The Story Continues
REXKL is the newest reincarnation of a Jalan Sultan building that originally dates back to 1947. It burned down during a failed burglary attempt in 1972 and was rebuilt in 1976. Rex Cinema could seat over 1,000 people, but it shut its doors in 2002. The building was converted to a backpacker hostel but fire struck again in 2007. REXKL rose from the ashes, the transformation led by architects Shin Chang (MentahMatter) and Shin Tseng (IDEAWORKSHOP), who co-founded the REXKL initiative. They are supported by advisors/investors Ng Sek San (Seksan Design and Sekeping Retreats), Kamil Merican (GDP Architects) and Joseph Foo (3nity Design).
Si Jian Xin (SJX) You’d need something different to what we have here. Typology is one thing. The other thing is regulation, and sometimes it can be restrictive. Perhaps we could find interesting spaces in industrial zones, for example – areas you could use for small shops and start-up businesses. And those are very low cost. But because of the nature of how spaces are zoned, it’s not possible. You know, in Japan, a house could potentially be used as a café space.
LHK Our current interest in the spaces in Singapore focuses on buildings constructed in the 1970s and ’80s, which are not obviously charming, but if you really explore them there are lots of nice pockets of spaces that could be occupied or reused as something else. A good example is Golden Mile Complex, which is where our office is. We’ve been here for five years. It’s probably one of the most misunderstood buildings in Singapore. People who get it, love it. People who don’t get it, think it’s a slum and it’s for squatters.
We’re interested in industrial buildings from the ’70s and ’80s because that was still the era when the architect could do a lot of interesting things without so much focus on maximising floor area and doing what the developer tells them to do. I think back then the architect had a bit more power!
SC That’s why I made myself into my own client.
LHK Haha! How much different is it for you as the client? Do you feel the pressure to get back your money?
SC Yes, definitely. We were quite romantic in the beginning, thinking we could do this and that. But in reality, we just have to pay the bills. We are not cash-rich like developers, so sometimes it’s a struggle. We had to put a lot of F&B elements into REXKL. We tried not to in the beginning, focusing instead on the cultural side. But that’s reality.
NY Are you and your co-founders of REXKL officially the operator of the venue?
SC The group consists of myself, Tseng Hsien Shin from IDEAWORKSHOP, Ng Seksan from Seksan Design, and Kamil Merican from GDP Architects. We are the master tenant, the operator and the designer/architect. We initiated this idea about two years ago. Imagine four architects – we are always so romantic. But that’s the best part. I don’t see many case studies around the world with four architects taking over a building, making themselves into a client and doing a lot of things there.
LHK It’s hard enough to get two architects to work together, right? [All laugh.]
NY Did you all have similar or different thoughts about what to do with the place and how you could generate a feeling of community engagement?
SC I grew up in this area, so I know the neighbourhood. When we started the project, we were literally walking around and talking to the owners around the area, asking them to join the community. I told them that I want to generate a lot of interest from around the world and also help to upgrade the infrastructure around the Chinatown area. They were quite welcoming. There are a lot of old businesses here – we’re talking 60-70 years old.
LHK Who are the people who go to REXKL now? Do you think you could change the shopping-mall culture in KL?
SC Not in a short period of time. And we are not doing mass market – we’re still very niche. So I don’t think we can change it. Unless we have 20 or 30 REXKLs, but then we’d be talking about different things. Because we are event driven, REXKL attracts a wide range of people. Sometimes we have children’s events, sometimes we have rave parties, then architecture talks. That’s the fun part of REXKL.
NY Wynk, you’ve recently been working in a mixed-use mall that’s got a lot of ambitions of its own. Let’s talk about how you’ve tried to encourage engagement of customers with the Love, Bonito store at Funan.
LHK What we did for Love, Bonito is probably on the opposite end of the spectrum to REXKL. We were working within a shopping mall context, but we were trying to explore, together with our client, what it means to do retail nowadays. Love, Bonito started out as an online retailer. What is the function of a physical retail store? Do sales-persquare-foot still mean anything when the customer is free to browse and buy online later? This idea of in-store sales perhaps becomes less important. The store becomes the major touch point between the brand and the customer.
Within the store we also tried to make the shopping experience a lot easier. The trend now is to create experiential shopping. What does that mean for the customer? Do you just create some gimmicky Instagram wall? We tried to look beyond that, and to make the experience more meaningful and the shopping process easier. We also needed to integrate the brand’s existing online processes with the physical retail space, so there’s a seamless idea of what brand is and what the retail experience is.
“What is the function of a physical retail store? Do sales-per-square-foot still mean anything when the customer is free to browse and buy online later?”
Leong Hon Kit
The retail store almost becomes a new kind of community space for elements of the brand to come together. I think it’s quite forward thinking of our client to have a community space where they can hold events, and where non-shopping activities can happen within the store. It gives people more reason to go there. It makes the whole idea of shopping at Love, Bonito a bit richer. I think it’s quite similar to what you’re doing with REXKL – just in a different setting and context.
SJX What brands are trying to do right now is maintain a community. Also, consumers nowadays are more discerning.
They want to be engaged in a certain kind of culture.
LHK And the retailer benefits by having more character – as though they want to be a friend of the customer as opposed to being a supplier of goods.
SC The world has become flatter than ever because of social media. Actually a lot of people are trying to do the same thing – events, experiential retail and so on. It also ties back to what we were saying earlier, as REXKL can happen in different formats. The retail experience can happen in different formats. But in essence, although everyone is trying to do the same thing, perhaps people could tread deeper in terms of creating meaningful content.
LHK Content is very important. For a shop like Love, Bonito – something that’s more traditional and positioned inside a shopping mall – if the product is not good, no one will come. The community happenings, events and experiences all surround a good product. Without the core, nothing else happens.
SC Right, you can’t call it community if you’ve got no core or content.
LHK Physical spaces only form one component of a very wide spectrum of how brands engage with customers. You have social media, print ads, offline-online customer service… Architects and interior designers need to be very aware of that spectrum.
SJX Yes, as opposed to previously when designers would just create the interiors and not have to think about how things worked in conjunction with each other.
LHK For brands, it’s not just about making that sale; it’s about building lifelong brand association. For a brand to have longevity you need to hold on to that customer as they grow. Brands have to grow with their customers, while at the same time gaining new customers.
It makes the idea of a brand quite dynamic. The brand changes with the customers. I think that’s also what designers need to be very conscious of. You can’t just keep designing retail and F&B spaces the same way.
SC For me the branding exercise is always about the emotional part – how we create a sentimental or emotional attachment with a customer.
LHK Was the branding for REXKL a very important part of the project, or is it peripheral to the architecture and the content?
SC It’s very important. At first we wanted to make it like a product – we tried to make it scalable so we could export it and put it in different locations. But what we realised was when we make it a product, it loses essence. We always wanted to engage ourselves with the context and surroundings. So it shouldn’t be REXKL-timesten. It should be different entities but using the same philosophy about how to engage with the community. The core value is very important. That’s how we see the branding. It’s not from the product point of view.
LHK That reminds me of The Commons in Bangkok [designed by Department of Architecture]. They recently opened another space – but with the same philosophy. I like how they’ve kept the same approach to creating a new kind of urban space, connected to what’s happening on the ground in terms of retail and food culture, but repackaging it into something a bit different.
SC That’s a very good example.
NY Where do you want to be shopping, drinking or dining in the future? What would that environment be like, and what would you be seeking from the experience?
SC It always depends on the context and the business model.
LHK In future you’ll go out not really to consume but to meet people. The buying and consumption will be a by-product of being in that space.
SC Perhaps the next typology will be a retail experience inside a house.