People passing by the old Rex Cinema in Kuala Lumpur may not even notice it’s there, except those old enough to remember its existence.
A row of hawker stalls almost completely hides its entrance, once abuzz with avid cinema-goers.
But a peek inside the once abandoned space will reveal a hive of activities.
Located on Jalan Sultan, the original building was completed in 1947, designed by architect James Robert Vethavanam. In 1972, it was set on fire during a botched burglary, causing it to burn down.
It was then rebuilt in 1976 into a single-screen cinema operated by Shaw Brothers that could house over 1,000 people.However, the cinema ceased operations in 2002 and was later converted into a backpacker’s hostel. Unfortunately, another fire razed the building in 2007.
After being left vacant for many years, it has now been given a new lease of life through adaptive reuse. Renamed REXKL, the building has been repurposed as a space for events, theatre, exhibitions, performances, screenings, library facilities, workshops, retail and F&B.
The initiative is led by local architects Chang Soon Shin, better known as Shin Chang, and Tseng Hsien Shin, who goes by the name Shin Tseng.
“We were presented with the opportunity back in September 2017 by the building’s landlord. He knew that we were already active in the area by way of our restaurants, so he suggested that we take over the operations of the building, ” said Chang, 36.
“I’ve always been drawn to projects like this – which involves repurposing an old building – similar to what I did for my restaurant, Chocha Food Store on Petaling Street. Add to the fact that this iconic building had been abandoned for some years, it was time to bring it back to life, ” he added.
Tseng, 39, elaborated on the design concept of the space.
“We didn’t alter the structure in any way. The bulk of the work was really cleaning up and removing scraps and make-shift partitions. It was very important for us to keep the Rex Cinema identity alive, to an extent.
“In terms of our tenant fit-outs, we work closely with our tenants to come up with the best design for their brand and operations, ” he said.
The ground floor carpark has been transformed into a marketplace that hosts a number of F&B kiosks as well as retail spaces.
“We’ve carefully planned and designed this floor so each tenant has their own space, yet their kiosks are not closed off from the ‘community’. Almost like a food court yet every kiosk has its own unique design, so nothing is uniform, ” said Tseng.
The Main Hall on the first floor, where the cinema used to be, had its flooring upgraded and is kept as an open space to host events. The high ceiling and brick wall backdrop, the highlights of the space, were also left as is.
“It’s always exciting to repurpose a building, more so one as iconic as Rex. With so many new buildings and developments in the Klang Valley, do we really need more? As much as there are challenges faced in this project, it was important to focus on the big picture, which was to revive this beautiful space and make it useful again, ” said Chang.
The initiative goes beyond producing a physical space.
“It’s about building a hub for like-minded people to come together to create, whether it’s through different forms of art, music, performances and even entrepreneurship, with the intention to stimulate not just the economy but the social aspect of Kuala Lumpur, ” explained Chang.The architects also want the venue to connect with the community.
“Rex (cinema) was progressive and well ahead of its time. It was a standalone cinema that had a capacity of 1,200 seats! We want to emulate the same mindset of the old Rex to keep the message going, to create a space that is as progressive in the current time, to regenerate the building to serve the community, ” said Tseng.
In the long run, they also hope REXKL sends out a simple message.
“I think what we’re trying to convey is that the concept of ‘old’ doesn’t necessarily have to be associated with nostalgia or heritage. It’s the spirit or essence that should be revived instead of the historical purpose in its literal sense.
“When we say that we are a space for people to create, we want to emphasise on the full spectrum of what is involved in the creative process. This means finding the means and resources in order to achieve the execution of one’s creation. And that’s the REXKL community. Bringing people together to create, ” ended Chang.
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