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The architecture of Southeast Asia is characterized by pitched overhanging roofs andelevated floor archetypes. It has developed in political entities with varying cultures and histories. North and South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) were all influenced by Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist traditions, whereas the Philippines incorporated Christian and some Muslim forms, and Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia were influenced by Hindu and Islamic architecture.

Colonialism and Western interventions in the 20th century, especially the introduction of modernism, wrought dramatic changes on the built forms of all these countries. The peoples of the area have nevertheless retained traditional cultural styles, sometimes expressed in their architecture. At the beginning of the 21st century, almost as a reflection of the global profusion of information and images, architecture in Southeast Asia has a wide range of pluralistic architectural expressions.

Colonial Architecture

Southeast Asia’s colonizers brought different approaches to architecture and urban planning. In Malaysia/Singapore the British presence led to the development of the IndoSaracenic style that began with Indian architecture, exaggerating it with a baroque overlay. British-run architectural firms sprang up and helped establish this style, including the influential firms of Thompson, McPherson and McNair and Palmer and Turner, who practiced in several countries. Although alternative models were provided by the Malay kampung, or village settlement, and by Chinese courtyard houses and shophouses, the British influence prevailed. The 1933 British town plan for Kuala Lumpur established the concept of the “orderly city,” reflecting “civilised life,” for British colonies worldwide, and Singapore began to expand quickly on this model.

In 18th-century Indonesia, the houses retained their indigenous inward orientation, with courtyards and gardens, but under Dutch Colonial influence were reinterpreted in a mix of Amsterdam architectures. This changed when the Dutch architect Henri Maclaine Pont studied the palace architecture of Java in the 1920s and incorporated climatic and cultural lessons into his own designs, as did architects such as Thomas Karsten and Notodiningrat. Three outstanding examples are the campus of the Institut Technologi Bandung (1920) by Maclaine Pont, Bandung’s Government Complex (1925) by J.Gerber, and Karsten’s design for the Semarang People’s Theatre (1920s).

In Thailand, the only country in the region that was never colonized, the 20th-century kings introduced European design, leading to hybrid styles of architecture. The grand Victorian Government House (c. 1905) in Bangkok was built according to drawings by Italian architect Annebale Rigotti in an Italianate classical style mixed with local Oriental features, which became the vogue. Another foreign-influenced work was the Khrom Phra Palace (c. 1926) by the French architect Charles Bequelin; later, in the 1960s, the influence of modernist architecture is apparent. However, the critic Udo Kultermann notes: “An important fact to remember is that in Thailand the majority of clients were Thai and the choice of architectural language was theirs,” (1986, p. 58).

The French governance of Indochina from 1858 to 1954 included a mission civilisatrice, which in its urban design and social planning can still be felt. A great effort was directed at the end of the 19th century toward the master plans and architecture of Phnom Penh, Hanoi, and Haipong. The new settlements were built apart from the traditional city—for example, in Hanoi, the oldest area, the “36 streets quarter,” was leftlargely intact, and the colonial development was put on the other side of the lake.

Early public buildings often imitated those in France: the Opera House (1900) in Hanoi by Eugene Teston was a copy of the Paris Opera, as Saigon’s Hotel de Ville (1908) by Fernand Gardes was a copy of the Paris town hall. However, when Ernest Hébard was called to Indochina as the first director of urbanismin 1921, he studied the region’s ancient past and, as Gwendolyn Wright noted, “freely mixed elements from different countries, in order to generate his ideal of an innovative, adaptive aesthetic” (1991, p. 64). This approach is well illustrated by his Ministry of Finance (1927) and the Louis Finot Museum (1931), both in Hanoi.

Spain heavily influenced the Philippines, a Spanish colony since 1521, in its ornate religious architecture. Under American governance after 1898, it was perhaps the first country in Southeast Asia to embrace the International Style and Western planning; its architecture remained imitative of the West. Daniel Burnham’s Plan for Manila (1906) and William Parson’s Manila Hotel (1912) are good examples. The Manila Post Office (1926) by Juan Arellano recalls Schinkel’s Altes Museum in Berlin.

Between the World Wars the colonial powers began to sponsor Modern European architecture rather than the neoclassical indigenous amalgam. As a prelude to modernism, some of the finest Art Deco buildings can be found in Bandung, Indonesia. Examples are the Grand Hotel Preanger (1932) by C.P.Wolff Schoemaker and the “Denis” Gebouw (1935) by A.F.Aalbers. Kallang Airport Terminal (1937) in Singapore by the PWD and the Central Market (1936) in Kuala Lumpur by Y.T.Lee are also Art Deco. However, the aftermath of World War II brought with it the functionalism of the Modern movement and continuing Western cultural domination.

