Fort Cornwallis: A Laboratory for Research and Training in Traditional Construction

By Giovanni Santo

July 2024 FEATURE
main image
Adding the finishing touches to the South Moat.

ONE OF MY passions from young is visiting urban areas that have their architectural heritage within their cultural and traditional identities preserved. I am always fascinated by the means by which humans pass down history through the use of local materials, which then become the methods used to transform spaces into living places according to the needs of the community within that locale.

One such city is George Town: the history of those who have resided here in times past can still be traced through its buildings, narrating the time and the historical and cultural passages that have forged it. From colonial buildings to shophouses, and from religious places of worship like temples, mosques and churches to civil dwellings, these structures were, until the beginning of the 20th century, built using only natural materials: wood, stones and terracotta.

I want to bring your attention to Fort Cornwallis, a military architectural structure dating back to the late 18th century located on the northeastern shore of the island of Penang. Observing the architecture of the current fort, one would notice that its history, even if it embraces a relatively short period compared to human activities visible in other places, involves all those historical processes that usually take place over a much longer period of time.

The South Moat with the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower at the background.

The construction of the fort began in 1786 using wood, a material abundant and easily available on the island. It was used as palisades to fence it off from the residential settlements. However, by the beginning of the 1800s, there was a need to build a structure that would provide greater solidity, durability and above all, a greater defence function. A star-shaped fortification was built—as is still evident today—using complex techniques of construction. Instead of using just wood, one of the main materials used is local granite which abounded on the island. It was a crucial material used to fortify the walls and the buildings within the walls, and to erect the walls of the moat surrounding the main fortress.

Terracotta bricks, however, were used for the walls, internal floors and ceilings of the fort. At the beginning of 1940, the fort experienced a transition in its functional and architectural structure. Cement had been introduced into the building industry a few decades earlier, making it possible to reconstruct portions of masonry destroyed by the bombing of the rooms in the southern portion during World War II. It was also used to form bases for the installation of tracks used for the movement of goods to and from the fort and esplanade.

All these phases distinguish the history of this place and reading the architecture of the current fort, we have established that its history narrates all processes that have revolutionised and modified the field of construction. Even though these events are usually only evident over much longer periods, the fort unites them in a time span of only 150 years, from timber to concrete.

It is, therefore, safe to assume that this place holds the potential to become a real laboratory/school that describes the history of construction—a tangible cultural site to improve the skills of local operators through practical and theoretical activities for the re-evaluation of the cultural heritage of Malaysia.

Practical activities, sharing, research and experimentation are among the purposes set by the George Town Conservation and Development Corporation (GTCDC) team, an entity established in 2015 in partnership between the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), Think City (a subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional Berhad) and the Penang state government through its agency, Chief Minister Incorporated (CMI), which collaborates with local and international consultants, and seeks to transfer knowledge to local operators on how to “read architecture”, not only through theoretical investigations, but tactile contact with the monument and its environment.

The science behind practical restoration allows us to examine architecture directly, while allowing operators to codify all the aspects that make up the monument. Before each intervention, the architectural monument was scanned in all its parts to understand its state of conservation, the forms and causes of degradation, the construction techniques, the type of materials used, the application methods and the construction phases, etc. This information came from direct on-site investigations and is then compared with historical paper documentation. Subsequently, a technical record chart of the monument was created, describing the processes studied so as to ascertain the types of interventions most suited to the monument—bearing in mind that these interventions must be carried out in complete respect of the original.

After combining all these indications described on the technical record chart of the monument under examination back in 2018, we started on the selection and study of the existing materials on site. We knew this was fundamental for the preserving of the tangible and intangible cultural heritage for future generations.

We wanted to create mixtures that did not contain cement. We wanted it to be as close to the original fort fabrication as possible. To undertake a conservative restoration approach based on this expectation would mean that each reconstructive or additional intervention had to be based on existing historical evidence and no interpretation should be admitted. Moreover, each addition had to be carried out using materials similar to those used for the construction of the original in the physical and chemical aspects, but at the same time, it had to be visibly different and recognisable. That was not all. Each reconstructed element had to be performed out of structural necessity and not just for aesthetic effect.

This methodical approach has created a new way of operating in the field of architectural restoration in Malaysia, a principle that is based on the total exclusion of cement and industrial materials from construction sites, replacing them with natural mixtures prepared specifically to treat surfaces with natural substances.

The restoration of the storerooms at Fort Cornwallis, located by the South Moat, was completed in 2022.

After having successfully tested and carried out the interventions inside and outside the storage rooms within the fort located in the south zone (we carried out the reconstruction on the arches and the entrances of the south rooms, and laid plasters using hydraulic mortars and breathable paints carried out on site (mortars to create monolithic floors, etc.)), we are currently completing the first phase of the moat in the south zone.

Although this intervention was carried out in a difficult environment, we want to showcase that it is possible to restore an entire area following the principles of the original fabric. We had to use hydraulic mortars to consolidate the original existing walls. The entire wall was then protected by applying six layers of plaster with different hydraulic properties and hardness before the entire surface was treated with recycled oils collected from local food courts. This creates a breathable waterproof surface that connects the environment with human activities.

The combination of these aspects has allowed us to guarantee quality, reduce the costs of materials, share our knowledge with future generations, and respect the monument not only as part of history but also the environment surrounding it.

Giovanni Santo

is a researcher of ancient techniques of architectural construction, who began his career as a technical restorer and conservator to deepen ancient methods of architectural construction techniques and surface finishing.