Iversen: Architect of Ipoh and Modern Malaya May 7, 2020 – Posted in: Reviews
Review by Mark Hinchman
Berthel Michael Iversen (1906–76) was born in Denmark, but his entire professional career played out in Malaya, where he worked from 1928 to 1966. For more than three decades, he was one of the major figures working to create a distinctive Southeast Asian architectural modernism. Examining his career offers a means of probing the specifics by which modernism flourished in the region.
In this book on her father’s life and work, Ruth Iversen Rollitt relies on a number of materials that she inherited, including letters, unpublished memoirs written by her parents, and office documents (including hundreds of photographs). Iversen was a prodigious chronicler. Starting from his first days in Southeast Asia, in 1922, he dutifully wrote letters to his mother. Annually, he updated his unpublished cartoon memoir, “The Unfinished.” These sources provide Rollitt’s book with scores of illustrations. Tackling Iversen’s life and career requires specific linguistic skills, which Rollitt has; she counts as her native tongues English and Malay, and, as a child, she became fluent in the languages of her parents, Danish and Dutch. She was born in 1938 in the Malayan state of Perak, whose capital, Ipoh, was Iversen’s center of operations. Rollitt is not an academic, but while writing her book she made the rounds of archives in Southeast Asia, and she relies heavily on contemporary press coverage.
Iversen’s output is important because it is an accomplished and understudied body of work, and looking at it enriches our understanding of modernism as a global phenomenon. Rollitt’s book plays its part in explaining modernism’s development in a vibrant corner of Asia, and in turn it prompts historians to reconsider modernism itself. Iverson directly discussed modernism quite early on, and he and his partner, Hendrik van Sitteren, were examples of the role that Europeans played in modernism’s spread. Their sphere of activity was a multiethnic region that included Chinese, English, Indian, and Malay.
Iversen followed his brother to Malaya, where he managed a palm oil estate. The young architect started working for Booty and Edwards in Singapore. One of the firm’s leaders was Arthur Oakley Coltman, a figure of note whose work was a part of the global art deco phenomenon. Professionally known as B. M. Iversen, the architect was dispatched to Kuala Lumpur to oversee the construction of the classical Chinese Assembly Hall. In 1929, he switched to working for Keys and Dowdeswell, where he occasionally oversaw the engineering work of Brossard and Mopin, a French firm. Booty and Edwards, Keys and Dowdeswell, Brossard and Mopin—these firms were important from Shanghai to Saigon, yet they are understudied in Asia and barely known in the West. At Keys and Dowdeswell, Iversen met the Dutch-born Van Sitteren, and they worked on the General Post Office Building in Singapore. Decades later, that Beaux-Arts confection became one of the city’s iconic luxury hotels.
The chief value of Rollitt’s book lies in the details she provides about modernism’s early days in Southeast Asia. As early as 1930, Iversen was attracted to modernism. This was an interest fostered by his friendship with Van Sitteren, an unabashed fan of modern Dutch architecture. In his letters, Iversen related his dislike of facile decoration. In 1930, he started working on the Ipoh Turf Club, whose grandstand was, in his words, “fairly modern” (31). Thin-shelled concrete, cantilevered beams, and column-free spans were elements that attracted him aesthetically and technically. In 1934, he opened his own firm, B. M. Iversen, Architect, and created scores of houses with ties to Danish and Dutch residential vernacular architecture with modernist touches, such as porthole windows and tubular railings.
Starting in 1930, Iversen became known for designing movie theaters, a profitable genre that architectural journals of the region ignored. He cultivated a knowledge of acoustics, air-conditioning, and projection equipment, and he favored contemporary forms. The progeny of De Stijl, his designs were deconstructed cubes with intersecting planes and lines bearing recognizable formal connections to the work of Gerrit Rietveld and Willem Marinus Dudok. In small towns across the Malay Peninsula, many people’s first experience with modernity was going to the movies, often in Iversen’s theaters.
Iversen was among a cadre of successful Southeast Asian modernists. Numerous scholars in the region today study Asian modernism; they are knowledgeable about the postcolonial tradition they have inherited and equally interested in architecture as a manifestation of power. If there is a common thread to their work, it is their determination to move beyond a simplistic understanding of colonial relations. The work of scholars such as Jiat-Hwee Chang, Lai Chee Kien, Imran bin Tajudeen, and Koompong Noobanjong shines a light on a fascinating swath of architectural history that remains a work in progress.1 Yet Iversen remains less well known in Asia than he should be. In the West he is almost entirely unknown.