Independence, Nationalism, and Modernity

The nationalist movements brought the need to express freedom from a colonial, foreigndominated past and, beyond that, even from local traditions. This rupture with the symbolic and visual past was achieved partially through new building types, such as airports, parliament complexes, and state mosques, expressing a national and collective identity. From the late 1950s the International Style and, to some extent, Soviet monumentalism gained adherents.

Local architects began to be influential in Malaysia and Singapore. An early modernist building of note is the Federal Hotel (1957, with a 1969 addition) by Goh Hock Guan. Perhaps the first truly local and most important firm, the Malaysian Architects CoPartnership (1960–67), was founded by four Chinese British-trained architects who also studied in the United States—William Lim, Chen Voon Fee, Lim Chin See, and Lim Chong Keat. Their modernist works include the Singapore Conference Hall (1965) and the Seramban Mosque (1967). Lim Chong Keat went on to found Jurbina Bertiga (Team 3) and undertook major projects including the tallest structure in Penang, the Komitar Complex, built between 1976–87. Other important first-generation architects include Lai Lok Kun, Ruslan Khalid, and especially Hijjas Kasturi, whose Luth Building (1986) and Lot 10 (1994), a metal-clad shopping center, are good examples of contemporary mainstream architecture in Kuala Lumpur.

Malay architects began to look back to the Malay house with its pitched overhanging roofs for a contemporary Malaysian identity. The earliest examples of this can be found in the Language and Literacy Agency Building (1959) by Y.T. Lee and in the National Museum (1963) by the Singaporean firm Ho Kwong Yew and Sons. Around the same time, Baharuddin Abu Kassim and colleagues of the PWD were forging the expression of a national Islamic identity through architecture as in the National Mosque (1965), a modern building that used a folded concrete-plate parasol roof.

Chinese-Malay architects dominated Malaysian building until the 1970s when indigenous architects, aided by an affirmative action program, began to compete more successfully in the building boom. Newly established government entities such as the Urban Development Authority promoted public-private joint ventures. The 1980s begat a profusion of commercial blocks and mass-housing and tall office buildings, such as the 35-story Dayabumi Office (1984) in Kuala Lumpur, designed by the firms MAA and BEP.

A second generation of Malaysian architects includes Hajeedar, who designed the Subang View Hotel (1980), and Shahroun bin Dato Haroun of Dimensa, whose Condominiums (1987) are sited in Port Dickson. Ken Yeang of T.R. Hamzah and Yeang designed the Plaza Atrium (1983) in Kuala Lumpur and the 31-story MBF Tower (1993) in Penang. His own residence, Roof Roof House (1984), conceived as “an environmental filter,” sparked a long-term concern with tropical architecture.

In Singapore after World War II, designers were both foreign and Chinese. Palmer and Turner’s 1954 Bank of China Building and Ng Keng Siang’s Asia Insurance Building (1954) are examples. After independence in 1965 modernist buildings predomi-nated, including the Jurong Town Hall (1974) by Raymond Woo of Team 3 International. RDC, founded in 1974, undertook the Science Center (1975), while the Alfred Wong Partnership designed the National Theatre (1963) and Scotts Shopping Complex (1984).

Foreign architects designed a majority of the landmark buildings. I.M.Pei did the Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation (with BEP Architects in 1976), and Moshe Safdie designed the Habitat Singapore (1984). Australians Geoffrey Malone and Philip Conn of IPC designed the high-tech Crystal Court (1985). Kenzo Tange’s works for years dominated the city skyline, including Overseas Union Bank Plaza (1983–93) and TeleTech Park (1994).

Asia’s famous shopping centers began in Singapore with the Golden Mile Shopping Centre (1972) and Peoples’ Park (1973) by Tay Kheng Soon and William Lim of DP Architects. Lim later left DP Architects to form a smaller, more experimental practice and designed many fine projects such as Unit 8 condominiums (1984), Tampines Community Center (1989), and the Design School (1995) at the LaSalle-SIA College of the Arts. Akitek Tenggara, Tay Kheng Soon’s firm, designed Chee Tong Temple (1987) and the dramatic steel-and-concrete Institute of Technical Education (1993) in Bisham. A new generation of architects including Manop Architects, Richard Ho, and Tangguanbee produces innovative work, including the latter’s playful Institution Hill Apartments (1988).

Government architects also play a major role in Singapore building. The PWD did the Central Provident Fund (1977) and Changi International Airport (1981 and 1990). Lee Kwan Yew, the country’s long-serving president, set up government agencies for physical planning of the Central Business District and the New Towns. The Housing and Development Board (HDB, founded 1960) designed and built the large housing estates where more than 80 per cent of Singaporeans live. Liu Thai Ker, CEO of HDB until the 1990s, was perhaps the most influential planner-architect shaping the physical fabric of the country. The largely successful projects have made Singapore the epitome of the modern Asian city.

