Brand, Place & People
With much of our consumption happening online, we need to think deeply about what the physical world can offer us. Meaningful experiences and engagement are the holy grail of anyone designing retail and hospitality spaces. But how do we get there through design in a relevant way? And how does ‘place’ feed into that? Wynk Collaborative (Singapore) and Mentah Matter (Malaysia) discuss via their own projects.
“KL doesn’t have the density of Singapore, so maybe we can shape things in a different way – with more hybridity.”
Narelle Yabuka (NY) Thanks everyone for meeting in the virtual space via audio for this session. This is the first time we’ve taken the Cubes conversation article across an international border! Let’s start by talking about REXKL – the old Rex Cinema building in Kuala Lumpur that MentahMatter has been involved in reinventing (with others) as an arts, culture, retail and F&B venue. We don’t often see that kind of opportunity for large-scale adaptive reuse in Singapore.
Shin Chang (SC) But you do have that very nice cinema called The Projector. It was one of our reference projects when we started planning REXKL. We have a different setting though. We used the whole building. Malaysia’s rules and regulations are not as strict as Singapore’s, so in a sense we had a lot of freedom to do what we wanted to do and keep our costs very low. To be honest, in part, the aesthetic of REXKL is based on cost constraints.
Leong Hon Kit (LHK) What I like about REXKL is not only that the program is interesting, but the location makes it a very important part of the wider urban fabric.
SC Before REXKL we started a restaurant called Chocha Foodstore.
LHK Yes, I’ve been there.
SC With Chocha, we were quite ambitious. We wanted to set a lot of varied programming into the old building. We tried to put in a coworking space, a library, a bicycle workshop, and all sorts of things. But it didn’t work because it’s too small. However, we realised that all these kinds of ‘new program’ businesses could start to change the entire urban fabric, like you mentioned.
Then we had the opportunity to work with the Rex Cinema building. I always thought, this is not a building – it’s part of the street grid. We asked all our tenants to imagine they were not located inside a building, but part of the street. We opened up a lot of the walls.
LHK The lower floor of REXKL is a space that really flows into the street, which I like. The scale of the theatre space is also interesting. I’d like to see how it’s being used now. What makes REXKL so interesting for me, too, is the patina of the building. It’s so common in KL, but in Singapore it’s hard to find a building where you can see its age. It’s always painted over. Something like REXKL is probably not possible here.
SC Program-wise, I think you could do it in a lot of similar buildings in Singapore. But aesthetically – well as I said, the regulation is looser here, so we can let the building be raw. For me, the most important part is the programmatic side. Content is the most important thing in every building.
LHK Do you think this is a trend in KL to reclaim old buildings and the old city fabric?
SC There are a lot of abandoned buildings in KL’s Chinatown. It’s a positive move if you ask me. I have a very romantic idea that I can use REXKL as a case study and push our authorities to change some of the infrastructure around the area.
Jalan Petaling in Chinatown is almost like a dead town. Nothing much is happening there – there are not many residences, and only a few types of business. There’s no diversity. What we’re thinking is that by using this kind of format, perhaps we can generate new interest and bring people back to this old part of the city. Then, for example, perhaps we can create living spaces here – not high-rise towers, but occupying all the old shophouses.
In Malaysia there are a few groups of people who’ve started doing that – occupying old shophouses and turning them into coliving spaces. It’s working, and it’s what the city needs. KL doesn’t have the density of Singapore, so maybe we can shape things in a different way – with more hybridity.
LHK But it’s important that all these changes don’t drive out existing activities and businesses. That’s what makes REXKL and Chocha so nice, because you blend into what’s there. You’re not there to gentrify.
SC Maybe they gentrify in a good way, haha!
SC A lot of people are worried about gentrification. Do you have any similar venues to REXKL in Singapore? I’ve seen some in Bangkok, and I think Vietnam has a few.
LHK In Singapore, the bar is set very high because of the property prices. If you were to try to take over a whole cinema building, it would be so costly that you’d need a very big backer. That’s why I think maybe it’s possible in KL, but not so easy to do in Singapore. There’d be pressure from the backer to recoup the capital put into it.
SC But what if you were not just mentioning a building per say?
What if you were talking about, for example, a street? Away from the CBD, you would have different spaces. Maybe on one street you have different pocket spaces and you could link them up with the existing tenants – turning it into a multipurpose street.