The Malay House: Learning
from its elements, rules and changes.
is a Malay house? This paper attempts to define it. The paper also
explains the prefabricated nature of the Malay house and consequently
advances a hypothesis of the ‘rules’ for its façade treatment.
the understanding of the construction and design rules, the
transformation of Malay houses through the ages can be traced. However,
lack of interest in these traditional design and construction principles
has inhibited the formal development of the Malay house and will further
lead to its demise. Learning from tradition in Malaysia is hindered by
law, policy, education curriculum, research and practice which not only
discourage but also present obstacles to the development of traditional
paper concludes by posing questions on the future role of designers,
policy makers and those concerned in seeking solutions based on the
continuity of a living tradition in the built environment.
importance of discovering indigenous design and methods of construction
cannot be over emphasised. The growing interest in vernacular
architecture since the exhibition Architecture
Without Architects held in the Museum of Modern Art in New York in
1964/65 can be seen from the voluminous amount of work in this area
today. Unlike the more profound studies done on indigenous architecture
in some countries, very little work in this area has been done in
Malaysia. Most of these works and studies are merely descriptive and
almost all romanticise the beauty of a dying tradition.
to ‘create a national identity’ in Malaysia have led to the borrowed
use of indigenous
architecture not only
in residential buildings but also in the design of commercial and
recreational buildings. These buildings, therefore, are only
representations of the so-called ‘identity’ and thus do not carry a
deeper meaning of the vernacular tradition.
paper tries to share an understanding of buildings constructed by the
indigenous people of West Malaysia. Although there may be many of these
indigenous forms due to the multi-ethnic composition of the people, the
most dominant one has been chosen for this paper.
is meant by a Malay house? The word ‘Malay’ itself does not have any
one meaning.1 In Malaysia, Malay, as defined in the
constitution, is ‘a person who professes the Muslim religion, speaks
the Malay language, conforms to Malay customs ‘.~ To describe a house
as Malay because it is designed, built, owned or inhabited by Malays, is
inaccurate because one may find non-Malays designing, building, owning
and even inhabiting Malay houses. The word ‘Malay’ may also mean
‘member of a light brown people of mixed Caucasian and Mongolian stock
predominating in the Malay Peninsula and Archipelago’.3 If
Malay houses are those found in the Peninsula and Archipelago, this is
not an accurate definition either because the differences between
Minangkabau, Batak and kamthieng houses, for instance, are substantial.4
Even within the Malay Peninsula, there are distinct differences
between houses in, for example, Kelantan, Negeri Sembilan and Malacca.
Thus it would be a futile effort for one to attempt to give the Malay
house any single definition.
it would be helpful to give a visual idea of the variety of the
indigenous houses for one’s own interpretation.
the purposes of this paper, to avoid the problems which may be created
by covering too broad an area of house-types, houses in the districts of
Pontian, Batu Pahat and Muar, in the state of Johore, are selected. This
is due to the visual similarities that may enable one to characterise
these houses (Figures 1,2, and 3).
2. A house in Pontian.
2. A house in Batu Pahat.
3. A house in Muar.
though this study is limited to an area which is approximately 8000
square kilometres, it should be recognised that similar houses may be
found outside these districts.
in the Malay house
than its mystical aspects, which may consist of the rites and rituals of
its construction, the Malay house is made up of three major elements —
the physical, the spatial and the functional.5 As has been
analysed in The Malay House: Rationale and Change, the functional element
consists of a list of activities that may take place within the Malay
house ranging from ‘circulation’ to ‘work’. These and other
activities are closely related to one another because of the culture and
tradition of the Malays. The relationship of these activities is
translated into rules from which the hierarchy of spatial importance in
the Malay house is derived.
spatial element consists of a series of spatial components or spaces
from which a Malay house is made, the minimum two spaces being the ibu rumah (main space in a house) and dapur (kitchen) which together form what is called the Basic Malay
House.6 All other spaces may be added to the Basic House
(Figure 4) based on implicit rules practised by master carpenters and
4 Spatial Components
anaIysis of the physical element is similar to that of the spatial
element, but instead of analysing spaces, solid physical components are
broken down into their smallest units.
the design of the Malay house, these units are also arranged according
to rules which are understood by only master carpenters.
the need to understand the major elements of the Malay house, this paper
chooses to explain in detail only one part of these elements- the
physical element. However it is hoped that the explanation will reflect
the totality of the Malay house.
Components of the physical element
The physical element of the Malay house comprises the following components (Figure 5):
5 The physical elements
of the Malay house
above breakdown also reflects the traditional sequence of construction.
Components are prefabricated without formal ‘plans. When these
components are prepared, able-bodied male members of the community
participate in the assembly of these components under the supervision of
the master carpenter.
interrelationship of these components (Figure 6) is primarily due to the
constructional requirements. For example, the plinth is never connected
to the roof directly. This is because the roof requires a set of
consisting of purlins, rafters, wall-plates and columns to support it.
Therefore the only way that the roof may be connected to the plinth is
by having a supporting frame. Similarly, this frame must exist between
the roof and the wall.
6 Component Relationship
rules become the basis for the design of the Malay house. Nevertheless,
they are still general rules. The detail design of the Malay house can
be better understood by breaking down the components into still smaller
parts or what is termed here as ‘subcomponents’.
are parts which, when combined, provide the variations to the
components. The example selected for this paper is the wall. The wall
can be divided into three zones —top, middle and bottom. The top zone
consists of the gable board while the bottom zone consists of the kolong
cover (wall surrounding space underneath the house). The middle zone
consists of four subcomponents (Figure 7):
7 Components and type.
is one opening type. This can be left open or be blocked by a walling
sheet. When an opening is left open, it becomes a door and when it is
blocked it becomes a window.
come in various shapes and sizes but can be classified under one type,
usually placed above openings, allowing the passage of light and air.
