Retrofitting Landscapes: From Inner-Block Voids to Urban Patios
Small-scale interventions with strong urban vision have the potential to transform obsolete spaces into active destinations. George Town, the UNESCO-recognized historic core in Penang, Malaysia, could transform its inner-block voids, making them part of a lively urban system.
Walking through the streets of George Town, Malaysia is a mesmerising experience. It was there where I first saw an Anglican Church, Chinese style Taoist temple, Hindu temple and Mosque on the same street. It’s clear that a multi-cultural society coexists within the city’s historic core.
George Town’s cultural diversity derives from its history as an important trading port. Known as the Pearl of the Orient and founded in 1786, it was the first British port town established on the Strait of Malacca.
The city received UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008 - an acknowledgment of its well-preserved urban fabric, as well as its intangible yet palpable cultural heritage.
The Geography of George Town
Fort Cornwallis serves as a reminder of George Town’s trading tradition. It is of noticeable scale, occupying the largest footprint of all buildings and monuments in the historic core. The fort is now a tourist destination; locals use its gardens as a place for social gatherings and events.
George Town’s urban center started as a grid south of Fort Cornwallis, which gradually gained reclaimed land on its eastern end. Today, there are four main building types within the historic core: shophouses, colonial buildings, industrial sheds and jetties. Temples, markets, art-deco, and early-modern style and new buildings infiltrate this fabric, interrupting its rhythm.
Shophouses, in compact arrays, define the block perimeters. Main streets define their orientation. Colonial buildings demarcate the north of the historic core and mainly serve as administrative offices and hotels.
Large industrial sheds and jetties are scattered about the reclaimed land to the east. Economic development has rendered such industrial fabric all but obsolete. The cruise and ferry-bus terminal are the only two active points on the water.
This layout encourages most of George Town’s activity to take place in the historic core. The shop-house lined streets are its most lively spaces, where cultures mix and communities coexist in close proximity. Their identity spills into the streets. From food to colour; from language to rituals; from craftsmanship to commerce: one feels the power of culture.
The liveliness of George Town’s streets largely results from its variety of destinations. Churches, temples, food markets and commercial clusters – they’re all there, defining the concentration of other activities and guiding where people move and gather.
Distances are walkable in the historic center – a necessity due to the area’s hot tropical weather. A covered walkway between shophouse entrances and the road provides pedestrians shade from sun and rain.
Like in most other places, temples and shops open and close according to defined schedules. But here, temporary food stalls move around, creating social spaces in different areas throughout the day, sporadically activating obsolete city voids, quiet streets and alleys.
Little India: An opportunity for productive retrofitting
Many new economic clusters have developed outside of George Town’s historic core. These include high-tech industries, hotels, and malls, accompanied by new luxury housing and residential neighborhoods. The historic core has mainly remained a tourist destination and a place to live and work for those of lower socioeconomic status.
To preserve the historic core, it has been necessary to invent new economic activities to take place there. But it is often difficult to attract new talent to complement existing local businesses and craftsmanship. Doing so requires architectural adaptation and an understanding of relationships and complementarity on a wide urban scale.
In an effort to discover opportunities for retrofitting existing spaces in George Town, AA Streetware conducted research in Little India, a section of the historic core. In doing so, we found that local people often take shortcuts between blocks to arrive sooner to their destination. Along these pathways, one experiences strong contrasts: from lively and colourful commercial streets to quiet alleys, the backs of shophouses, parking lots, and degraded empty spaces.
There is a substantial walking network within these inner-blocks. Yet aside from the mobility they foster, these voids are largely unproductive spaces. We believe there is opportunity to turn them into active spaces – perhaps, a network of urban patios.
The urban patio
Before laying out our proposal for creating a network of urban patios in Little India, it will be useful to reflect on what defines a patio.
As Anton Capitel argues in “La Arquitectura del Patio,” one can conceive of a patio as a system of composition – a force capable of organising the various parts of the building to which it is attached.
