Wednesday, April 6, 2011


Khoo Su Nin, Streets of George Town Penang  An Illustrated Guide to Penang’s City Streets & Historic Attractions, Areca Press, Penang, 2007 (4th edition).

The concept of ‘addressing the street,’ of considering the impact of the public edge of a project on its precinct, has almost become a planning cliché. Architects often tell how their projects have been cleverly shaped by this strategy, and developers are frequently hassled by local authorities to go away and do more for ‘the street.’

But what is ‘the street’? Rarely do we consider this strip anything but another place adjacent to our building – its annex or necessary forecourt as it were: the path to ‘my place’ - the public thoroughfare - and a boundary that demands statutory design responses. Anything beyond these rudimentary understandings is seen as being polite – neighbourly. One can claim ‘brownie’ points with a self-conscious response to an access way - for being ‘well mannered,’ as the jargon explains it. The idea of manners in architecture is something Trystan Edwards wrote about many years ago in his book Good and Bad Manners in Architecture - 1924. It is a book that became an embarrassment to have on the shelves in our post-modern era, like Howard Robertson’s Principles of Architectural Composition treatise - also published in 1924. Like all ideas, they tend to disappear and then, sometime later, to resurface to gasp for fresh air in other times when they are again ‘rediscovered’ by otherwise distracted minds, to be reconsidered enthusiastically as being relevant. Rarely though does a street get considered as a street for its own character. Outstanding streets like Union Street in Aberdeen grab one’s attention, but ordinary streets fade away to be remembered as crude functional necessities. Usually a street’s qualities are seen as an ad hoc collection of those things around it – a collaboration or an otherwise forced aggregation of the works of perhaps ‘well-mannered’ architects and bold builders. In ‘Streets’, Khoo Su Nin has revealed a place, a town - Georgetown, Penang - by looking at it street by street. It is an unusual approach and an interesting strategy to peruse.

Georgetown is an admirable subject. That Khoo Su Nin chose to write about this colonial settlement is explained by its World Heritage listing. It is indeed a beautiful and stimulating town with a complex cultural heritage – an inclusive variety frequently described as eclectic, that is alive and well today. One is told that there is no need to go to China or India because what one experiences in Georgetown differs very little from the aboriginal encounter. Francis Light established Georgetown in 1786 – just 16 years after Cook saw Australia. Fifty years later, in 1836, the free settlement of Adelaide was founded and designed by Francis Light’s son, Colonel William Light, who chose the site by the Torrens and laid the city out. His father chose the present site of Georgetown as a trading post for the East India Company. A strategic base was required to challenge Dutch supremacy in the Straits and to further expand trade with China. It was not until 1957 that the British withdrew from Penang as the colonial ruler. Australia’s old defence base was located directly opposite Georgetown, on the mainland peninsular of Malaya at Butterworth.

‘Streets’ is methodical. Each street is listed alphabetically and its history is outlined: how it was laid out, when and by whom; and who lived there; how it has changed; how it has been used; and what it is now. The cultural issues involved in the street, its myths and narratives, are portrayed along with the names of surveyors and occupants - and their life stories too. Only once these have been attended to does the author look at the buildings - well, those that are most noticeable. Georgetown is formed by an array of almost identical shop houses, so selecting a building to write about usually involves a unique quality in its history, personalities, cultural significance or physical difference. ‘Mansions’ are identified, as are quirky attributes of other structures, their locations, details, decorations and their past. Different uses are outlined. Alterations in plan and form are noted as are changes in use.

The approach highlights a quality that streets have - they are inclusive and conglomerate public voids. This little book is about cultural heritage as well as heritage buildings, and includes aspects of the history of this settlement. It is a general account, a collection of stories, a travel guide, a heritage guide and more. It highlights the complex quality of a street that by its very nature gathers – collects, congregates, assembles. It is an excellent example of how a place can be approached integrally – indeed, of how we often approach a town and come to know it bit by bit through its streets. The book shows us how important thoroughfares and lanes are just as ‘streets,’ not merely things to play around with as leftover space or zones for vehicular movement. Streets have an organic existence that needs to be recognised and appreciated.