Even though fanlights are usually rectangular, semicircular ones can
also be found.
are four types of walling sheet: ‘long open’, ‘long closed’,
‘short open’ and ‘short closed’. ‘Long walling sheets’
refers to full-height sheets. These sheets extend from the floor to the
underside of the wall plate. ‘Short walling sheets’ are those which
reach waist height or about the usual height of balustrades or
handrails. ‘Closed walling sheets’ are those which, by the nature of
their construction, do not allow air to pass through and conversely,
‘open walling sheets’ are those which allow the passage of air.
are two types of shutters - long and short. Long shutters are those
which extend from the floor to the top of the openings and short
shutters are those which open above the short walling sheets.
the design of walls may vary from one house to another, the basic design
structure, comprising these zones and the subcomponents, is the same.
What leads to this consistency is the set of implicit rules that
mastercarpenters understand. It is the intention of this paper to
attempt to make these rules explicit.
in the middle zone of a wall
all the subcomponents that make up the middle zone of the wall, the task
now is to place these subcomponents so as to create part of the façade
of the Malay house. Assuming that the middle zone is rectangular the
placement of the subcomponents can be based on the following rules
8 The placing of subcomponents in the middle zone of the wall.
Openings must be placed symmetrically on the
central vertical axis
of the façade.
There can be more than one opening but each
one must be separated
from the next by a long
Openings must not be made at both ends of the
façade when long
walling sheets are used.
Openings can however be made for the whole
length of the façade.
No long walling sheet must
A fanlight must be located above an opening.
6 Walling sheets may be fixed around but not above an opening.
Unless openings are made along the whole length of the façade, a
pair of shutters must be provided for every opening.
Long shutters must be used if an opening is not blocked by a walling
Long shutters must be used if an opening is blocked by a short open
Short shutters may be used if an opening is blocked by a short closed
summary of these rules is shown in Figure 9.
9 Rules for middle zone of wall
order to see the applicability of these rules, houses in Johore may be
studied. This will also show the validity of such rules. Houses which
deviate from them can be called ‘modified’ Malay houses as opposed to
‘traditional’ houses, on which the rules are based.
middle zone rules work
10 Application of the rules.
10 shows the analysis of the house in Johore shown earlier in Figure 1. It
shows how some of the above rules are applied. In some other cases,
however, when subcomponents are not selected for use in the middle zone of
the wall, the rules which pertain to that subcomponent do not apply. For
example, if an opening which is blocked by a short walling sheet is not
selected for incorporation in the middle zone of the wall, then Rule 10
does not apply. Figure 11 shows another example of the rules applied in
the design of the middle zone of the facade of a house in Johore.
11. More application of rules.
in the Malay house
12 Modified Malay house.
houses have undergone a process of transformation since very early times.
A great number of changes date back to the fifteenth century and some
derive from an even earlier period.7 Today one can still
observe this phenomenon. Currently, the Malay house is adopting
industrialised building components. As an alternative to traditional
openings, the factory-produced adjustable louvred windows (Figure 12) have
become accepted by the indigenous builders. This has resulted in slight
changes in the subcomponents of the middle zone. Short shutters, for
instance, are no longer used and the rules which pertain to them no longer
apply. However, all other rules remain applicable (Figure 13).
13 Application of rules to
what has been shown, one may find that the wall of the Malay house in
Johore is made up of small units which are arranged according to a set of
rules. Despite the transformations that the Malay house may undergo, for
example, as a result of technological changes, one can still recognise the
character of the wall from the rules.
must be realised that this paper has touched only on a very small part of
the traditional Malay house. However, this is an important starting point
in an attempt to understand the extensive aspects of it. Other areas of
study include the relationship of the components in the physical, spatial,
functional and mystical elements and the relationship between these
elements. Where on one scale, the relationship of one traditional house to
another in the layout of a rural or urban settlement must be analysed, on
a larger scale, the relationship between settlements must also be studied
before the Malay house can be fully understood.
this selected example is a microcosm of the totality, then it can be said
that the Malay house has its own vocabulary and grammar which has
determined the consistency of its design over time. Therefore, any attempt
to understand, design, build or reconstruct a Malay house, must be
preceded by a full knowledge of the underlying principles.
Syed Husin AIi, Orang Melayu:
Masalah dan Masa Depannya, PenerbitanAdabi, 1979, p 1-9.
Sheridan, L.A. and Grove, The
Constitution of Malaysia, Oceana Publications, 1967, p 218.
The Oxford Illustrated
Dictionary, 1974, p 515.
Authors on these houses such as Morley and Emrick have made
distinctions between them and have placed the Batak and Minangkabau houses
in their own separate categories. See series called ‘Traditional housing
in Indonesia’ in Masalah Bangunan.
Wan B.b.Wan Abidin, The Malay
House: Rationale and Change, MArch. Thesis, MIT, Cambridge, 1981.
lbid, p 62.
terminology ‘Basic Malay House’ is taken from an article by Hilton,
‘The Basic Malay House’, in Journal
of the Malayan Branch of the RoyalAsiatic Society, vol 29, pt 3, p
134—158. lbu rumah or ‘Main
House’ as it is termed here, is an open multi-purpose space generally
used for circulation, entertaining guests, eating, sleeping and work.
Wan B.b.Wan Abidin, op cit, p
06 Apr 2003