An Afternoon with Ruth Iversen Rollitt

By Mariam Mokhtar

Lido Cinema, Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia - Building designed by Berthel Michael Iversen“I love Ipoh very much – that is really where my heart is and I am in despair when I see what is being done to it,” says Ruth, the daughter of one of Ipoh’s prominent architects, Berthel Michael Iversen.

Ruth’s father was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1906 and was the youngest of seven children. His talent for drawing saw him in good stead for studying architecture at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen, so when his older brother Werner, a planter invited him to go to the Far East, Berthel took up his offer and arrived in Malaya in 1928.

For eight years, he polished his skills in two architectural firms, before starting his own firm in Ipoh in 1936. His first company was called Iversen, van Smitteren & Partners with branches in Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

Over lunch in a Chinese restaurant in London’s Chinatown, Ruth talked about her father, who was responsible for several famous buildings in Malaya and Singapore including several cinemas by Shaw Brothers and Cathay. He was also renowned for scores of government buildings, schools, radio stations, churches, hospitals and according to Ken Yeang in the ‘Architecture of Malaysia’, it was a symbol status among the Ipoh elite, to own a house designed by Iversen.

Many Ipohites will recall some of Iversen’s great works, such as the grandstand at the Ipoh race course, the Lido cinema, the Ipoh Swimming Club, Jubilee Park and the Lam Looking Bazaar.

Heritage is one thing, but development is another. For many decades, the historical buildings of Ipoh have been demolished, in the name of progress and development.

When priceless buildings are turned into rubble, our social past and our identity are erased. Ipoh does not appear to be proud of its history. Iversen’s buildings helped give us an identity. The gleaming towers of concrete, steel and glass structures which are popping up all over Ipoh now, are indistinct and characterless.

In between mouthfuls of dim sum, Ruth told Ipoh Echo that she had been born in the Batu Gajah maternity hospital in 1938 and her early childhood was spent at No. 1 Tambun Road.

She said, “When I was small, the land where the current fountain at the roundabout in front of the Menteri Besar’s house is sited, used to be part of our garden.”

During WWII, the whole family escaped to Australia but returned to Malaya after the war and settled into 110 Tambun Road, which her father built after their return to Ipoh.

She declares that she is “…always very happy to meet my country fellow men/women in London. There are many of them and I am lucky to have got to know them.”

She talks about her trips to Ipoh and of her visits to God’s Little Acre (Batu Gajah), where her first husband, the planter Donald Baxter was buried. Donald and his driver were killed in a payroll robbery at the Riverside Rubber Estate, where they lived.

Building designed by Berthel Michael IversenShe describes the idyllic years before tragedy struck; of a life full of adventure with her pets, including chickens and her son being born, at the same hospital as she.

During her visits to Ipoh, she is horrified at the destruction of the buildings in the area.

“Why destroy such a lot of heritage buildings that made Ipoh such a very special town?”

“It breaks my heart to see the modern monstrosities without any merit replace the beautiful houses my father built. I realise that these houses are not ‘grand’ enough for the wealthy people of today – but we were satisfied with them.”

“I realise that the value of the land is so high and that these houses in large gardens have to make way for many, many ghastly little shacks. Sadly there is no taste.”

She talks about Fair Park and the houses her father built there. She says her Chinese tailor lived in Fair Park and how the mention of the place brought back many pleasant memories.

As a subscriber to the Ipoh Echo, news on Ipoh is easy to keep track of. But she wonders why Ipoh is turning into a concrete jungle with none of the charm it once had.

“My father had been in Malaya for almost 40 years and contributed a lot to both government and private buildings. I want his name to be known, his buildings to be admired (before they are all demolished) – I want to do it for the sake of his memory and in admiration of a wonderful father and a great man!

“When I tried to look up in the National Archives in KL – I was horrified to see that the name Iversen came up as: unknown!”

To preserve the memory of her father and his works, she says that she is working on a book about him and hopes to publish it this year.

She asks, “Does the Ipoh Echo have any influence in government offices? We need to be able to get into the town planner’s office and see if we can find old plans that confirm which buildings are by BMI.”

If anyone can help, they can contact Ruth Iversen Rollitt via the Ipoh Echo.