However, the desire to be modern led to the razing of old buildings and whole areas,such as Chinatown. It was only in the mid-1980s that the government realized that areas with character and identity were being destroyed in favor of blandness.

Korea’s upheavals in the 20th century led to the division of the country. While North Korea followed the Soviet Union’s monumental style of architecture, South Korea’s rapid reconstruction in the 1960s was greatly influenced by European and American internationalism and the use of concrete, giving rise to what was referred to locally as the “simple-structure style,” replacing country’s traditional low-rise timber buildings with tiled roofs.

Until the 1980s foreign architects, such as Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, with their Lucky-Goldstar twin towers (1986), designed the major buildings. Western influence can be seen in the works of two major Korean architects who worked for Le Corbusier in Paris before returning to Seoul. Kim Swoo Geun returned in 1952; he and his practice, the Space Group of Korea, designed the National Assembly (1960) and the Gumi Arts Complex (1990). The second, Kim Chung-up, designed over 200 buildings, later returning to tradition and local crafts as in his last work, the Olympic Gate (1988).

The second generation of Korean architects began to appear in the 1990s. Kim Won of Kwang-Jang Architects designed the Sisters Convent of Korean Martyrs (1993) in Seoul, a brick-faced complex of clear geometric forms. His Gallery Bing and Zo Kunyong’s XPlus Building (1992), both in Seoul, are good examples of ultramodernist work. The 1998 Olympic Games provided a great impetus for architects such as Ilkum and Woo and Williams, who designed a large housing scheme for the Olympic Village. Kyu Sung Woo also designed the elegant Wanki Museum (1993) in Seoul.

In the Philippines, among the post independence (1946) architects were Pablo Antonio with the Gonzaga Building (1957) and Angel Napkil, the Werkbund Exhibition-like National Press Club (1958). The government under Ferdinand Marcos produced ambitious large-scale modernist monumental buildings, many of the best examples of their 20th-century architecture. The leading and most prolific architect was Leandro V.Locsin, who interpreted his heritage through abstraction. Among his works are the Chapel of the Holy Sacrifice (1955) in Quezon City, the Hyatt Regency Hotel (1967), Manila, and the Berguet Center (1984) in Manaluyong. His most important design is the Cultural Center in Manila (1969–76), of which the Theatre of the Performing Arts (1969) is perhaps his best building. Other influential Filipino architects are Gabriel Formoso, Alfredo Luz and Jorge Ramos, and the Manosa Brothers, with their San Miguel Building (1984), Manila. Francisco “Bobby” Manosa’s work combines traditional materials, craftsmanship and forms with contemporary needs, as in his Tahanang Pilipino (1984), popularly known as the Coconut Palace due to its use of materials.

Under Soekarno Indonesia’s “New Order” nationalism was expressed after independence in 1945 by Modern architecture and Soviet monumentalism. Examples in Jakarta are the National Mosque (1962) by Siliban, the National Monument, a tall stele topped by a golden flame (1945–66), and Gadjah Mada Complex (1977) by Anthony Lumsden. Later, President Soeharto favored architecture of traditional values to establish a unifying identity for the diverse archipelago, and in 1975 Taman Mini Indonesia (Indonesia in Miniature Park) was created to display all the country’s vernacular architectural styles.

Firms such as Atelier 6, founded in 1969, designed both modernist buildings such asLippi Headquarters (1982) in Jakarta and the vernacular-inspired Carita Beach Hotel (1993) in West Java. Additions to ITB (Bandung) in the early 1990s contained neovernacular buildings by Iwan Sudradjat. In 1986 a new University of Indonesia campus at Depok, near Jakarta, planned by The Lempaga Technologi-FTUI, was designed to reflect Javanese-Indonesian forms, with buildings such as the Rectorate Tower (1989) by Gunawan Tjahjono and the Mosque (1992) by Trianto Y.Hardjoko that clearly express this dictate.

Foreign architects continued to build in Thailand with John Carl Warnecke’s 1956 U.S. Embassy, Robert-Mathew Johnson-Marshall’s Asian Institute of Technology (1968), both in Bangkok, and Kisho Kurokawa’s Japan Studies Institute (1985) in Rangsit. The most prominent Thai architect is the English-trained Sumet Jumsai, whose firm SJA+3D was established in 1969–applying technological innovations to local architecture. Buildings that exemplify his approach are at the Campus of Thammasat University (1986), Rangsit. They are all based on a square grid; most of them are raised above ground or water and are unified by prominent pitched roofs that lend traditional character. In a very different vein, he explores “high-tech aesthetic” in the Science Museum (1977) and a theory of “robot architecture” (reflecting interaction between humans and machines) in his controversial toy robot like Bank of Asia (1986) and the Nation Building (1991), all in Bangkok. The second important Thai architect is the American-trained Strabandhu Ongard. His later works, the Surijasat (1978) and Khun V.Ed (1983) houses and the Toshiba Headquarters (1986), present an amalgam of Thai and European architecture. Other prominent practitioners include CASA, Suriysat, Tiptus, and Plan Architects.

