Alice in a sad state
What’s the lifespan of the average building? By the calculation of an accountant, around 30 years, while the averagehomeowner will move once every 15. The Pantheon in Rome stands as one of the oldest buildings still in use, completed in 537AD by the emperor Hadrian while the honour of the world’s oldest wooden building goes to Horyuji temple in Japan, re-erected after a fire in 700AD. Here in Malaysia, precious few buildings clock in before the mid 19th Century, and in Kuching the TuaPek Kong temple is usually given the accolade with the date of 1843, though so little of the original structure remains that it is difficult to support that claim. Achieving Ruskin’s ideal is, in reality, a tall order. But that is the goal of the conservationist – preserving a history, a structure, a function as if forever.
The Fort, back for the future
Fort Alice sits atop a gentle hill at the crest of the town of Sri Aman calmly surveying the life of a sleepy outstation town most famous for its roiling river and annual festival in its honour. She is apparently untouched by time since 1875. But this belies the reality that 2 years ago, this old dame was dilapidated and deserted, mouldering away into an untimely end. The last two years have seen her laid bare, taken apart, put together and built back. There’s life in the old girl yet.Fort Alice sits atop a gentle hill at the crest of the town of Sri Aman calmly surveying the life of a sleepy outstation town most famous for its roiling river and annual festival in its honour. She is apparently untouched by time since 1875. But this belies the reality that 2 years ago, this old dame was dilapidated and deserted, mouldering away into an untimely end. The last two years have seen her laid bare, taken apart, put together and built back. There’s life in the old girl yet.
The painstaking process of putting her intricate framework back together again
Her descent into ruin is all the more poignant given her status, both historically and architecturally. She marks the start of a powerful narrative of a series of 20 forts built across the state, of which 14 remain today (12 of them from the Brooke era). As John Ting describes, these forts were used to control movement and communication in the area and along the river which was, and in many cases still is, the main route for travel and transport. In most cases, the forts attracted large communities to settle around them, providing opportunities for trade and protection alike.The first of these was the eponymous Fort James, built by James Brooke sometime in the early 1850s at the mouth of the Skrang River, a tributary of the Upper Lupar. This was a fighting fort, built by local Malays and local Ibans who were collaborating with Brooke against the Saribas and Skrang Iban. However, once his authority had been established in the area, the site was abandoned because it was prone to flooding and therefore unsuitable for use by any incipient community.
But this is where James began to show his unusual style of leadership. Unlike the British Colonial powers in other territories, who might have burned the fort to the ground as they abandoned it, Brooke was open-minded about local styles of leadership and actually tapped into their systems. Brooke, no doubt aware of Iban beliefs that buildings destroyed by fire were omens of bad spirits and evidence of an erosion of his power, ordered Fort James dismantled and moved to its current site, very much in keeping with the Iban traditions of pindah (migration) where longhouse structures are dismantled and taken to the new settlement.
Here in 1864, above the settlement of Simanggang as it was then known, Alice began a new, multi-functional life with a new name, housing the officers and garrisons of troops as well as acting as court, offices, armoury, post office, dispensary, jail and tax collection centre. For herein lies the major difference between Brooke’s administration and that of colonial India, for example. Not for them extensive servants quarters or the convenience of the fan-wallah. Brooke’s officers were largely expected to do for themselves – acting as their own foremen for local workers on the construction of a building that needed to be sympathetic to the environment. This was no Old England but rather a new Sarawak.
Collaboration was inherent in this system – the officers needed to rely on local leaders and their workforce and nowhere is this more evident than in the architecture of the fort itself. In terms of function the fort is very similar to an Iban longhouse – a single defensive structure where most of the functions of daily life took place – bilik, tanju and ruai are all in evidence. The posts were square and milled in the English style; the double-pitched roof decidedly Malay; the roof beams joined following the Chinese carpentry traditions in a style used by both the British and the Iban with their tiang pemun (the ritualized central post which represents the spiritual heart of the longhouse). Unlike the British in India, who switched to masonry as soon as they could, this fort used local materials – belian and atap – in a blending of techniques. As John Ting puts it: “It is a building that was designed according to a set of parameters and desires not limited by Colonial British ideas and architecture of the time and the space given to the local is highly unusual in terms of late 19th century colonial architecture.” The result was purportedly Charles Brooke’s favourite fort.
This extensive collaboration was reconfirmed by a later entry in the Sarawak gazette. When the new Resident’s building across the road was built in 1931, the descendants of the people who had erected the first columns of the fort were invited to officiate. Among them were the descendants of the AbangAbang, Pengirans and Iban Chiefs – dignitaries of different cultural groups were represented.
So what is the secret to preserving such a piece of posterity, to building for forever? Actually, it is a fine balance of history and modernity, research and design, but most importantly, of authenticity and longevity. It takes an established conservation architect and an architectural historian, drawing together a team of archaeologists, master carpenters and a sympathetic contractor. It begins with painstaking research across several continents, from Australia to Asia and then on to Europe where John Ting, researching his PhD, unearthed the earliest surviving photograph of the fort from 1875, taken by Alexander Hill Gray is kept in Stonyhurst College in the UK. His partnership with Mike Boon, the architect charged with conserving the fort, is the basis of the authenticity in the project.
The interior is decorated with 19th Century reproduction furniture and some pieces from the Museum collection.
This meant a return to traditional techniques. Modern equipment was kept to a minimum to preserve the integrity of the site. Machine milled timbers would have stood out against the originals so an old approach was needed. Enter Mr. Ting Nik Sing (no relation to John), a master carpenter who Mike coaxed out of retirement onto what may have been the project of his lifetime. As the fort was taken down, each piece was catalogued, each joint studied, each technique logged. While the uprights had all survived intact, many of the secondary structural members and finishing elements had been replaced over the years. In many cases, it was these that had not lasted, riddled with water damage, and needed to be excised from the structure and replaced with new materials, in the same style as the old. Mr Ting recreated tools and techniques; his years of experience learning his craft stretched to the limit.
RevealIng knowledge to the next generation – Master Carpenter Ting
Nik Sing shows his techniques to the local school children: recreating joints to attach replacement belian timbers to the original beams in the original style; experiments in lime wash; the carpenter’s toolkit This is how the building will last forever. It is the same as it was, in substance in most cases and in spirit everywhere else. The continuity in the construction is clear. When research showed that the original building was limewashed, the limewash had to be made. Once again, the Sarawak Gazette offered a basic recipe, mixing lime with cowhide gelatin. Mike created several versions using several ingredients until the right one was found – the recipe that would ensure the life of the building for as long as possible.So, Alice stands again but will she live forever? Now that is up to the community and the authorities charged with her care. The team have done their part, conducting an extensive community outreach programme throughout the life of the project in which they introduced local school children to the wonder of their own heritage. After all, if the children love Alice as the Rajah did before them, then her future is assured. She is back on her feet and all dressed for visitors. Make sure you all take the time to pay court. The Rajah may be dead; but long live Alice.
John Ting and Mike Boon are the dynamic duo in Sarawak’s conservation landscape. John, an architect by trade, is the undisputed world heavyweight champion in the field of research on Sarawak’s architectural history, and the world expert on Sarawak’s forts, having recently submitted his PhD on the subject. Mike is an award-winning architect and the go to guy in in Sarawak. If it is a conservation project, Mike has had a hand in it – courthouse, square tower, Fort Margarita, the lot. A match made in heritage heaven!