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25 thoughts on “An Afternoon with Ruth Iversen Rollitt

  1. THIS is the lopsidedness we have in our society, if one could express of another traitor, harshly labeling them including to evict their hometown, it’s fine and okay. The moment I blew my whistle with idiots and fools….some feels it, ” siapa yang makan cili akan merasa pedas”. Let’s refrain from attacking the contributors and be a gentleman to focus on the issues.

    By helping to pass along your culture and heritage to future generations, you become a steward of your cultural heritage. On 7th July 2008, Melaka and George Town, Penang were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The World Heritage inscription validates the outstanding universal value of the two cities as places with unique cultural assets. Likewise, let’s all work towards a common goal by helping Ipoh to obtain the UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

  2. This is directed to Mr.Sundralingam, What qualifies you to comment so harshly on youngsters in Ipoh? In your latest comment, you’d claimed that you do not want to comment on ‘idiots and fools’.

    When any reader disagrees with your point of views, you are running your mouth aggressively towards those who doesn’t agree.

    Mr.Sundra, there’s an old but Famous saying that reads like this,
    ‘It Takes One To Know The Other’

    Based on your comments in Ipoh Echo, I guess that your age should be anywhere around late sixties or seventies.

    Please have some respect towards other readers whether you like their comments or not, because what goes around, comes around ! Salam !

  3. The term “ethics” as usually understood refers to a collection of rules or standard of conduct expected of a particular professional person. I choose not respond to idiots and fools. Restoring old-fashioned buildings means values to the past. To everyone……… the charms of Ipoh lie in its rich historic and cultural heritage. If the old buildings that witnessed these historic events are not valued and kept, there will not be anything left as physical evidence. Historical buildings and streets of Ipoh present a more “democratic” way to relate Ipoh’s past lives. Some of U fellows are new kid in town, you are degraded by the selection of the wrong path.

  4. I missed the posting by Md.Ibrahim or would have surely responded earlier. I strongly protest at being called a traitor. En Md Ibrahim, you have overstepped the boundaries of courtesy by calling other commentators by this harsh label. There is absolutely no reason for this. We each have our views and you are welcomed to dispute the views of others but to get personal is too much. The beauty of architecture for the most part lies in the eye of the beholder. One may say a building is beautiful but another may disagree. Is this a reason to call someone a traitor? The buildings designed by Iversen may not be Asian but what then is Asian architecture? Are skyscraper buildings considered Asian architecture? Perhaps we should build all our buildings solely using wood since using cement is obviously foreign architecture. Every city in the world has its Old Quarters, the place where it started. New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai, all have it. No city became a modern city overnight. Parts of the city will surely undergo renewal but parts of it will be preserved. Preserving old buildings helps to draw tourists, generating more revenue to the local economy than tall modern buildings can ever can. Ipoh has the largest area size among all Malaysian cities, even larger than Kuala Lumpur. Are there no space to build new buildings other than to demolish and build over old ones? MBI has designated several satellite areas for development, eg Simpang Pulai, Pengkalan, etc. We can have our ultra modern buildings in these places. No?

  5. To all people who critized the building as non-Asian value or does not reflect Malaysian design…so does the current buildings do? Any of this new buildings is really needed or fully utilized? Even a developed state like Penang know the importance of heritage but non of my fellow Ipoh-nites understand the treasure they used to have.

    Ipoh progressing well is a bullshit as the Ipoh I know now is no different from the Ipoh back then but only worst in terms of development. The only profit Perak generating is by blasting all the beautiful Lime caves around Ipoh so don’t tell me the destruction of the buildings is for progress sake.

    And please be courteous in your comments. As Malaysian, is all you know is that when people comment of the place they is to ask them to migrate away? I hate when ppl is asking others to leave the country just because they have some oppinion on the country and how to make it better. If it’s a good suggestion just listen else just ignore politely.

    Patriotism is not something to say but to show and all you had show is disgrace to Malaysia.

  6. Is it just me? The detractors sound awfully like one person submitting comments under different guises — the writing styles and consistent misspellings seem similar.

    In any event, I’m all for development, but I think it needs to progress with a gentler eye towards preservation and a more sobering outlook towards the environment and society.