Many cultures have patio-building in their architectural history. Greek cities of the classical era provided some of the earliest examples of the patio-house.
The image below shows Delos City, in Greece. In this drawing, one observes houses of an introverted nature. They contain no street windows and are instead oriented towards an interior dominated by a central void: the patio. The space choreographs the house’s light, visual interactions, and circulation. The blank outer wall allows for the repetition of this composition and creation of a compact urbanity.
This patio void didn't need to have a completely closed perimeter, nor did it need the same scale of the rooms around it. It could be incomplete and irregular. Its essence wouldn’t be affected.
Conceptually, a patio is a central void that organizes programmatic spaces along its perimeter. The patio-house evolved from having inward looking rooms to posessing additional layers of rooms facing the streets. Nevertheless, the logic of organization still preserved the qualities and role of this void.
Such a physical organization also has intangible qualities. Its introverted nature creates social space – semi-public or semi-private space, depending on the type of building and its accessibility.
For patios to have a social role, they need to have a pedestrian dimension – a scale and size that permit social interaction. If the capacity to engage as a pedestrian with that space is not there, the patio would be only a light void. The image below indicates the maximum threshold for meaningful contact in the course of a ground level-event. For a social space to be successful, distance is the key parameter. (Discussion of sectional, social-scale relationships can be found in Jan Gehl studies.)
We could leverage the patio’s organizational qualities, and its capacity to create a social space more intimate than the street, for George Town. Inspired by this potential, we could rethink the inner frame of the city’s inner-block spaces and turn them into urban patios.
Bringing the patio to Little India
There are couple of ways this could be done – one temporary and quick to implement, the other permanent and in need of architectural intervention.
The first suggestion centers on the historic center’s moveable food stalls. Food stalls could begin using this inner space to create day and night food markets. For these to be attractive during the day, it would be important to include shading canopies that block out the sun.
The second suggestion is to restructure shophouses, opening up the backs of them and encouraging street-level activity. Depending on the size of the inner void in question, this could involve only opening the ground floors of these buildings or potentially adding building extensions. A new active edge facing the inner blocks would transform old voids, creating a network of productive spaces.
These simple changes could create large socio-economic and urban impacts. They could foster even greater cultural celebration, amplify existing local business, and open up space to attract new business. The introduction of urban patios represents a small-scale intervention that could help contribute to a sustainable evolution of George Town´s historic core.
Naiara Vegara is a registered architect (RIBA Part III), with an AA diploma, as well as a PhD candidate researching the topic of Streetware. She is currently the director of FM Metropoli CitiesLab London, which works on projects around the world related to urban design, landscape, and architecture. Naiara teaches in the Architectural Association Housing and Urbanism master’s programme and has been running the AA Streetware Visiting School in Southeast Asia for six years. She is a widely sought-after design critic. She has shared her research on virtual environments at workshops at Columbia University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania; and presented her urban projects at symposia at Taylor’s International School in Kuala Lumpur, University of San Carlos in Cebu, and ETB in Bandung, among others.
Capitel, Anton, “La Arquitectura del Patio”, Barcelona, 2005, Gustavo Gili, pp. 199.
de Bierre, Julia, “Penang Through Gilded Doors”, Penang, 2006, Areca Books, pp. 161.
Gehl, Jan, “Life Between Buildings. Using Public Space”, Island Press 2011, pp. 207.
Hall, Edwards. T., “Hidden Dimension“, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, pp. 217.
su Nin, Khoo, “Streets of George Town Penang”, Penang, 2007, 4th Edition, Areca Books, pp. 190.
UNESCO, “Melaka and George Town, Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca”, Website. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1223.
Vegara, Naiara, “AA Streetware Penang I”, Madrid, 2013, pp. 177.
Vegara, Naiara, “AA Streetware Penang III”, Madrid, 2015, pp. 155.