Elsewhere in the region, Brunei and Vietnam for example, contemporary architecture continues to be dominated by nonnative architects. In Bandar Seri Bagwan, the capital of Brunei, the symbolic Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque (1958, architect unknown) expresses Islam, whereas the sultan’s palace, Istana Nurul Iman (1984), by Locsin, is a monumental modernist complex. Kenzo Tange produced the new city center (1994) of Ho Chi Minh City and also the Master Plan for Brunei’s capital in 1985. Vietnam now sees itself developing an architecture that is characterized by Chinese-influenced shophouses, French boulevards, Soviet housing, and Western-style commercial development. This sense of ecclecticism and overlay is common to much architecture in the region at the beginning of the 21st century.

Two topics provide a reading of the region’s architecture today: one is the issue of identity as exemplified through hotel design, and the other is the form of the contemporary Asian city including the ubiquitous skyscraper.

Tourist hotels, which are economically vital for Southeast Asia, usually try to present the culture of the region. They take their clue from vernacular architecture, are built in beautiful settings, and include all comforts. They present an imagined authenticity, using replicated forms, and also stereotype the tourist’s notions of the local culture. They are, however, an important modern building type that gives an image of regional homogeneity. Among the earliest is the Tandjung Sari (opened in 1962) in Sanur, Bali, conceived by its owner-operator, Wija Wawo Runtu; the Bali Hyatt (1973, renovated in 1994) also in Sanur, by Palmer and Turner out of Hong Kong; and the Tanjong Jara Beach Hotel (1973–80) on the east coast of Malaysia, by Wimberly, Whisenand, Allison, Tong and Goo of Hawaii. The entrepreneur Adrian Zecha, who with his architectsestablished the “Bali style,” has developed some of the most remarkable ones, the Aman Resorts. The American Ed Tuttle designed the Amanpuri (1987) on Phuket Island, Thailand, and the Australian Peter Muller the Amandari (1989) in Ubud, Bali. More recently, alternatives to the Bali style are provided by the ecological emphasis at the Pearl Farms Beach Resort (1994) on Samal Island, Mindanao, Thailand, by Bobby Manosa, and by the search for historical references at the neo-Art Deco hotel Chedi (1993) in Bandung, by Kerry Hill.

High-rise buildings adapted to the region’s climate and local technology were developed in the 1980s, and Ken Yeang wrote about and built “bio climatic skyscrapers.” Perhaps this is most successfully explored in his award-winning high-tech, metallic office building with its vertically spiraling planting, the Menara Mesiniaga (1992) in Selangor, near Kuala Lumpur, and by Paul Rudolph in his Dharmala Sakti Office (1986) in Jakarta, a tall concrete building of stacked roofs on pilotis (stilts) that allow for natural ventilation throughout the building. The skyscraper continues to be the most prominent image of progress and modernity; note Kuala Lumpur’s twin Petronas Towers, designed by Cesar Pelli, which at 450 meters, were the tallest buildings in the world on completion in 1998.

Despite these glittering constructions, a majority of the urban population in Southeast Asia is poor and lives, sometimes as squatters, in sprawling settlements. Urban population distribution is distinguished by the presence of one major city—the primate city—of each country, characterized by rapid and uncontrolled growth, as in Jakarta, Bangkok, and Manila. A successful project that deals with the urban situation in Indonesia—the Kampung Improvement Program—was instituted by the government in the late 1970s. Since the 1990s private entrepreneurs have also developed new settlements, as in Lippo Karawaci, near Jakarta, a major urbanism that continues to expand.

The theory of buildings and human settlement in the tropics found its voice (among others in a multitude of disciplines) in architects Shlomo Angel, William Lim, Ken Yeang, and Tay Kheng Soon. Their concern with expressing an abstraction of a panSoutheast Asian identity, instead basing it on regional or ethnic identity, has led to notions of a modern tropical city. It is likely that their ideas will find form in the 21st century. Tay’s Development Guide Plan for Kampung Bugis (1989) and Yeang’s JB2005 (1994) are excellent examples of this new thinking.



Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.3.  Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.

  1996-2004, Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, South Korea, JEAN NOUVEL 


  1996-2004, Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, South Korea, JEAN NOUVEL












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