  7. I would like to rebut Mr. Sundralingam’s comment. He said that readers are free to say what’s in their mind. Does it means that even a traitor[Ruth] be it a Malaysian, should be supported in her frustration for not maintaining those horrible buildings in Ipoh. Sundralingam for your information, patriotism is even measured in what you preach or believe towards your residing country.Sundralingam, when you blindly supported Ruth’s comment and condemned the local people in authority and all those who were against foreign types of buildings in Ipoh aren’t you and your clique the Desertdog, Ken,Steven Lee, Margaret Lim clearly fits in the definition of a Traitor?
    Does it makes all of you happy to see foreign architecture types of buildings in Ipoh rather than the types that has Asian ‘designs’ in them? Please use this forum to have constructive ideas and sharing.
    I Salute! Mr.Shan Nair for whoever he is for being the first person to condemn the foreign types of buildings and highlighting the needs to move on towards development and his ways of speaking his mind without the fear or favor of anyone irregardless of their positions or whatever.

  8. I read the article, on the day it was published and thought that it wasa a rather interesting pufff piece. I did not think that it would cause much controversy. It did not seem to be about political intrigue.

    How wrong I was! There is a stream of vitriol, which appears to be flowing from people with a vested interest, or their hench-men.

    This interview could, of course, be treading on the toes of those who seek to develop and reap (illicit) rewards. I wonder if those with guilty consciences do protest, too strongly.

    Perhaps, we need a clean sweep, in Ipoh.

  9. I could understand the unhappiness voiced out by Mr.Sundralingam. It is really uncalled for to ask a person of different opinion to leave a place just because no chemistry in opinions.
    The fact of the matter is, why are there people who argue on cultures which doesn’t reflect the bigger picture of the subject, the country?
    This is called patriotism. Mr.Iversen born in Copenhagen, Denmark.Most of the writers claims Canada. I agree with Mr.Sundralingam that he [Iversen] was born in Denmark, maybe some writers out of anger typed Canada instead of Denmark.
    Actually that is not the point of arguments here. Denmark, Canada,Italy or anywhere around the world except Malaya, the topic of nationality arise because the buildings that he built in no way reflects the local people of Malaya.
    Another thing I would like to highlight here, Madam.Ruth had said that she was ‘horrified’ at the destruction of buildings in Ipoh. Does she excepts the government of the day at all time to maintain and preserve all those buildings solely because her father had involvements in building them?
    For Ruth’s information, New York city,wouldn’t had been so famous as it is now if those people in New York had the same mentality of yours and had preserved all their ancestors buildings and never budge even an inch from there. If a poll of opinion is conducted on Ipohites on demolitions of all those buildings that your father had built which has no local ‘ingredients’ in it, definitely a thumping ‘yes’ for demolition would be the answer. Your father is a true racist and there is no doubt about it at all.He made a blunder in designing buildings in Ipoh which even a school drop out could easily say that those buildings has all the Western characteristics in their designs and none of the local.
    I conclude here that Iversen was a worst selection of architect that Ipoh’s state government made at that time. Sometimes the truth is bitter! Thank you so much.

  10. It’s a shame that when an article appears which might not be in favour of some readers, there is always an a forrent of vile, vicious, vituperative attacks on some of the writers. There is no attempt to engage with the substance of the writers’ views or fruitful argument. This clearly reflects that some of the writers are intellectually shallow and morally hollow.

    I still remember in 1970, maybe some of the writer were not even born, the then the Government of the day banned ” The Malay Dilemma” by Mahathir b. Mohamad, an expelled member from UMNO in 1969. That was a wrong move, what they should have done was to argue about the contents in the book. There should have been constructive argument about and not banning the book. Similarly, if writers want argue over a subject, do it with certain dignity and intellectually, and not seeking for some cheap solutions like asking one to leave Ipoh, this commits a local faux pas, that lacks in local customs etiquette.

    It is perfectly legitimate for concerned citizens to voice their opinion. Just by expressing one’s views that does not mount to be unpatriotic.

    Just to correct some factual errors, I don’t know where the dumb bells got the facts that Iverson is a Canadian and Ipoh has architectures buildings of a Canadian. Please know your history before you write, Iverson was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1906 and studied architecture at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen. In 1906, there were so many wooden buildings with atap roof in Ipoh old town, Ipoh Old Town was using Lux Kerosene Lights.

