Malaysian Timber in Applications

Chef Shukri’s House, Langkawi, Malaysia

Set on a hill among rubber trees, overlooking paddy fields and the local villages in the island of Langkawi, Chef Shukri’s house resembles a Malay dignitary’s abode of a bygone era.

It is a solid three-section wooden structure assembled without nails and raised high above the ground on timber posts and beams based on traditional Malay house-building techniques. The Malay kampong house is in fact a brand new house built with fresh Chengal. The entire house was built in the traditional method without the use of a single nail. Timber members were connected and held together by dowels and wedges.

The designs, from planning to detailing, were conceptualised by Chef Shukri himself. The design is of the Malay house of the noble families typically built in the Malaysian state of Kedah. Raised high on stilts, the space underneath was meant as a work area or for the storage of food supplies and farm equipment in the old days. In fact, every part of a traditional Malay house was designed with a specific purpose. Malay houses commonly have a linear design with its living quarters right in front, followed by the sleeping quarters in the middle section and the kitchen in the back.

The layout of Chef Shukri’s house presents a central living space, flanked by one large bedroom in the left wing and another large bedroom as well as the kitchen and dining area in the right wing. The construction process, which began in 1989, took three years. It involved the installation of 72 chengal pillars and beams. One specific pillar positioned slightly to the left of the house as one faces it is the Tiang Seri or central post of the house. Its significance is both structural and symbolic: it is the first piece of wood to be erected in the construction of the house, and its installation is often accompanied by prayers and rituals to ‘lock in’ good luck and prosperity for the house owner. According to Shukri, the Tiang Seri is always positioned to the left (of the house), representing the position of the heart in a human body.

Choosing the right spot for the Tiang Seri is the all-important part of the pre-construction stage as it would be the main factor in determining the position of the rest of the house. The basic elements of nature are first taken into consideration. Shukri stressed that one has to know where the sun rises and sets to determine the position of the main entrance and the bedrooms. “It suits me well to have the morning sun coming through the front part of the house when the first meal of the day is served, and have the bedrooms face the back of the house to catch the sunset.” In Malaysia, West-facing bedrooms are also associated with the direction of Mecca for daily prayers, usually a private ritual in one’s sleeping quarters.

As one approaches Chef Shukri’s house, a covered grand staircase with ornate carvings on the balustrades leads to the anjung, the front verandah, which leads to the main section of the house, known as Rumah Ibu (Mother house). Typically, the main stairs would have been the entrance for the men, and ladies would use another set of stairs leading straight to the Rumah Dapur (Kitchen house). The verandah, with or without seats, would have been the space for receiving guests who were not that close to the family. The Serambi, on the other hand, which is also a verandah but situated at the opposite end of Rumah Ibu, is meant for family gatherings and discussions, usually accompanied by a spot of afternoon tea, before the family members retire for the day.

With a built-up area of 2,900 sq. feet (269.4 sq. m), the house comes with an A-frame roof with wooden gables resembling butterfly wings. This main roof sits atop the Rumah Ibu. Different living spaces are demarcated by wooden panels of Nyatoh.

Chef Shukri’s bedroom is in the right wing of the house, closer to the kitchen (naturally!). The Rumah Ibu in the middle connects all the other living spaces, and is also where the spacious formal-dining-cum-living area is. Nyatoh is used for all the doors, windows, wooden panels and plywood partitions with decorative beadings, while Merbau is used for the flooring. Timber lattices made of Chengal adorn both sides of the house for decorative and sun-shading purposes.

The centre of the house has a two-tiered roof with the end gables featuring the Suluh Bayu design found on boats. Other carvings such as the window panels depict jasmine flowers, a local Malaysian fruit called the mangosteen, and palm trees. The fascia or papan cantik is in the shape of a house gecko. Most of these carvings are based on traditional Malay designs incorporating some Chinese elements. For example, the window panels carry pineapple motifs which look like temple vases.

The house is very airy and cool: a perfect cocoon against the harsh tropical heat. Despite its traditional design, the spacious kitchen and en-suite bathrooms are fitted with modern conveniences, making the house a perfect showcase for the seamless fusion of the old and the new.