Architecture: How to Create A Time Machine Effect into the Past
Posted on April 17, 2013
The walls inside Kam Leng Hotel show signs of age, in a style disconnected from today. Sun rays from outside, its eternal companion, had discolored it into a light hue, leaving much imagination as to what was the original paint color. Earlier, someone rode a bicycle into the premises and parked it at the foot of a stairwell, as if in a hurry to a lunch date upstairs, the faded paint sign above it depicting a restaurant serving European food on the building’s fourth storey.
There is no indication of whether the rider had left; the bicycle itself upon inspection had aged in years. A poster cast along the stairs, which may have listed notices, is left blank—as though it was silenced. A clock perched above an elevator around the corner had froze its hours of the day in time.
Nothing here seems willing to reveal its secrets to the visitor.
Also, no one from the Jalan Besar neighborhood was able to recall anything about the hotel in its old days. The frontage outside the building writes 1938, presumably the time of its opening, the same year when the British naval base began operations in Singapore.
The narrative history of Kam Leng Hotel, including the identity of its owner, remains unknown till today. Tiah Nan Chyuan and his design team at FARM, faced the enigma of the building, hearing only stories of enthralling myths and endless speculation. Restoration and neo-Nanyang furnishings of the premises completed in 2012, did nothing to dim its old world charm and erase the shadow of its past.
To begin the challenge, the team had to create an antiquated style, in the absence of a prescribed formula. In his experience of recreating bygone settings, Tiah looks to imagined ideas—that of an image, text, a told story, or even a film. Eventually, the main source of inspiration for Kam Leng Hotel’s ambience came from a Wong Kar Wai movie, “In the Mood for Love”. The film, set during 1962 in Hong Kong, provided visual references of European styles that surfaced in Asia during the time. That era in Singapore had traveling entertainment troupes performing at now defunct amusement villages in the area near the hotel, according to one internet article.
“It is harder to design with a blank piece of paper”, says Tiah, of redesigning old buildings without a specific goal or direction style. So, the exterior of the hotel was used as the central design anchor, with everything else to accommodate its nostalgic 1930s style. Because technically there was no dictated formula to work with (no one could find old pictures depicting Kam Leng’s original interiors during its heyday), the FARM team projected their own layers of interpretation to design. An off-cream neutral shade with a mural became the architectural new clothes for the facade. A black and white bathroom sign on the first floor, was created using a combination an old Shanghai style pictorial girl and a background of lines resembling those from a Japanese rising sun image.
Less is more
Tiah reminds us the recreation of Kam Leng started on a tight budget, a circumstance that ended up enhancing the effect of the hotel’s old style ambience. Flooring of the interiors were left in their original state, while furniture such as cane chairs were procured on the cheap from an old workshop man. Even the walls, many with peel marks, retain an old atmosphere. The decor was kept to sparsity, a visual style often seen in old photographs of homes belonging to one’s grandparents, distinguishing the old from the materialism of contemporary. Tiah says “the feeling you get is like a film set, a time-zone which is frozen”, on Kam Leng’s style that takes the visitor into a time machine.
Style inspired by stories
There is a mystery to this charming hotel. A walk down the dark corridors opens up to imagined stories; you can almost hear cracky music played from a gramophone and half expect a cheongsam-clad woman with hair coiffed to close a door discreetly.
No one who had seen its place in its opening glory has ever visited this place as the revamped Kam Leng Hotel. (At least from what we know) Many of the charmed are not old enough to have experienced its original style first hand. And we are yet drawn to styles belonging to bygone eras in a fast moving world, as if we were reincarnated, trying to find our past.
“You realise that the city has changed so fast and you realise at a certain point that you really want to preserve something, you just want it to stop. And that’s one of the reasons why we want to make the movie, “In the Mood for Love”, because there are certain things we should preserve before it’s gone, because the city is changing so fast”.
Hong Kong Director Wong Kar Wai in an interview with Charlie Rose, on making movies set in history.∗