    Iverson arrived to Malaya in 1928, to work for architectural firms to develop this town. His daughter Ruth Iverson Rollitt was born in Batu Gajah on Nov 5, 1938, and she was raised at Tambun Road, Ipoh. Why attack another fellow Malaysian who wants to document her father’s legacy? And why attack on writers who has the sense of appreciation on heritage buildings and history?

    I fully agree on development, there are so much of space in Ipoh to develop, and there are so much of historical facts attached to these streets, old buildings and the surroundings.

  11. Hats off to, Yati, Junaidi,Shoba, Shan Nair, Ashraf and others who fiercely debated on this issue. I am truly lost of words for the compassion and patriotism shown by these people especially Mr.Shan Nair who has been very much vocal on most of the topics in Ipoh Echo.
    One has to be a very knowledgeable person to understand and appreciate the selfless attitude that Mr.Shan Nair possesses.
    I in my personal capacity, would like to ask here to all those people who claimed that ‘heritage’ has been lost, what so called ‘heritage’ had all of you lost in Ipoh? The Canadian is a racist without a shadow of the doubt. Miss. Yati had put it very crystal clear that Mr.Berthel Michael Iversen definitely should not had been invited to do the town planning and architecture of Ipoh. Are Canadian heritage is our heritage?
    Honestly ask yourselves, shouldn’t you being a Malaysian I suppose be proud of a Malaysian heritage or a Canadian heritage? Aren’t you all especially the Desertdog,Ken,Sundralingam ashamed of yourselves? Don’t you people have any pride and self respect.Please repent and show some patriotism to towards your country,

  12. I would like to rebut Margaret Lim’s point of view in the transformation of Ipoh. She said that town planning is very bad in Ipoh and Ipoh has lost its ‘heritage’. Margaret Lim, could you elaborate on which ‘lost’ heritage that you are unhappy about? Are you longing for the heritage that was brought into Ipoh by a Canadian or the rich cultural heritage that Asians especially Malaysians of multi ethnic had lost due to the ‘planted’ heritage of the Canadian cultural seeds in the form of buildings in Ipoh? You, Desertdog, Ken and all those who are against the development of Ipoh, are most welcome to leave and worship those ghostly looking buildings that are scattered all around the world. Iversen is a known racist of his time, or else he would had built [drawn] buildings that reflects more on the native people of Malaya, the place where he was assigned to do town planning instead of structures that very much more describes the West.
    Margaret and all those so called ancient life lovers, it is still not too late, book your tickets to Jamaica or Papua New Guinea you could still catch the ancient life that you and Desertdog,Ken had missed so dearly.

  13. I agree with Madam Iversen, desertbug, Ken and Mr Steven Lee. Unscrupulous demolition of old buildings in the namesake of “development” is totally uncalled for. It is not about colonisation but rather of losing our very own Ipoh heritage. The people who designed the buildings, built it, lived in it, have a story to tell. In fact, it’s a treasure trove of richness that surpasses words, money and the ever popular misnomer “progress”. It is a link to our past, our lifestyle and therefore, culture… something unique for Ipoh and not found anywhere else.
    It is indeed always a pleasure to enjoy the fruits of labour and talents offered by people of diverse race, or backgrounds, who have contributed to the better good of Ipoh in one way or another, for example, Mr Iversen’s skills and creativity in designing buildings around Ipoh.

    No doubt many may argue a new building requires less maintenance, looks brand new and not an eyesore, and yet if we really open our eyes to look around us, we are losing our Ipoh heritage. Not only do the new buildings lack “character”, it also lacks aesthetic and historical values. There is really nothing much to attract a tourist to visit Ipoh. It will just end up as another cosmopolitan city, uninteresting, lacking depth and substance. Might as well visit cities in Kuala Lumpur, Penang or Singapore, at least they still retain some of their heritage buildings. Ipoh used to be a clean city, with well laid out roads, appropriately located buildings, lined with majestic rainforest trees and space to boot. Alas, because of poor town planning, lack of vision, a perennial “couldn’t care less” attitude, our rich heritage is being eroded rapidly. We just do not know how to tap into our richness, whatever is left…(sigh)

  14. Ruth, Ipoh Echo is just a community newspaper with little or no influence in government offices. The paper is, however, read by those in high places.

