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 in a relevant way? And how does ‘place’ and placemaking feed into that?
Narelle Yabuka, Indesign’s Singaporean eyes and ears and then-editor for Cubes magazine, talks the art of placemaking for retail and hospitality environments with Leong Hon Kit and Si Jian Xin, of Singapore-based studio Wynk Collaborative, and Shin Chang and Penny Ng, partners at Kuala Lumpur-based studio MentahMatter, via their own projects.
Narelle Yabuka (NY) 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.
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.
“KL doesn’t have the density of Singapore, so maybe we can shape things in a different way – with more hybridity.” – Shin Chang
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?
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 Kuala Lumpur?
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-per-square-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.
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.
“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
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-times-ten. 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.