Imagine reading by a bay window, looking outwards to pockets of greenery, while being bathed in natural sunlight.
That’s one of the experiences you can expect when you visit the Kedah Digital Library (KDL) in Alor Setar.
Transformed from an existing two-storey Anglo-Indian bungalow known as the Memorial Tunku Abdul Rahman building, the KDL is nestled amidst rain trees.
Occupying a 2.18-acre (0.88ha) site located next to Alor Setar’s largest urban park, Taman Jubli Perak, it thus embodies a “library in a park” concept.
In addition to refurbishing the main bungalow, the project also involved the addition of a new Annex Building. Completed February this year, the library is due to be officially launched next month.
Designed by BEu Tan Architect (Beta), KDL won a gold medal in this year’s PAM (Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia) Awards under the Adaptive Reuse category. It was the third PAM gold award in four years for the firm.
“We are extremely grateful and humbled by the recognition. When we started, we were an unknown young practice based in Penang, yet we were very determined to make a difference as a creative and innovative boutique firm,” said architect Tan Bee Eu, principal of Beta.
The firm won a gold medal for the Penang Digital Library 2 project under the Alteration and Addition category at the 2019 PAM Awards. The project was the first standalone “Library Without Books” initiative by the Penang state government that opened to the public in January 2019.
In 2020, Beta also won the gold medal (Adaptive Reuse) at the PAM Awards, for the Penang Harmony Centre.
“Moving forward, these awards will motivate us to continue pursuing our passion for quality design in the architecture that we create,” said Tan.
The primary concept of the KDL project, explained Tan, was to retain the architecture of the colonial bungalow and maintain a connection with nature due to the adjacent public park.
“Kedah Digital Library’s design concept revolves around being heritage-sensitive, celebrating nature and paying homage to Alor Setar’s historical urban fabric,” she said, adding that their main aim was to infuse the interior spaces with much natural lighting.
The KDL is divided into the main Mansion Library and the new Annex Building, which houses the Amphitheatre, Community Hall and the Putra Gallery. “The old bungalow (Mansion Library) was designed mostly with reading spaces which act as the core of the library.
“We introduced brainstorming rooms with interactive flipboards and even created a cosy playroom overlooking the garden that includes old-school board games for children to VR headsets for adults,” said Tan.
Personally, the architect has always liked the idea of a library where one can sit by the window to read, daydream or stare at the moving clouds.
“So at the Mansion, we designed bay window seats where you can lean by the window to read without any cold harsh artificial lighting,” she said.
The Annex Building consists of two rectangular blocks that feature timber-textured aluminium louvres in various sizes which help block off direct sunlight while offering views of the outdoors.
The Annex was meant to accommodate events, lectures and larger meeting groups.
“This led to the creation of open-concept amphitheatre seats that overlook the lawn.
“It is designed to be a versatile space where multiple discussion groups can take place at one time, or for one single large event.
“At the mezzanine floor, we deliberately inserted a long linear skylight to catch the moving shadows cast from the rising sun in the morning.
“Natural light from the skylight also provides good illuminance to the reading area,” said Tan.
The community hall also features narrow slits of skylight at both sides of the hall, allowing natural light to brighten the space.
Able to accommodate 180 persons at full capacity, the hall can also be subdivided into three smaller function rooms.
“Paying homage to the original Memorial Tunku Abdul Rahman in the Mansion Library, we proposed a new Putra Gallery adjacent to the community hall.
“This linear gallery serves as the marked axis linking the Mansion and new Annex to the Jubli Park.
“The Gallery celebrates the life of Tunku and can also host visiting art exhibitions.
“It was positioned to face a garden courtyard shaded by a large raintree, which we imagined would be great for spill-over garden banquets or functions,” said Tan.
Tan said when they were first approached to take on the Kedah Digital Library project, they were excited for a few reasons.
“Following the successful completion of the Penang Digital Library Phase 2, we were very enthusiastic about designing another digital library in Alor Setar.
“We strongly believe that every community deserves a central hub to meet, interact and learn. A digital library is a great way to redefine and rejuvenate the role of a public library as a community hub.
“So when we first visited the site, which was adjacent to the lush 14-acre (5.6ha) Taman Jubli Perak, we were really pleased to see such a strong presence of the community visiting the park on weekends.
“The sense of place was so unique. Naturally, we envisioned Kedah Digital Library to exude a humble presence and co-exist among the tall, shady trees,” she said.
Tan shared that their own design rule is that the architecture must never be more overpowering than the park nor the colonial building.
“The outcome is an architecture that celebrates the idea of a ‘Library In The Park’ where the presence of trees, shade and shadow are felt,” said Tan.
When it came to remodelling the existing Memorial building, the team had to work around a few small setbacks.
“Adaptive reuse of any old building is never easy but challenging.
“Compared to designing a new building, working on the colonial Memorial demanded high sensitivity of what’s already built on-site and a creative mindset to transform the old into new in a seamless way.
“From architectural elements to building services, all new elements of renovation needed to work around what’s already pre-existing on-site. There were also frequent structural surprises uncovered when builders removed the gallery panels and ceiling boards,” she said.
Tan added that despite being well designed, the interior did not express the true character of the colonial bungalow.
“Most windows were covered to block the sunlight from affecting the historical artefacts on display. Hence, to convert the gallery into a conducive naturally lit reading space, the first thing we did was to remove all panel coverings over existing windows.
“We decided to replace all the dark-tinted glass windows with clear glass to bring in the (views of the) garden and lush trees.”
The team also adapted some of the existing roof tiles with pieces of clear, see-through roof tiles that act like mini skylights to bring in natural lighting to the central core of the bungalow.
“Being faithful to our concept of celebrating nature, we maintained all existing trees on the site, including several lush rain trees.
“The new Annex Building had to be redrawn and tweaked several times to carefully embrace the existing trees without causing harm to their roots.
“With all these challenges, ultimately, we were also committed to meeting the tight budget given with no additional costs,” she said, adding that they are grateful to their client, the Northern Corridor Implementation Authority, for supporting their design proposal.
A promising approach
Tan shared that they found the entire journey of transforming a bungalow into a community building a very challenging yet rewarding experience, and hopes the space will inspire and delight visitors.
“We hope visitors will appreciate the visual connection to the outdoors. Every window frames a view and connection to nature.
“We also worked very hard in custom-detailing the skylights in the Annex Building.
“These skylights provide a wonderful play of shadow patterns that move through the day.”
As an architect passionate about sustainability, Tan hopes the KDL project will inspire other adaptive reuse projects.
“Adaptive reuse has been gaining much attention in recent years as an effective urban renewal strategy.
“Adaptive reuse allows the transformation of an existing structure, significantly reducing and eliminating the need for demolition and re-manufacturing of building components and materials.
“When it comes to heritage buildings, adaptive reuse can prolong the lifespan of the existing structure and preserve the tangible heritage of the building for generations to come.
“A recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme states that 39% of global CO2 emissions are generated by buildings, with 11% from building materials and construction activities while the remaining 28% is generated in the building operation phase.
“Considering that the already substantial number of existing buildings in the world is expected to double by 2060, adaptive reuse is a promising sustainable approach.
“This is because it eliminates the major construction activities associated with building a new structure and dramatically reduces the building operation phase of carbon emissions,” she emphasised.
“In our old cities where heritage buildings are abundant, we’re optimistic that projects like the Kedah Digital Library will inspire more adaptive reuse transformations,” she said.