    One former employee of your father, Mr Tony Toon, called the office the other day and conveyed his wishes to meet up with you. He is a little indispose presently. Tony can be contacted through his son. William Toon at 6012-5001682.


    fathol zaman

  15. The people of Ipoh had been robbed by those people who governed the city those days. Now the people with the right mindset are running the state government.Finally Ipohites could be proud of their own modern city. All those who supported the idea of Madam.Ruth especially the so called lousy Desertbug, Ken and Sundralingam, you are all most welcome to vacate Ipoh and seek much greener pastures in the reserved forest near Taman Negara. Do not worship someone who had tried to pass their cultures and heritage in the form of buildings in Ipoh. I strongly support Madam. Shoba’s stand in this matter.Ipoh is for intelligent people and not for some internal traitors.

  16. We can all agree that there is no stopping development where the new replaces the old. But in this case, the new doesn’t need to be new buildings but rather new purposes and uses.

    As many old buildings as possible should be preserved. These old buildings have their unique characters and give the surroundings an identity of their own. Unlike new modern buildings that are merely functional and boring.

    The size of Ipoh is even larger than Kuala Lumpur. So why does development have to focus on the city center? Nowadays, there are commercial centers in the suburbs, partly to lessen the transport strain on the city center. So new buildings can be built away from the city center, not to replace old buildings.

    The real reason for this predicament is the lack of vision and planning on the part of DBI. Most parts of the city center are “dead” at night, except in places where food is sold and entertainment outlets. DBI should designate areas and encourage businesses to move there.

    For example, the Old Town area of Panglima Road, Concubine Lane, Market Street, etc, could be made into a pedestrian mall for F&B and retail. Blocks of old buildings can be redeveloped into a single shopping mall like what was done to Bugis Junction in Singapore. So old buildings are preserved with new purpose and use.

  17. To, Madam.Ruth, please do not create a controversy in my country especially the place where I live.If you want to see old buildings, there are so many of them in England and many other parts of the world.I strongly support Mr.Shan Nair’s point of view. Those buildings should have been demolished many many years ago.The very moments the British left Malaya, at that very moments it should have been demolished without a trace. What is so historical in those buildings? What does it carries with itself other than the architecture work of a Canadian? We should have our own identity and not of others and bragging with them for their terrible contributions and awkward looking buildings in our country especially Ipoh. Whover is not happy with my point of views you are most welcome to leave Ipoh and find your place in any parts of the world which has many of those old disgusting looking buildings.

  18. ello…people here ! dont be so emosional. when people agree wt u, u like them. when people argue wt u, u want their comment to be out. is it fair? be professional maaa…!

  19. Documenting our culture and heritage is a hard sell, its an uphill task. For many heritage custodians the journey has not been easy having to work with limited resources, lack of time, manpower and the general lack of interest by those who have the means to do something. However, the journey you have taken is not an easy one, for a start IGNORE petty and utter rubbish expressed by some of the readers, they too little to pay attention.

  20. Firstly, I sincerely would like to thank Mr.Shan Nair for his straight forward comments about most of the articles in Ipoh Echo. I totally agree with Shan’s point of view. Why should we preserve all those old buildings which does not reflect Asians at all? Madam.Ruth like what Shan Nair had said your late father should have built some buildings in Canada, where you came from and let you feel the nostalgia of your father’s accolades. To all those people who supported Madam.Ruth you ‘guys’ I assume, are not fit to live in Ipoh. I heard that Vietnam had opened it’s doors for foreigners to be citizens, so why don’t you all especially Ken, Desertbug, your name really suits you, take your flights now and migrate to Vietnam? I am happy for the progress in Ipoh no matter what you freaks try to name it as concrete jungle or whatever does not bother me at all. I like to see my children live in a modern city and not any old haunted looking buildings!

  21. I am at a loss of words after reading what Mr. Shan Nair has written. Either this man has lost the plot or lives in the misery of need for constant glamour.

