Cover The award-winning Penang Harmony Centre by BETA (Beu Tan Architect)

From Mentah Matter to Beu Tan Architect, these folks are giving forgotten structures in Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Melaka a new lease of life

When it comes to urban architecture, there seems to be a constant push to build higher, bigger and faster, but what about older buildings? Do they stay in the shadows of their past glory or make way for new ones?

In Malaysia, where the conservation of heritage buildings is initiated by the government and private sector, giving a building its heartbeat back is not necessarily enough. This is especially true for private buildings, where the commercial viability of the conserved structures is crucial for them to live out long and happy lives.

We speak to three architects who are doing a tremendous job in not just making historic buildings look good again but also imbuing them with a purpose.

See also: Must-Vist 2019 UNESCO World Heritage Sites: The Asian Edition

Mentah Matter

It started with an ex-brothel at the "business end" of Petaling Street in Kuala Lumpur where the pre-war block of shophouses had been abandoned for some time. Young multi-disciplinary design firm, Mentah Matter, took over the restoration and running of one lot and transformed it into ChoCha Foodstore.

The young designers had the aesthetic nous to know what to leave alone (raw walls, gorgeous vintage tiles and internal  courtyard); and what to add (building safety additions, quirky furniture and lush plants)—and the space quickly became one of the most Instagrammed cafes in KL.

Joloko soon followed, a 1950s terrace house which has become KL hippest Afro-Carribean restaurant and bar, largely due to its intoxicating alchemy of industrial chic, tribal-esque art and tropical exuberance. RexKL came next and created attractive spaces for events, performances, exhibitions, retail and F&B outlets into the defunct Rex Cinema in the city's Chinatown. Along with local design luminaries like Ng Seksan, Kamil Merican and Shin Tseng, Mentah Matter is also involved in running the space and ensuring it becomes a creative hub that revitalises the area.  

See also: 5 Creative Event Spaces That Should Be On Your Radar

Despite having given these buildings a new lease of life, Shin Chang, co-founder of Mentah Matter, has surprisingly un-romantic notions about conservation. "It's not that I am particularly drawn to old buildings. I simply feel that a space should not be wasted and we should play a part in reactivating it," he says. For him, preserving a building is not the most challenging part but finding the right content for it.

"You could say, the building is the hardware while the content is the software. And really I think we can do better than just another cafe," he muses. "When determining the content, you need to look at the intention of the new building's purpose. For Chocha and Joloko, the intention was to revitalise the neighbourhood so their function followed as such while for RexKL, the intention was changing the space itself into a creative hub and the design followed from there."

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BETA (Beu Tan Architect)

For Penang-ite Bee Eu Tan of BETA (BEU TAN ARCHITECT), who have worked in Singapore and KL on new builds, her return to her hometown has been an auspicious one—not just for her career trajectory but for the state's neglected heritage buildings. Her first project was to restore the Penang Institute's colonial Annex Bungalow into the respected think tank's now lush campus.

The Penang Digital Library converted the erstwhile Penang Free School's headmaster's quarters into the island's first standalone library without physical books. This project has become a hub for the local community, attracting visitors of all ages and garnered a PAM Awards 2019 Gold for the Alteration and Addition Category, making BETA the youngest practice to win a Gold award. 

Harmony Centre, Penang's first interfaith Communal building came after. Despite its humble budget and small scale, Tan managed to capture the vistas on-site, locate swings at the best shaded spot and carve meandering paths according to trees on-site. This serenely beautiful project recently won Gold for Adaptive Re-use Category by the prestigious PAM Awards 2020, announced early this year in January 2021.

See also: Bettina Chua Abdullah On The Making Of Award-Winning Book 'Over Penang'

The common misconception is that renovation or restoration is easier than building new. I have always felt that adapting heritage buildings is like a neurologist carrying a critical nerve repair surgery.


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Bee Eu Tan of BETA
Above Bee Eu Tan

Although Tan finds working on new buildings liberating and exciting, she says breathing second lives into heritage buildings is unexpectedly and profoundly rewarding. She has found this especially so seeing first-hand a building's dramatic transformation from rundown to elegant, and it reassures her of an architect's ability of making a difference in the local community.

The challenge, she opines, is being able to identify the hidden potential of an old building and the skill required to re-purpose it to a new life. "The common misconception is that renovation or restoration is easier than building new. I have always felt that adapting heritage buildings is like a neurologist carrying a critical nerve repair surgery. We must carefully identify and repair damaged sections while very carefully and faithfully retaining the 'healthy' sections in an old building. Hence, adapting an old building can be as complex as designing a high-rise tower."  

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Idea Workshop

As an architect starting out in Melaka, Hau Woon San worked on Geographer Cafe in 1999 and transformed it from its dilapidated state to an inviting space. Its new function encouraged a melting pot of tourists and locals through music and food, eventually making it a sort of cultural event centre of Melaka.

Together with architect Lim Pay Chye, Hau started Idea Workshop in 2005 and the firm has become the go-to people for heritage projects that fuse culture with modern relevance like Geographer Cafe 2 and the Courtyard Boutique Hotel and Café which came soon after. Apart from Idea Workshop's own office which sports a modernist front entrance in contrast to its “decorative and ornamented” Peranakan facade, notable projects include Salud Tapas, whose steel interior negotiates between past and present; Nonya 63, a minimal approach to its well-preserved condition; and Liu Men Hotel whose gothic-like glass atrium has become a gathering and social event space for guests.  

Also see: Who Are The Chettis Of Melaka? And What Is Hindu-Peranakan Cuisine?

For Hau, delving into the building's past is part of the enjoyment of working on heritage projects. "There is this realisation that most heritage buildings had undergone various renovations (be it additions or substations) and gone through multiple technological changes," he says. "It has always been the challenge to uncover those multiple layers of history which would serve as contemplative mirror to the present and possibly ignite the dream of the future. The challenge has become the pleasure."

Having done his fair share of heritage projects, Hau finds the same questions arise whenever Idea Workshop undertakes a new project. "The challenge is always to mitigate the conflict between the existing conditions to the desire of fulfilling its new programmatic demands while at the same time, treading gingerly on its past and having a meaningful conversation with it," he says.

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