Built by architect Arthur Oakley Coltman in 1937, the building housed the first headquarters of the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation Limited in Malaysia, and is a masterpiece of the Art Deco style. Photo: Shook Leng CC BY-SA 3.0
Housed in a storied downtown building, Think City’s new multipurpose space offers the community an avenue for placemaking activities and bonding in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. JIA PING LEE, Programme Director of Think City tells us how it came to be and why it’s important for downtown KL.
Tell us about the concept of Ruang.
The genesis of Ruang came about when we realised that we needed an outpost in our core area of Downtown KL. We found ourselves having to spend a lot of time there without having a place to check in or base ourselves, and it was becoming a challenge. Through our many rounds of grants, we’ve also seen many requests for a space in the area for activities such as workshops, performances and rehearsals, but we were unable to help because there was no such space in the area. So we came to realise that there was a real need for a place with the flexibility of being transformed into a multi-use space and all these factors led us to embark on a search in Downtown KL.
How does this align with Think City’s mission?
Think City is about creating vibrancy in the city and a more inclusive and diverse place.
Ruang helps to generate more activity in the area and fulfills the “inclusive” objective by allowing different groups of people, who don’t usually venture into the area to work, play or experiment, to come into Downtown KL and fill it with life again.
We sponsor events or activities in the area or collaborate with those who need space, providing them with a venue to conduct their activities. So far, we’ve had many diverse groups from wellness to the film industry, to theatre and even architecture. There’s a renewal of interest in the area. We thought people would be disinterested in coming into the area due to factors such as the traffic or safety, but since Ruang has opened, we’ve had a constant flow of enquiries so that’s an indication that there is a need for spaces like this in the heritage core of the city.
Tell us about the process of acquiring the space.
It was by serendipity that we discovered the space was available. It had been leased by Freeform, the company that runs the Urbanscapes festival and they were looking to populate two floors in the OCBC Building. They had used the space for Urbanscapes which included the square opposite for performances and exhibitions, but after the festival, they found they were only occupying one floor. So, we got in touch and were able to negotiate a lease for the space.
What can you tell us about the building?
The building used to be a bank and if you go into the building today you can still see the vault that was used in its previous life. It was designed by British architect Arthur Oakley Coltman from the firm Booty, Edwards and Partners, who had been practising for 32 years in Malaya. He also designed the Oriental Building, the Odeon Cinema, the Lee Rubber Building and the Rubber Research Institute of Malaya, so he had a rather pivotal role in shaping the architectural landscape of Kuala Lumpur. Ruang’s location is ideal in that it is present in an area rich in heritage that we would like to revive.
What considerations went into the setup of Ruang?
One of the first things to look at was how to redesign the space with as little budget as possible, considering that the lease we have is just for 18 months. We initiate a lot of demonstrative projects at Think City and we like to take the perspective that we’re piloting new initiatives, so we have to be discerning in terms of our spending. This also goes back to our philosophy of The Power of Small, and we like to do things on small budgets but with big impact in terms of creativity and innovation.
With that in mind, we looked around for support and Nippon came forth with the paint that we needed, and Khind, by virtue of their Starfish Foundation also came on board with some electric fans for us. It was heartening to see corporates and private organisations come forth with support for our endeavour.
We also looked at making things mobile to keep the space more flexible and versatile. For example, furniture and our exhibition panels can be moved easily in case we had to change the location of Ruang.
We’ve pretty much respected the existing space. We were told by the tenant of the building that we could not alter the existing flooring. However, the carpets had been removed by the tenants and there were exposed holes in the floor, so what we did was we simply resurfaced the floor with concrete. And the finished patchwork effect is actually rather artsy and interesting!
What happens after 18 months?
We’re starting to see a lot of interest and enquiries about the space so we are looking at extending the lease, and we may even think about looking for other spaces to expand the programme. But if we do expand we will require different functions of the property so that other activities can be included such as a maker space or a co-working space. There are no exact plans for the moment.
What other projects are you looking at which are in the same vein?
Other projects we’d like to see happen in downtown KL would be for entrepreneurs or businesses to set up or relocate their businesses into the core area of the city, the way it used to be. One of the ways we’re engineering this is by matching entrepreneurs to building owners who have applied for grants for facade restoration, basically advocating the idea that if fresh new offerings can be brought into the city, it would increase their yield.
Would these activities gentrify Downtown KL? What happens to the residents and existing businesses?
Gentrification is a widely debated issue but at this point in time, the area needs a lot of help from the public realm in order to address the fast rate of decay that’s occurring.
We conducted a film workshop with students recently at Ruang, and they filmed tourists in the city centre asking them what they thought about Downtown KL. Many of them said that it was a lovely area but they were surprised to see that so many of the heritage buildings were so neglected and in such a ruinous state.
I think that firstly, we want to stop the decline of the city, and the migrant population from taking over the space to the exclusion of locals. It’s a shame if the whole inner historic core were to be devoid of no Malaysian content. If you look at cities around the world they all have a historic core, and there’s usually a very strong national identity connected to it.
Our aim is not to crowd out the migrants or refugees. In fact we want to use Ruang as a space to engage with them and provide upskilling or capacity building, and have conversations to see how we can help them.
One of the biggest questions we ask is – is there an alternative to gentrification, or do we allow the forces of the economy to take free reign. What has happened is the latter, where building owners, faced with reduced interest in the district have been forced to lower the rent, which in turn attracts very different kinds of tenants. If there is no intervention, there will be further decline.
“..faced with reduced interest in the district, [building owners] have been forced to lower the rent, which in turn attracts very different kinds of tenants. If there is no intervention, there will be further decline.” – Jia Ping Lee
We recently conducted a six-month study on the intangible heritage of the area and were very happy to see that there were certain intangible trades that were still thriving. Some trades are dying as there is no one from the next generation to take over, so another of our initiatives involves matching new entrepreneurs with these heritage businesses, and providing grants to help spruce up the buildings, enhance the customer experience, and enable these trades to stay there longer.
We’ve seen encouraging examples of old brands being repackaged in appealing contemporary ways and this is increasingly happening in Malaysia so there’s a lot of opportunity for the old biscuit shops or incense shops and other trades in the area to renew interest and bring customers back into the district.
We’re trying to offer grants for enhancement of the spaces to transform the customer experience. The same goes for the smaller food stalls that have been there for years. We don’t necessarily want them to move, but if there is a way for them to transform the customer experience so that it is a delight, that would make a big difference. Where we come in is with support for cleanup, and increasing the safety and health factors.
There are many different ways to look at gentrification. In fact, I believe there should be a different word to replace the term ‘gentrification’ because there are many stages to the process, which people are not aware of. The impact we’re looking for right now is for vibrancy to return to the heritage core, and that may just be what Kuala Lumpur needs at this point in time.
This story was first published under the now-defunct Think City Channel.