Aga Khan Trust for Culture Aiding the Restoration of George Town’s Northern Coastline (APR 2021)

By Francesco Siravo

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Islamic Cairo. Al-Azhar Park, a 60 ha garden near the historic city (completed 2005). Photo: AKTC

IN LATE 2013 representatives of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) were invited to George Town by the Penang state government. The following year saw the preparation of a Strategic Master Plan (SMP) for the George Town World Heritage Site and advanced planning work for the city’s key public areas.

With approval of the Plan, a new public / private partnership was formed in late 2015 between AKTC, Think City – a subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional Berhad – and the state government of Penang through its agency, Chief Minister Incorporated (CMI). This created a new entity, the George Town Conservation and Development Corporation (GTCDC). In November 2019 the parties signed a renewed Technical Services Agreement to provide GTCDC with technical advice while it implemented the SMP.

Today, the focus of ongoing activities is concentrated on the conservation and upgrading of the North Seafront and the restoration of Fort Cornwallis; both are part of a single integrated effort to improve Penang’s civic core. What is the Aga Khan Trust for Culture? Established in 1988, it is a private philanthropic foundation that was formed to develop, integrate and coordinate the cultural initiatives of His Highness Aga Khan. Within this general framework, the built environment is seen as the most complex and tangible expression of culture and social identity in places where Muslims have a significant presence.

As an integral part of AKTC, the Historic Cities Programme (HCP) was created in 1991 specifically to implement conservation and urban revitalisation projects in historically and culturally significant sites. HCP projects combine environmental, conservation and socio-economic components, and their aim is to demonstrate that these aspects can be mutually supportive when combined and spearheaded by culture.

Lahore Fort. Restoration of the western picture wall (completed 2020). Photo: AKTC

The Role of Culture and Cultural Heritage

This is at the heart of the HCP’s approach and understanding of economic development and urban planning, and is based on three tenets: the belief that investment in cultural assets can provide a springboard for socio-economic development; the conviction that culture itself plays a transformative role by reversing urban decline and strengthening local identities; and the observation that successful projects of cultural significance bring communities together, foster the development of organisational and institutional capacity, and enhance local skills through training and practical on-site experience in traditional construction.

HCP’s initiatives and programmes focus on several major World Heritage Sites in the Muslim world. Among the most relevant are parts of Islamic Cairo, the Stone Town of Zanzibar and the Lahore Fort in Pakistan. In all these cases, AKTC has been present and active over the course of several years to ensure sustained and comprehensive efforts in the planning and implementation of conservation and development activities. These efforts have always taken place in close coordination with the state and local authorities responsible for the sites, as well as the communities directly affected by the works.

Through its projects, HCP has shown how the creation of parks and gardens, the conservation of landmark buildings, improvements to the urban fabric and the revitalisation of cultural heritage – which in many cases are the only assets at the disposal of the community – can indeed provide a springboard for social development.

The West moat. Photo: GTCDC
Restoring the arch of a Storeroom. Photo: GTCDC
The exterior of the Storerooms. Photo: GTCDC

Interest in George Town

HCP’s attention on George Town is firmly anchored to this vision and the belief that, by forging a link between conservation and development, George Town can avoid the fate of other South Asian cities, which have been overwhelmed by uncontrolled high-rise development and suffocated by mass tourism, and whose very survival is threatened by the outmigration of residents to sub-urban areas.

It is imperative that Penang takes advantage of what is unique and special about the city: its living multicultural traditions – the result of a confluence of many distinct cultural groups, its largely intact historic urban landscape, and its unique geographical position as a strategic port city along one of the world’s major trade routes.

The proposals outlined in the George Town SMP envision a form of development that is rooted in the spirit of the place and the significance of its public spaces and monuments. Moreover, they demonstrate concern for the future of its residents and seek to protect the city’s diverse urban fabric and cultural traditions.

HCP’s Initiatives in George Town

The Esplanade and the North Seafront
Upgrading the Esplanade and the North Seafront is particularly important within the framework of the SMP. George Town’s outstanding universal values have resulted in the state government and the Penang Island City Council pooling financial resources for the implementation of a forward-looking, integrated vision for the heritage site’s core public space.

The GTCDC supported this effort by providing a detailed assessment of the physical conditions, and carried out social surveys and public consultations aimed at understanding local preferences and aspirations. This was followed by the identification of an open space vocabulary consistent with the nature of the place.

Community participation and expert advice have been integrated into a comprehensive open space improvement aimed at promoting community interaction and increased visitation. This programme is being realised today through the ongoing works to reinforce the seawall, create an expanded seafront promenade, and renovate the Dewan Sri Pinang and the adjacent food court and garden spaces.

Fort Cornwallis
The preservation and presentation of the fort is very closely related to the revitalisation of the North Seafront. The fort is the principal monument and the site of George Town’s first nucleus. After a period of inattention, it is in dire need of comprehensive restoration and proper curation if it is to live up to its potential.

