Project / Kellie’s Castle, Batu Gajah, Perak
Task / Desk & Field Research, Information Panels, Wayfinding & Signage
Client / Batu Gajah District Office & JKR Kinta
Year / 2013
In collaboration with FSquared (interior architecture)
Kellie’s Castle—or ‘Agnes’ Palace’, as it was scathingly labelled by one of William Kellie-Smith’s contemptuous colonial peers to highlight the fact it was financed by Kellie-Smith's wife, Agnes—is one of Malaysia’s most intriguing architectural vestiges from the early 20th century. Unfortunately, construction of the mansion was halted upon Kellie-Smith’s sudden death in Lisbon in 1926, and was left unfinished since then.
Our team conducted desk and field research into the history of the family and the abandoned mansion. Drawing from a variety of sources—from the National Archives to the late architect Chen Voon Fee's speculation on the architectural intent of the mansion, as well as interviews with experts and local residents in Batu Gajah and Ipoh—we were able to reconstruct some of Kellie-Smith’s life and aspirations during his time in Malaya.
By chance, one of Kellie-Smith’s granddaughters, Frances Boston-Smith, visited the mansion a few years before and donated photographs of his first mansion, The Kellas House (originally situated beside Kellie's Castle, but was bombed during the Japanese Occupation), to the Batu Gajah District Office. These images provided us with a sense of his eclectic taste in interior furnishing and collectibles, which mirrored the rather odd mix of architectural styles* of his second mansion, Kellie’s Castle. As fate would have it, Kellie’s Castle later came to be known as Kellie’s Folly.
*Moorish Revivial / Indo-Saracenic / Greco-Roman
A study of typographic expression during Colonial Malaya revealed an astonishing variety of typefaces in use, literally ‘An Eclectic Mix of Styles’. Many of these typefaces are not available today in digital format, or as hot-metal type (at least in Malaysia). We have taken some liberties and tried to emulate the period's look in our information panels with the resources that were available to us.
There was also the challenge of working with two languages in the headings, as sentences in Bahasa Malaysia (Malay) tended to be much longer than the English equivalent.
In line with the principles of building conservation, we mounted the information panels using a cable-rod system so that it minimises impact to the building’s original material and structure.
We also designed a simple signage system for visitors: directional and information signs which blend well with the ambiance of the building (etched lettering on bronze plates as the material will age beautifully); and caution signs which stand out prominently. Prominent cautionary signs were especially important to help ensure public safety as the building was preserved in its original state: with uneven and jagged corners, as well as stairways and voids without safety railings.
Our scope of work for wayfinding and signage was restricted to the interior of the mansion. All signs on the exterior environment, as well as publications, were to be designed by other companies. This has caused some inconsistencies in the interior and exterior signage design, which is regrettable.
Information vs Hearsay
The legend of Kellie’s Castle is filled with tales of romance, mysterious ghost stories, and other intrigues by the local community and tourism bodies, but we approached the write-ups for the information panels from a factual perspective.
However, we made a conscious decision to incorporate local hearsay of ghostly apparitions on some of the location signs (and in one information panel “Shrouded in Mystery”). After all, these beliefs continue to exist very strongly among the local community—for as long as one can remember, the Chinese has always referred to Kellie’s Castle as the ‘Ghost House’.