Yet this is the most frustrating book I have read for a long time. While enthralling with it complexity of interrelated information and interesting images, its graphic layout and collation of this material aggravates annoyance. There is an awkward physicality in this publication that is not helped by its commitment to an dictionary-like alphabetic arrangement. We know and come to understand places by their proximity to one another - their interrelationship - which we comprehend as associations on the map - both the mental map and the paper map. This book has a map of Georgetown at two scales, as the cover declares, but both are tucked away at the back of the book and are unable to be viewed without turning to them – thus breaking the rhythm of reading and disturbing the poise of body and book. The more detailed street map is printed across two pages of the book and it divided by the deep chasm of the binding, offering no ease for continuous and frequent reference or for any co-joined reading of this diagram. Then there is Murphy’s law that inevitably has the location you are searching for located right on the zone in between. These problems could have been solved by an extended fold-out map that could be referenced when reading any portion of the book. This larger-scaled map is coded numerically – a useful device – but the explanatory schedule called the City Map Index is located on the previous page opening and, like the map itself, is spread over two pages. This juxtapositioning needs more page turning and distractions as one goes from the reading page in the body of the book to the rear map and then backwards and forwards to check numbers of the locations, at the same time as one is trying to keep the reading location held open with any spare fingers or thumbs that might be available. Then one might have to refer to the smaller-scaled map that is located just before the City Map Index. At least this regional image fits one page and has its index on the page opposite. The disturbance in needing to look at these maps breaks any continuity in understanding that is being searched for and becomes a major distraction.

In the same way, the alphabetic organisation throws important relationships into chaos. While there is, for example, a Chinatown and a Little India in this municipality, the various streets that frame these cultural centres are scattered willy-nilly throughout the book in the same way that a library places its books on shelves – but here the organisation gives no consideration to category, merely to the rigor of the order of first letters. So one is left spinning, trying to piece together information that could have reshaped this book into a delight if it had addressed this subtlety. Reading would have been a much more enriching experience if matching relationships, proximities and juxtapositions had been the strategy for organisation rather than the alphabet.

But there is more that adds to this confusion. The listing of streets, and buildings in these streets is set out in two columns per page. Each section is appropriately titled and has relevant illustrations scattered throughout. These are useful and necessary – and are usually located where the text refers to them, as László Maholy-Nagy always recommended for book design. But the small text in fine italics that explains which photograph is which, and what is where, is located across the bottom of the page. The reader’s eye is attracted to the image and searches out its correspondence with the subject described in the general text – and vice versa - but to make sense of the photographs one has to look at the bottom of the page when the image or images might be at the top and or the middle or lower edge, on either side. Once the italic text has been deciphered and the lines fragmented to pair off the words and the images – the descriptions are all run together into a set of lines - one has to then interpret the organisation: top right; middle left; etc., as it is only these directional words that define the associated image. This is yet another task that interrupts the ease of understanding. The eye is forced around just as the mind is, then the brain has to allocate italic text to its matching image before anything in the printed information can be reinforced by the image. This correlation then has to be understood in the context of the general body of the book that may require a revisiting of all of these moves just to confirm a misunderstanding or to overcome any doubt: and the maps might have to be checked too. The whole graphic approach displays a most frustrating lack of understanding of just how information needs to be organised to make things easy – comfortable and comprehensible - for the reader to readily grasp.

So ‘Streets’ is an interesting publication, not only for revealing the positive quality of, and relation between streets and place, and their experience and expression, but also because of the awkward tasks it sets for the reader. The book highlights just how important graphic organisation and the arrangement of information and codes really are. We should not be asking for things just to be beautiful or tidy or well organised. If the experience of reading is to be as rich and informative as possible – in this case, as rich and informative as the subject is - then we need to know how this delight and interest can be maximised. Reading ‘Streets’ will show why this matter is so essential, in the same way that it wonderfully highlights just how streets can become the prime reference for the gathering of qualities and stories that define place. They are more than what we usually see them as - functional thoroughfares. Their primary core role lies in the making of settlement into place – in this case, World Heritage place.

Yet there is a strange irony to this review that raises the logic of the design of this book. While one might prefer a graphic design strategy that could enhance the reading experience, ‘Streets’ actually feels like Georgetown with the organised chaos of its eclectic presence. Here things are all the same while all being different; here familiar things are used differently; here, there are no rules operating within a broader framework of a very strict order, a circumstance that compares with the alphabet being used to organise a complex and complicated set of very interesting stories and pieces of information. Is this the experience that Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote about as being ‘the bugbear of literacy’ where the certainty of printed letters takes over from the mysterious source of feelings through naming?

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