Malaysia is a land full of an eclectic range of architecture, depicting its rich culture, heritage, and influence. Derived from civic and political studies, the history of its colonization and exploitation by several countries is a well-known phenomenon defining the architecture and urban fabric of the nation. The presence of colonialism in architecture is ambivalent, showcasing control and power opposing uniformity and rhythm in the built form. Having been colonized by the Portuguese in 1511, the Dutch in 1641, thereon by the British in 1867, and by Japan during World War 2, with numerous migrants from India and the Middle East present till the present date, Malaysia is a hybrid society with a mix of culture, philosophy, lifestyles, traditions, and the built environment. 

Colonial Architecture in Malaysia - Sheet1

Most colonial buildings in Malaysia were built around the 19th and 20th centuries. The climatic conditions most typically defined the architecture of Malaysia, with heavy influences from the colonizers and their respective styles. Introducing new technologies, methods, and materiality was imperative in characterizing the hybrid of colonial Malay architecture. Under the influence of the West, the structures sometimes resembled Classical characteristics, sometimes Gothic, and sometimes even depicted the impact of the most oriental forms. But due to its tropical weather, these buildings were modified to a certain degree by using local materials to make them more sustainable. Most Malay kingdoms that hold immense importance in the history of the place were built in stone, followed by the majestic mosques that showcased a variety of vernacular, colonial, and modern forms. 

The multicultural history and population of Malaysia reveal a new identity and structure of urbanization inherited by the rich discourse of literature and art, fostering solidarity in an attempt to merge religious history, culture, and legacy. The colonial heritage added a spectacular level of aesthetic beauty and national importance to the infrastructure and spread of the built environment

Remarkable Colonial Architecture in Malaysia :

St. Michael’s and All Angels Church

One of the oldest churches that survived the devastating bombing of the Second World War was the St. Michael’s and All Angels Church in the city of Sandakan. Marked as a heritage monument dating back to 1893 that took over 30 years to complete, this church is preserved, protected, and celebrated. Built under British rule, the Englishmen desired an Anglican Church. Clergyman William Henry Elton, appointed as the priest of Sandakan, took charge and proposed a temporary religious place that marks the first completed stone structure in Malaysia that was initially built with wood. 

New Zealand-based architect BW Mountfort designed the layout for the church. With the support of Elton, it was demanded to be made explicitly of granite and white stones to be called from Hong Kong, highlighting the arched doors and beautiful stained glass windows. This majestic structure showcases the designer’s experimentation with design and materials. A series of skylights allow ample sunlight to illuminate the interiors adding depth and calmness to this place of worship amidst the chaos. 

Colonial Architecture in Malaysia - Sheet2
St. Michael’s and All Angels Church _ ©

The City Hall, Penang

The must-see location in Malaysia is Penang City Hall, also known as the Dewan Bandaraya Pulau Penang, along Jalan Padang Kota Lama is an iconic colonial piece of art now holding authority and importance as the head office of the Municipal Council of the island. Previously occupied and designed as a residential structure owned by a merchant Thomas Halyburton, it was leased out to accommodate the navy officials by the British East India Company, later known as the Essex Lodge. 

This national monument is a UNESCO world heritage site, marking its worldwide importance. Designed in the then trendings style of Edwardian Baroque architecture, it is exaggerating the voussoirs of arched openings with domed corner roof pavilions and enlarged keystones. The massive Corinthian columns, grand windows, and white-washed symmetry represent the colonial influence from the early 19th century.

Colonial Architecture in Malaysia - Sheet3
City Hall Penang _ ©

Kek Lok Si Temple

Situated on top of the hill in Air Itam, Kek Lok Si is the largest temple in Malaysia. This temple is spread over 30 acres of mountainous terrain with heightened ceilings holding a 

hundred feet tall statue of Goddess Kuan Im, made in bronze. Surrounded by picturesque landscape, this iconic temple is one of the most important Buddhist temples worldwide, especially in South East Asia. The finely carved pillars, bright and colorful aesthetics, and a plethora of lanterns enhance the temple’s visual impact. Wood and stone carvings are abundantly seen in the temple. The complex has several prayer halls and a large hydraulic bell. Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, and Chinese rituals combine to bring this architectural wonder to extraordinary consideration.

Kek Lok Si Temple  _ ©Chris Chafer

References :

  1. 14 Beautiful Colonial Buildings In Malaysia That Look Straight Out Of A Postcard by Nandini Balakrishnan

  1. 5 Exquisite Colonial Architecture in Malaysia by Rise

  1. The Architectural Styles Of The British Colonial Buildings In Malaysia  by


Vruti Desai is an architect and a designer based in Mumbai with a master’s degree in Architecture from Pratt Institute in New York. Being a multi-disciplinary artist, designing signature spaces and creatively expressing narrative experiences that enhance everyday human activity was an ideal way to combine these interests.