By D+A Magazine, March 2010

The business of building restoration and adaptive reuse is often sidelined by developers in Kuala Lumpur unless coerced by local guidelines and regulations. The arduous task of restoration work is avoided in favour of demolition and reconstruction to satiate our appetite for the gleaming and new. YTL Communications Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of the YTL group of companies takes a departure from this conventional mode of thinking by housing the new YTL Communications Centre in a railway workshop dating back to 1906.

The YTL Communications Centre designed by Baldip Singh, HC Kan and Gary Mah of the YTL Design Team, is the state-of-the-art nerve centre for WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) in Malaysia housing the Data Center, Laboratories & Support Offices for YTL's 4G services. YTL describes 4G as the next generation mobile broadband technology.

Set amidst the lushly landscaped grounds of Sentul Park (also developed by YTL), the YTL Communications Centre could be seen as a sister building to the adjacent KL Performing Arts Centre (designed by Baldip), also an adaptive reuse of a railway warehouse. A freestanding brick wall set perpendicular to the YTL Communications Centre stretching towards KL Pac draws this connection.

What does one do with a dilapidated structure dating back slightly under a hundred years, d signed originally with a clearly divergent programme and how does one bring it into present? Preservation, restoration, gentrification are words that come to mind. Drawing from the experience working on the immensely successful KL Pac, the YTL Communications Centre further investigates the field of restorative work and goes beyond these associated idioms.

what was there. According to Baldip, all the 6.1 m high 450 cm thick English bond brickwork with protruding square pointing facades was in good condition in the original building. The original white painted hardwood louvred doors and windows were termite ridden and rotten. Also existing before the new construction was the metal roof with no insulation. Set on a 7m grid, steel columns supported the steel truss and purlin roof structure with circular steel tie rods below. The metal roof was rusted on the outside and underside. The existing steel columns date back to 1898 and embossed with stamps bearing the 'Dorman Long & CL Middlesbrough England’ mark.

As a railway workshop, the original structure provided an empty shell of vessel for its new manifestation. What was intact or in good condition was retained. The expressive roof structure in steel is recladded with zincalume and insulated finished with plasterboard. All four brickwork facades were touched up and left unadulterated. Internally, Baldip had to navigate the plan around the existing columns. The new program took advantage of the existing grid. An additional floor was added, coalescing this existing sea of columns with reinforced concrete column.

retention/rehabilitation. The old structure is not only referred to but is respected in totality. 'The external brickwork was just cleaned and no artificial coatings were applied due to the excellen Quality of the original brickwork and workmanship,’ says Baldip. The roof drainage system which previously ran under the floor slab was redesigned tobe at roof level, with a completely new gutter and downpipe system to divert moisture content away from the sensitive equipment the YTL Communications Centre housed. 'Otherwise much of the old structure and form was kept in totality,' says Baldip.

materiality. An attempt was made to use real and basic materials and to stay away from synthetic or 'special' materials, according to Baldip. 'The YTL Communications Centre being a building that with house the latest in the latest state-of the-art technology, we wanted to make sure that we went really basic with our form and material so as to contrast with the intensity that the technology would impose onto the building, Baldjp explains. The same Clinker brick is repeated as a flooring material.. Extensive use of white painted vertical timber louvre echo the original timber louvre infill of the arches.

interfacing the facade. The original oversized arches of the brickwork facade were left unadulterated and respected as a character of the original railway workshop. Double- storey height aluminum framed alcove windows set behind the facade, accentuate this original architecture feature.

insertion. From the facade, a 3m diameter circular HUME concrete pipe culvert entrance tunnel cladded in merbau timber strips is the only indication of newness as an insertion puncturing the hardness of the brickwall. The experience of walking through the tunnel is nothing less than spectacular, thrusting one's view from entry into the present incarnation of the railway workshop as a state-of- the-art telecommunications facility.

integration. As an object. the entrance tunnel stands as a powerful sculptural piece. The drop-off driveway sensibly dissolves in this theatrical backdrop. Set amidst islands of landscaping with brick paving throughout, any indication of vehicular presence is dissipated. A cut in the tunnel is the only hint of its function as a covered vehicular drop-off.

inversion. With a new program, the void within the onginal workshop structure was ingeniously inverted, giving new meaning to the original box envelope. From the outside, what appears to be a solid brickwork box structure was carved internally with a courtyard landscaped with matured trees. Entering through the compressed 3m diameter circular concrete pipe culvert tunnel, the courtyard is contrasted as a delightful explosion of tight and spare. Malt polycarbonate skylights fit the courtyard with the softest of diffused light.

the unexpected. Baldip took the liberty of repeating the arches on the facade internally. The brickwall facade is reconstructed internally, complete with reproductions of the original timber louve infill to the arches, a palimpsest of of sorts distilling what was originally seen externally to be appreciated internally in a controlled environment.

In plan, the YTL Communications Centre reveals itself in a deliberate sequence of layers. From the compression of the tunnel entrance that punctures through the brickwork facade externally and a wall of white painted timber louvers internally, leading into the sensory loaded courtyard. Beyond the courtyard, a layer of the external brickwork wall is repeated concealing a glass box that houses the sensitive server rooms. With the security barriers on the opposite facade drawn, the entire length from entrance to opposite façade is revealed right through.

There really is no hard and last rules in the design of adaptive reuse buildings. With theoretical rhetoric thrown out the window, the success of the YTL Communications Centre hinges on a process of selective design decisions drawn not from strict guidelines of restoration, but on intelligent informed decision based on a sensitivity of reusing what is relevant and reinterpreting its value.

Ironically, history does repeat itself. According to Baldip, during its heyday in the industrial revolution of Malaysia, the Sentul Railway Workshop was the regional epicenter of cutting edge locomotive technology. Today, the building captures the memory of advanced technology with its incarnation as the epicenter for cutting edge telecommunications technology.