Rollitt makes several points that underscore Iversen’s importance. For one, in Southeast Asia, modernism started in the 1920s, not after World War II. While she does not theorize her father’s work, she understands the unique position that Danish and Dutch architects held in the region: they brought European architectural technology to the area, but with less colonial baggage than English or French architects might have carried. Rollitt covers the geopolitics enough to provide context, but it is a complicated story, for the colonial Federated Malay States did not constitute an autonomous entity with established borders. Singapore was in, then out. The emerging nation of Malaysia has a diverse population, with Malays holding a slender majority, and with significant Chinese and Indian minority populations. Modernism’s role was continually shifting as the region’s ethnicities grappled with their postindependence architectural representation.
In chapter 5, “The War Years,” Rollitt presents an exciting tale of a family fleeing war and occupation, a story replete with rationing cards, blackout curtains, and air-raid shelters. The Iversens first evacuated to Indonesia. Relying on “The Unfinished,” which Iversen wrote in the third person, Rollitt quotes, “They travelled in great comfort on the good ship Plancius” (85). Iversen’s cartoonlike drawings illustrate harrowing stories, a method that heightens rather than diminishes their emotional effect, as when he depicts the Plancius followed by a Japanese submarine. The story of the Iversens’ flight from Singapore to Batavia to Australia offers a fascinating combination of penury, glamour, and terror. These were impoverished refugees who somehow stayed in luxury hotels.
Iversen’s illustrations are a delight. One, captioned “And the business grew with more offices and assistants,” shows cartoonlike portraits of his partners, employees, and offices; it lightheartedly reflects the ethnic makeup of Malaysia, with men and women displaying a number of skin tones, hairstyles, modes of dress, and body types (Figure 1). In another, Iversen good-naturedly depicts himself throughout his life, becoming increasingly stout and using various devices—a cane or crutches—to facilitate his walking.
Iversen’s most productive period began with his return to Malaya in 1946 and ended with his retirement in 1966. During this era, he reconnected with Van Sitteren, who spent the war in a prison camp in Japan, and they became professional partners. Iversen’s major works include the Loke Yew Building (1951) and Federal House (1957), two nascent skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur. The Loke Yew Building, a commercial block of offices and retail, is exemplary of Iversen’s work, following a simple scheme that the architect used in multiple projects (the MCA Building in Ipoh, 1956, is similar). The column-and-concrete-slab structure fills a square city block, and visitors enter through a rounded corner. The diagonal symmetry dissolves as, to the left of the entry, the southern elevation is a curtain wall, while the eastern elevation features inset horizontal ribbon windows whose ends are punctuated with porthole windows. When Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers took the title of world’s tallest buildings in 1996, the event surprised a world whose eyes were focused elsewhere. But a number of architects in the Malay Peninsula, including Iversen, had been exploring high-rise construction for decades. The firm was renamed Iversen & Van Sitteren in 1950, and Van Sitteren managed the Singapore office. Rollitt generously mentions legions of other architects who worked alongside her father.
In Iversen’s hundreds of buildings, the features of international modernism are on view: framed horizontal windows, concrete vertical fins, and fields of curtain walls (if painstakingly made by hand). He contrasted rough rubble half walls with shiny white plaster. One of his houses was Chez Nous (1952), the childhood home of Malaysia’s preeminent ecological architect, Ken Yeang. Iversen displayed an interest in crafting a “climatically appropriate” architecture, and Yeang called him a pioneer in the field (118). Yet apart from climate and materials, Iversen had little interest in relating to place through iconography or local symbolism.
Still, identity politics plays a subtle role in Rollitt’s text. She writes that by the end of his career, Iversen felt it was time to leave Malaysia and return to Denmark. The newly independent country was “in a nationalist frame of mind, [and] both government and private companies were now seeking to give jobs to Malayan architects instead of Western architects” (166). Much of the scholarship of global modernism trumpets architects whose work falls under the rubric of critical regionalism—modernism tempered by a deft understanding of place.2 Yet Iversen, like other architects in Malaysia, was interested in promoting the International Style rather than resisting it. This is a story of Danish, Dutch, and English architects working with French contractors and Chinese, Indian, and Malay workers and clients; some studied in Europe, some in Australia. They fled the Japanese, hired American staff, read journals and books, and vacationed in Japan and Europe. In the global theater of Southeast Asia, myriad interactions and circumstances, wonderfully accounted for in Rollitt’s book, collectively constituted what it meant to be modern.
- Jiat-Hwee Chang, A Genealogy of Tropical Architecture: Colonial Networks, Nature and Technoscience (London: Routledge, 2016); Lai Chee Kien, Building Merdeka: Independence Architecture in Kuala Lumpur, 1957–1966 (Kuala Lumpur: Petronas, 2007); Jiat-Hwee Chang and Imran bin Tajudeen, eds., Southeast Asia’s Modern Architecture: Questions of Translation, Epistemology and Power (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2019); Koompong Noobanjong, The Aesthetics of Power: Architecture, Modernity, and Identity from Siam to Thailand (Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 2013).
- See David Robson, Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002); Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Collins, Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture (Bangkok: Key Publishers, 2006).
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