Railing for a new lease of life

WHEN Prof Dr Jimmy Lim was appointed by the Penang Municipal Coun-cil to undertake the Penang Hill Visitor Centre project, he decided to salvage part of the 87-year-old funicular train railway tracks for the centre.

A conservationist at heart, he felt that the philosophy for reusing the old tracks was mainly to preserve their rich heritage value.

“You’ve got something which has no more use and now you found a new function (for it), so why not?” he asked.

Dr Lim said he had to explain the philosophy behind it as many people did not understand why he had wanted to reuse the old railway tracks instead of utilising new materials.

“I was hopeful to get as many (railway tracks) as I can and I was gifted generously by the Public Works Department with 63 pieces which we hope will continue to survive another 30 to 40 years,” said the Aga Khan Award winning architect in an exclusive interview yesterday.

Work on the four-storey Visitor Centre — which forms part of the RM4.5mil Phase One Penang Hill Redevelopment Project — is expected to start in July.

Upon completion, visitors will be able to see 21 columns with 63 six metre-long segments of the old tracks as the building structure for the centre, which will bear the look of an ‘orange peel’.

The old tracks were dismantled following the closure of the country’s oldest hill station in February last year to facilitate the Tourism Ministry’s RM73.8mil upgrading works.

Last Saturday, Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen handed over the project to the Penang Hill Corporation following the completion of the project.

Dr Lim said the old railway tracks had been sent to Universiti Sains Malaysia for tests and were found to be still strong.

“The tracks are structural elements for the building and not just for decoration,” he said, adding that they would form part of the columns which were significant features.

He said three tracks would be creatively joined together to form the columns from the ground floor and the tracks would be seen protruding 1m above the first floor.

He explained the main concept for the project was “architecture without wall”.

“The structures are open and visitors can go in and enjoy the panora-mic view of George Town and the breeze.

“It is distinctive and the ‘orang peel’ look is designed to adapt to the environment,” he said, adding that the main structure would be steel, timber and rafter while the roof would be attap.

In terms of building costs, Dr Lim, who is also one of the founder members of Badan Warisan Malaysia, said reusing of the old railway tracks would help to save “a little bit”.

“What we have can be used for a floor only. If we’ve got more, then we can save more,” he said.

Dr Lim also proposed to build an open air theatre with George Town as the background under the proposed redevelopment project.

“The theatre can be for con- certs or even watching football matches,” he said.

The state government has announced that the entire area around the hilltop station would undergo a major facelift as part of its efforts to liven up the place. The plan includes a new recreational walkway, a pavilion, terrace dining areas, restoration of old government quarters atop the hill and a business centre.

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