By Mariam Mokhtar
“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.
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.