What Makes A Street Memorable?

By Laurence Loh

August 2021 FEATURE
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Muntri Street.
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WHAT’S IN A street? Ask any Penangite – most of them will admit that they take their streets for granted.

People tend to view roads as merely a means to get them to and from work, school, play or shopping. Street users only take notice of streets – and you can be sure that they will tell you all about it – when the way is congested and choked with cars, motorcycles, trishaws, hawkers’ carts and jaywalkers; they will only notice the roads which are bumpy and full of potholes, or which are being dug up, for some forsaken purpose, by the authorities who really should know better than to inconvenience the public.

There is, however, another way to view a street – as a place that can be enjoyed for its own sake. How often do we do that? This might even be a novel idea for some, so let us consider it carefully.

Let us start by exploring the urban landscape of Penang – the streets, the public places and the buildings there. And then as inhabitants of George Town, let us judge for ourselves whether the guardians of the cityscape – our authorities, our designers, our planners, our builders – have done a good job in creating or preserving streets and places which make it a pleasure to reside here.

There is no excuse for an ugly street. The town planners will tell you that their first duty is to plan a town in which people can go about their business conveniently, with surroundings conducive to a reasonably civilised life. Agreed, we need streets to get around town, but if they are memorable and enjoyable so much the better.

Tropical Townplanning

The beautiful thoroughfares of Penang are a legacy of the early planners who appreciated the inherent qualities of a tropical landscape. As a meaningful response to the hot climate, certain features like covered five-footways and shade trees were integrated into the design of streets, just as vented roofs, louvred windows, lattices, and verandahs were incorporated into old buildings to improve circulation.

As a result, Penang is endowed with many fine examples which can be used to illustrate the qualities of good streetscape:

  1. Peel Avenue, with Royal Palms lining both sides, has a majestic feel. The road edges are defined by clean lines.

  2. Pangkor Road has a graceful rhythm, created by the grand canopies of Rain Trees which provide a constant umbrella of shade.

  3. Bangkok Lane is made up of a complete ensemble of terrace houses on either side, original and intact, undisturbed by obtrusive development.

  4. Beach Street has maintained its strong character as a historic commercial street. Buildings here are of higher density, and a varied range of turn-of-the-century architectural styles mixed with modern forms collectively maintain a strong street edge.

  5. China Street is a historical street with a variety of architectural treatments, culminating in the classical forms at China Street Ghaut.

  6. King Street is a complete street with a variety of period buildings and a diversity of street life. So far spared from obtrusive developments, it has a clear axis leading to the Esplanade and the sea.

  7. Muntri Street is a long and narrow thoroughfare on which tall old buildings huddle closely together. The “olde world” ambience is well evoked by the intimacy of this street.

  8. Soo Hong Lane, eleven feet wide at one section, is perhaps the narrowest named street in Penang. Cute and intimate, it offers a total change in scale and perception.

  9. Scotland Road has recently been converted into a highway. Fortunately, the highway engineers managed to break away from their compulsion to draw straight lines in this case. As a result, some of the ancient Angsana trees were not sacrificed but were instead allowed to form the central road divider.

  10. Macalister Road, with old mansions and spacious grounds on either side, is especially memorable when the Angsana trees are in bloom.

Soo Hong Lane.

What They Did Right

On analysis, the uniqueness and beauty of these streets result from an inexplicable combination of the following elements:

  • A historical context with a strong sense of place.

  • variety of architectural treatment of building types

  • Strong street edge.

  • Integration of the street with Nature.

  • Completeness of a building ensemble.

  • A congenial sense of space between buildings.

  • Pleasant colour

  • Street life that does not permanently or aggressively take

    over the street, but flows with it.

  • A street planned on an axis.

  • Good scale and proportion of

    buildings.

  • Leaving the old intact, providing

    the street with a memory.

  • Appropriateness and charm of

    street accessories.

  • Speed of vehicular traffic.

Wherever these qualities predominate in a street, they should be consciously preserved. New developments on the street should enhance rather than replace or obscure such sensible features. This is the policy of the Conservation Programme being promoted by the local authority on the island.

Conservation is defined as all the processes involved in looking after a place in order to retain its cultural significance. This includes the maintenance of historical features, and possibly also restoration, reconstruction and adaptation, depending on the circumstances.

To quote a famous townplanner Lewis Mumford, conservation will “enrich the future by maintaining in the midst of change visible structural links with the past in all its cultural richness and variety.” Conservation means having the best of all worlds.

Contrary to popular belief, conservation policies would not exclude change, but would only ensure that new designs harmonise with the old. A good conservation programme will protect, improve, preserve and change a streetscape without upsetting our sensibilities. It is also a good prescription for revitalising a city, by allowing the older fabric to act as a glue which holds the identity of the city together.

The Street As Microcosm

To come back to our question: what’s the essence of a street?

The street is a place where people from all walks of life, so to speak, meet and mingle. A throbbing street life is the pulse of a city and its public life.

When we move into the realm of the street, we present ourselves to the world and expose ourselves to a multi-faceted society. A good street will help us strike a good balance between our private and public spheres. To quote a British philosopher of art, Roger Scruton, “Plate glass facades leave us overexposed to observation from those behind them. Blank concrete screens seal us off from whatever they contain. A street must avoid all such extremes. It must provide us with walls that are pierced and openings that are civil and friendly.”

Following this prescription, every street we design and every building we design on the street becomes “a microcosm, not just of city-building but of society-building, an evolution of cultural heritage, and expression of collective values that future historians may label a civilisation.” That status, after all, is one which every society should strive for.

This article is reproduced with kind permission from Pulau Pinang, vol. 1, no. 5, published by Georgetown Printers in 1989.

Laurence Loh

is an amply awarded architect whose most noted project is the world-renowned Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Penang, which won the Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards in 2000 for the “Most Excellent Project”. In 2008 his restoration of Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s Stadium of Independence, was conferred the Unesco “Award of Excellence” and his restoration of Suffolk House in Penang, the only surviving Anglo-Indian Georgian mansion in South-East Asia, was accorded the Unesco “Award of Distinction”.