NOT BY HUBBACK: GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE KUALA LUMPUR
Updated: May 24, 2020
No one knows who designed Kuala Lumpur’s Government Printing Office. Guide books have credited Arthur Charles Alfred Norman as the architect, yet, by the time initial designs were drafted out in September 1897, Norman had already been serving the Selangor State as District Engineer of Kuala Lumpur (his former position as State Architect abolished in June 1896). AB Hubback, since arriving in July 1895, had set a precedence for Chief Draughtsmen to take upon the Architect’s scope of work. His job title as Chief Draughtsman was upgraded to Assistant Architect in May/June 1897, working directly under the State Engineer.
1910: The old KL Government Printing Office in Jacobean style, designed in consultation with Government Printer John Russel, constructed by FMS Factory. Image source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library.
Did AB Hubback have a hand in the project? Most unlikely. Hubback was transferred as Acting Factory Engineer in September 1897, five months after the New Government Offices (Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad) completed. He later resigned from Selangor PWD in December 1897 to start on a brick-making company with contractor W. Nicholas.
Enter Thomas Plowman Hangling King from Liverpool. King arrived on 28 October 1897 to work as Assistant Architect at Selangor PWD but two months into the job he had to fill in as Acting Factory Engineer – the post that Hubback had left vacant. Upon resuming his original position, King was entrusted with the new Government Printing Office project. Unfortunately, he did not fare well in the humid tropics - bogged down with fever so often that he was absent from work most of the time. The big boss of Selangor PWD, State Engineer Charles Edwin Spooner, found King to be ‘slow and inaccurate’, especially after discovering major mistakes in the costing and design of the Government Printing Office - so much so that he called for King’s dismissal in December 1899. While on medical leave or at the Factory, King’s job at the Drawing Office was undertaken by B. Ramakristna Row. Performing dual duties of Architectural Assistant and Draughtsman, we believe it was Ramakristna who completed the design scheme and detail drawings under Spooner’s direction.
It seems that Spooner had a specific vision for the building's appearance. Not all his suggestions were realised though. On top of what he mentioned, the subsoil was found to be bad, requiring extra foundations which far exceeded the building's estimates. Spooner reported that this was due to inadequate staff, an incompetent and unreliable architectural assistant, fluctuations in market rates and the absence of Factory Engineer Thomas Groves. Ramakristna Row was called in to explain the estimates for the new window glass panels.
Who was B. Ramakristna Row?
Very little has been written on Asian officers in the FMS, but from the bits we have gathered, B. Ramakristna Row was the son of Singapore PWD’s Chief Draughtsman, Bawajee Rajaram. Ramakritsna began his career at Selangor PWD as Draughtsman and Surveyor on 13 February 1895. He most definitely worked on the New Government Offices (Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad) under Hubback.
“I shall be very sorry to lose the services of Mr. B. R Row in my drawing office what are of value in that branch now especially connected with drawing, designing, estimating and making detached working drawings. In fact, he is with the one exception of Mr. Hubback the only person in that office who understand drawing out detail working drawings...”
- CE Spooner’s memo to the Secretary to Government on 26 September 1896, recommending Ramakristna’s confirmation as Draughtsman & Surveyor.
Ramakristna’s early years in Kuala Lumpur was heartbreaking. His father passed away in May 1897. By July 1897, two of his children had died after a period of constant fever and cold. Unsurprisingly, Ramakritsna was diagnosed with neurasthenia in April 1897, a condition associated with emotional disturbance. His wife also suffered months of illness between 1889 and 1900. All that time he worked diligently on the designs for the Government Printing Office and Klang's Istana Mahkota. Spooner described him to be a steady and methodical worker.
Ramakristna joined the Federal Drawing Office in 1904, serving as Chief Draughtsman by 1906. He seemed to have ventured into private practice as he was listed as one of the seven qualified Kuala Lumpur architects in 1911.
Should design credits for the old Government Printing Office go to CE Spooner, TPH King and B. Ramakritsna Row? What do you think?
Sources i. ANM 19570065401; Application from Mr. Ramakristna Row PWD for exchange of married clerk quarters now under construction in the Brickfields Road. 
ii. ANM 19570071477; Asks that Ramakristna Row, Draughtsman PWD be allowed to occupy the vacant quarters in High Street. 
iii. ANM 19570079918; Certain alterations to the new Printing office. Recommends. 
iv. ANM 19570091751; Explanation from H.F. Bellamy in connection with errors and omissions in the Estimate of the new Printing Office. 
v. ANM 19570097826; New Printing Office. Fwds Letter from Mr. Bellamy for submission to HC. 
vi. 1891 England, Wales & Scotland Census Transcription