    “The vast developments that are taking place in Ipoh makes Ipohites feel the progress and the coping up with modernization and a sense of comfort that we are living in the new millennium” – This statement does not reflect half the truth about how many feel about the “glitzy concrete, steel and glass pieces of horrid buildings” defining modernisation.

    As Ken correctly pointed out development is about transforming societies and more so in their attitudes towards unwanton, brazen, poorly thought out and unimaginative schemes that detract from the heritage of the town.

    You have my sympathies, SN, you really shouldn’t be living in Ipoh. There is just too much “heritage” and you must be miserable.

  22. I would like to rebut Shan Nair’s judgements on Ruth’s interview.
    Firstly, Shan’s comments are not constructive as well as overly sensitive.

    Ruth has never mentioned about Ipoh not developing, she merely stated the fact that the current developments in Ipoh are shockingly poor in terms of both Planning and Architecture, if Shan decides he would like to read between the lines and infer his own conclusions, then I would suggest that Shan first gets properly educated(in the full meaning of the word educated) and not jump to cheap quick conclusions within his own myopic framework.

    If Shan would like to speak for Ipohites, I suggest he becomes an MP or even the Mayor in order that he can represent the “feelings” of Ipohites. Progress is not about having the largest developments nor the euphoric feeling of living in a new millenium, it is to quote Joseph Stiglitz “…. not about helping a few people get rich or creating a handful of pointless protected industries that only benefit the country’s elite; it is not about bringing in Prada and Benetton, Ralph Lauren or (supermarketization and shopping malls), for urban rich and leaving rural poor in their misery. Development is about transforming societies, improving lives of the poor, enabling everyone to have a chance at success and access to health care and education.”

    Ruth is only asking for help with her research on her Father’s work which any Architect will tell you is not only of the highest caliber but innovative for it’s time. It makes Ipoh’s built environment special and different from other cities in Malaysia and for his contribution, we have negated to remember him with revisionist histories as well as demolishing and rebuilding in it’s place buildings unworthy of it’s replacement.

    A search on Shan’s comments in the Ipoh Echo shows a pattern of lambasting articles in order to elicit a response often out of his own ignorance and insecurities, I suggest Mr. Shan learn about Iversen’s career from a humble draughtsman to a great Architect always humbly learning about his craft wihout the pomposity of an insecure and hollow commentator.

  23. With all respect, Dear Madam.Ruth, Your father is a great man. He was the best architect Perak had ever had at that time. In which circumstances are you saying that Ipoh should had preserved all those buildings that involved your father’s work in it? Why should Ipoh preserve all those buildings in the first place? If your opinions is to be considered and taken into account, Ipoh would have been nothing more than a third world country just like the Vietnam,Myanmar and so on.The vast developments that are taking place in Ipoh makes Ipohites feel the progress and the coping up with modernization and a sense of comfort that we are living in the new millennium.There are libraries around the country, if anyone wants to see how Ipoh looked like in earlier days, they at any time should just pay visit to the libraries. It was said that you were horrified to see Ipoh at current state, well to be honest I am horrified with your pathetic statement which has no merits at all. Are you saying that Ipohites does not deserve developments and should always live along all those ancestor buildings which looks more like the house of only evil spirits? Madam. Ruth you should had asked your late father to build some houses in Canada and you could at all time hug and kiss those buildings whenever the thought of your father appeared to you. Please don’t try to be too smart by belittling the Perak especially Ipoh office bearers on the developments and demolishing of old disgusting looking buildings. Thank you.

  24. It’s a pleasure reading about someone who had partly built my hometown “IPOH”. Obviously, Iversen was responsible for building many famous landmarks in Ipoh. And its great to know that you are working on a book on Iverson. A man’s history seen through his daughter’s eyes should be the best documented memories.

    The Lido Cinema which your father designed will always be in my mind. In the late 60s, my late father and me went to watch “Battle Of Britian”, and that was the last time both us spent time together like buddies. A few months later, we was called by his creator. Today the very same building has turn out to be a restaurant.

    Ruth, regarding your request concerning town planners, they could be reached at these numbers 05-5225708/05-5225752 or another option is maybe you should get in touch with the President of Perak Heritage Society. I believe he could guide and help you. Best wishes!

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