With its location between the Esplanade and the Cruise Terminal, Fort Cornwallis can and should serve as the central area’s indispensable cultural node and become a major point of attraction for residents and visitors alike for a long time to come.

Restoring the Fort
Putting together the Conservation Management Plan (CMP) and related documentation for the monument was the first step in the conservation process. This was carried out in 2016 following the recommendations of the ICOMOS Burra Charter. Adopted in 1979 and periodically updated, the Charter provides the most widely accepted international principles and processes for heritage sites. It calls for a sequence of investigations, evaluations and actions aimed at planning and managing places of cultural significance.

Based on this model, the Fort Cornwallis CMP gathers together the essential information needed to understand and evaluate the site and its conditions. The documentation produced includes a rectified photographic survey of the flank walls and other architectural components, combined with a dilapidation assessment. The survey and the assessment were followed by an evaluation of the site’s heritage values, constraints, risks, opportunities, and stakeholders’ expectations.

In turn, these informed the setting up of general strategies and policies regarding the monument’s future governance, use and management, as well as targeted measures for specific physical areas and components. Taken together, these will guide the restoration and re-use of Fort Cornwallis in the future. Pilot archaeological excavations started in 2017 along the south flank wall attached to the Storerooms, the Fort’s oldest surviving structure, and on the external South and West moats, whose reinstatement is being proposed as part of the general restoration of the structure as it stood during its period of highest significance.

The archaeological excavations, conducted by the Centre for Global Archaeological Research from Universiti Sains Malaysia, brought to light considerable information about the site, including several 18th century cannons and a complete sequence of findings dating from the early 19th century to the present day. None of the stratigraphic findings has exceptional value, but they document the material culture and life in the fort, including during World War II when the Storerooms were partially destroyed by Allied bombing and hastily rebuilt in reinforced concrete by the Japanese army.

Pilot conservation work started in tandem and is based on findings made during preparation of the CMP. Following on the heels of the archaeological excavation, work concentrated on the Storerooms and on the West moat. Pilot activities focused on the principal conservation issues identified in the CMP and on technical aspects related to the function and operation of the moats. Many of the problems found are the result of faulty repair works and a lack of understanding of the causes of deterioration, as well as a failure to use appropriate techniques and materials.

The materials produced in-house. Photo: GTCDC

The current project carried out extensive testing (now completed), and identified effective technical responses that are specifically adapted to the context of Penang and the region. These are remedial works designed to address issues of drainage, reinforcement of foundations, wall repairs, elimination of dampness from water infiltration – either by gravity or capillary suction, paving, reinstatement of arches and failing pillars, roof repairs and the conservation and re-integration of plaster surfaces. These tests have resulted in a complete body of practical guidelines that can be applied to any traditional structure in Penang, and is an important and far-reaching achievement.

The ongoing restoration is based on the results obtained during the testing phase. As mentioned, the project’s approach to restoration follows the internationally accepted UNESCO and ICOMOS conservation criteria. These are predicated on respecting the existing fabric, including past alterations, preserving rather than replacing salvageable components of the structure, addressing faulty construction – whether original or not – eliminating modifications and accretions where no longer justified, and re-establishing finishes and well-documented components demolished or removed without compelling justification.

In presenting the archaeological evidence, diachronic criteria have been adopted whereby the evidence belonging to different historic periods is shown simultaneously in different parts of the site, enabling the visitor to read the building over time. The evidence includes early 19th century traces, changes to the rooms throughout the structure’s history, the trolley tracks installed at the time of the Japanese Occupation, and the effects of the Allied bombing during World War II.

Applying Advanced Conservation and Traditional Construction Skills

The project to restore Fort Cornwallis represents a unique opportunity to develop practical training and generate future employment in rehabilitation works in the George Town heritage area. As in many other parts of the world, Penang is not unique in having lost the continuity of practice and the knowledge and use of traditional materials and techniques due to the advent of modern construction systems. This deficiency needs to be addressed if the country’s heritage is to be preserved and enhanced in the years to come.

In keeping with the experience matured in other projects of the HCP, the GTCDC team, which included an Italian master mason and conservator with extensive experience in traditional construction, took direct responsibility for implementation. The restoration process included planning the nature and schedule of works, coordinating the training of labourers, procuring and producing ad-hoc building materials, supervising construction activities and monitoring the quality of the results.

The combination of these different aspects has made it possible to maintain flexibility and control of the restoration at all stages, thus enabling the project team to ensure good quality in the work performed, monitor and reduce costs, and facilitate a close integration of the training component into the overall building conservation process.

Francesco Siravo

is an architect specialised in historic preservation and town planning. Since I991, he has worked for the Historic Cities Programme of AKTC with responsibilities for planning and building projects in various cities of the Muslim world.