Penang boutique hotel up for prestigious design prize

  • Design
  • Wednesday, 02 Mar 2016

Heritage row: The facade of the Loke Thye Kee Residences maintains details from the buildings’ past. Photos: Ministry of Design/Edward Hendricks

It rekindles the romantic bygone era of Penang in the 1900s, and is a marriage between historic Straits Chinese architecture and modern luxuries.

Completed last year, the Loke Thye Kee Residences is an exclusive boutique hotel comprising five suites situated within a row of restored heritage shophouses along Penang Road in George Town.

The hotel has been shortlisted under the Suites category of the Asia Hotel Design Awards 2016 that will be held in Singapore on March 10.

Designed by Singapore-based design practice Ministry of Design (MOD), each of the suites is accompanied by a garden forecourt and a private balcony.

MOD design director Colin Seah elaborates on the property’s unique design and heritage values in an e-mail Q&A.

The Loke Thye Kee (LTK) Residences is inspired by the Loke Thye Kee restaurant that dates back to the early 1900s and is reminiscent of a bygone era but with a modern, contemporary touch. Can you share the key design aspects of the hotel that reflect this?

The piece de resistance for the interior was the original brickwork parti-walls. They provided lovely texture and a foil against which we placed our modern and sleeker interventions, like glass wardrobes, chrome mirrors (abstracted from traditional colonial culture) and hovering, timber-clad desks/TV ledges.

The lush and airy courtyard entry.
The lush and airy courtyard entry.

There’s also the specially commissioned modern art work by Penang artist Ch’ng Kiah Kiean, featuring paintings of historic sites in Penang, and the finishes – solid timber floors, original brick walls and brass accents – all reflect a nouveau colonial approach in the way that heritage elements are abstracted and contemporised.

What were the key challenges in getting the right balance between old and new in designing the LTK Residences?

The five shophouse units we have on Penang Road were built in the 1890s and were left derelict for more than two decades. These buildings were not in the best structural shape, and there were rotting floorboards, leaking roofs, and even tilted parti-walls. MOD replaced all of these and ensured that all floors, walls and structural elements were repaired and befitting of a hotel.

The building’s roof and floors had to be redone completely, but the structural elements, thankfully, were fine.

The reception has original brick walls and lattice-work recalling old tile patterns.
The reception has original brick walls and lattice-work recalling old tile patterns.

The charming entrance to the reception area.
The charming entrance to the reception area.

We kept certain key elements (or recreated them when they were too damaged or missing even), which we felt were visually rich, and linked the project to its heritage, such as the articulation of the window and door frames, and the external facade’s ornamentation.

We salvaged as many of the original tiles as we could but had to replace some in certain areas, though we made sure we found tiles that were as similar as possible. We consolidated the original tiles in the reception area primarily.

I think the two main challenges were the quality of construction and the fastidiousness of the local conservation committee.

Penang’s construction quality is not as high as we had specified and there were numerous refinements that were required from the carpenters and tradesmen.

Alongside this, we had to navigate through complex approval processes with the conservation committee. Unlike Singapore, the rules are not as transparent and rely heavily on the preferences of individual officers – you have to be rather tenacious as a designer working on a heritage project.

What are you most proud of, design-wise?

The buildings were beyond derelict and looked like they had been bombed out, but they had good bones and I got excited thinking about the potential. Our designs give these older buildings (which are often disused or abandoned) a new lease of life, and allow them to be part of a living heritage, not merely something resigned to the static past.

We believe in drawing from the past in a quirky, contemporary way. In Macalister Mansion (a boutique hotel located within a colonial mansion), we drew from Penang’s colonial British heritage and integrated not only the existing historic architectural cues but also the tale of Norman Macalister as an underlying quasi-historical narrative – in a way, history itself has been “adaptively reused”.

The in-room info box also reflects the heritage of the buildings.
The in-room info box also reflects the heritage of the buildings.

What are the three main interior design elements that make LTK stand out from other heritage-based hotels?

I was very inspired by the romance of Penang in the 1900s; the mood and design of that bygone era was beguiling. We wanted to recall a similar charm in our design for the LTK Residences, but with an added contemporary twist that would modernise the experience and make it relevant for living today.

Living heritage is a continuum: it is dynamic and it evolves with the times. Our design isn’t a throwback to the past; neither does it attempt to preserve it. Instead, we use the past as a point of inspiration and a starting point, eventually creating something that’s rooted in heritage but still contemporary. For instance, in the way that heritage elements are abstracted and contemporary, we designed the contents of the box containing the “in- room” info.

The suites are furnished with modern luxuries.
The suites are furnished with modern luxuries.

Much of the collateral is styled to respond to the heritage of LTK. Another example is the latticework in the reception area which was inspired by the intricate tile patterns that are typical of shophouse typology. The idea was to “continue” the tiling pattern three dimensionally but in a more abstract and subtle way.

What kind of experience do you want visitors to take away from LTK and how is that achieved?

We believe that underpinning each project with a singular idea, and helping consumers to understand the singular concept’s translation into experience, would enable them to appreciate the overall experience better. We call this “question, disturb, redefine”.

While our earlier award-winning heritage projects like The New Majestic in Singapore attempted to capture heritage in an unfiltered way, and the Macalister Mansion was designed around a quasi-historic narrative, the Loke Thye Kee Residences attempt to contemporise elements of heritage through materials and their aesthetics.

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