Penang Hill Gallery @ Edgecliff Ready to Awe the Public
By Tan Bee EuAugust 2022 FEATURE
ADAPTIVE REUSE, a term commonly used by architects, refers to extending the lifespan of old abandoned buildings by reusing the existing spaces for a new purpose or function. Examples of this humble approach is widely seen in how many heritage buildings in Penang are managed. For example, buildings originally designed for residential purposes are now adapted into cafes, art galleries, museums, restaurants, offices, banks and even schools.
Without doubt, because of its huge immediate environmental benefits, adaptive reuse is fast becoming a global favourite as a sustainable approach in construction.
To illustrate this, we have the case of Edgecliff Bungalow on Penang Hill. This is a unique three-storey detached house designed by architect-owner J.C. Miller and built in 1937. At the time, it was deemed a construction feat considering the contemporary transportation logistics, machinery and methods.
Redefining New Purpose
The original bungalow was vacant and dilapidated when the State decided to convert it into a visitor’s gallery. This has now been completed and is open to the public. That single direction became the defining factor in determining the spatial programme for its reuse.
With a total built-up area of approximately 410m2 (4,412ft2), the original house built for a family size of 4 to 6 people must now be prepped to accommodate a total of 100 to 150 visitors at any single time. The visitor’s gallery, officially named Penang Hill Gallery @ Edgecliff, was envisioned as a one-stop hub that disseminates knowledge about the funicular train, cultivates appreciation for the rich cultural history of Penang Hill and raises awareness of Penang Hill as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
The vision itself is ambitious—restoring and converting a relatively small bungalow into a world-class public building, and on a humble budget. The building transformation and construction began in early 2020. Though hampered by the pandemic, the project soldiered on to full completion by June 2022.
Preserving Structural Load and Integrity
Edgecliff Bungalow was built from prefabricated components that were brought up on the railway. This reduced the costs of transporting loose materials up the Hill.
At the point of intervention, the overall envelope and building structure were generally intact, and there were only some minor localised damages that required rectification. Appreciating the unique structural design, the team worked carefully with the structural engineer to ensure zero alteration to the existing envelope walls and structural components of the building. One of the main halls on the ground floor was originally constructed in timber flooring. This required strengthening. New timber joists were also inserted in between existing floor joists as structural reinforcement to support the increased live load.
Site Context and Climate
Adaptive reuse projects that sit on flat land typically offer endless possibilities for alteration, intervention and adaptation. However, Edgecliff, surrounded by three sides of steep slopes with limited land access proved to be a great challenge.
We adopted a highly sensitive approach of strategic intervention which focused on improving function, smoothening the traffic flow of visitors and extending the existing building apron into a cascading 360° vantage viewing platform looking out over George Town and Butterworth.
The place enjoys cool temperatures ranging from 20°C to 27°C. The humidity lies between 75% to 86% and does not augur well for cellulose products such as books, posters, postcards and newspapers. High humidity is also a major contributor to mould growth. To address the effects of the high-humidity microclimate in the gallery, an industry-grade dehumidifier was installed in all the exhibition spaces. Building materials of wall paintings, floor finishes, doors and windows were also carefully chosen to respond to the high-humidity conditions.
Meeting Sustainability Benchmark for Historical Buildings
In line with the State’s advocacy in sustainability, the Edgecliff transformation project was assessed by Malaysia’s leading green rating tool, the Green Building Index (GBI), which awarded the building with GBI Certified Status under the Non-Residential Existing Building (NREB) Historic Building Tool. In fact, Edgecliff Bungalow is the first heritage building in Malaysia to obtain this certification.
Our architectural intervention incorporated a long list of passive strategies including natural lighting, visual connectivity to the outdoors, adaptive reuse of the existing structure and materials, using historical train parts for display as well as installing active systems such as rainwater harvesting and solar panels on the roof.
Curating New Experiences
One of the significant concepts we designed for Penang Hill Gallery @ Edgecliff is the one-way circulation for visitors. This simple yet crucial strategy helps easy wayfinding and ensures higher visual imageability.
Working closely with the Penang Hill Corporation, four major gallery themes were identified to be weaved into this one-way circulation of sequential experience: Biodiversity, Heritage, Funicular Train and Cultural Gallery. The arrival lobby, which was coined “Time Tunnel Gallery”, was deliberately designed as a dark tunnel-like linear space to reset sensory perception and mute out outdoor distractions. The four major galleries were subtly choreographed in such a way that visitors experience them with senses heightened through interior moods that toggle between dim to bright and dark to ultra-bright. This is key to breaking the monotony of a homogeneous interior colour palette in a small gallery.
To maximise surface display areas, every possible interior surface and nook such as ceilings, walls, doors and railings were utilised as exhibit panels. Multiple interactive exhibits ranging from electronic touch-screen counters, moving train models, flip-flop pivoted pictorial panels and artefacts were weaved into the experience to keep visitors engaged. Customised stamping stations have also been randomly planted at every gallery to encourage search-and-hunt play among children and adults. They act as pit-stop nodes for visitors to mindfully pause and reflect on their visual experiences. At the end of the journey, visitors get to bring home a collection of uniquely designed passport stamps embossed on their gallery flyers.
Sharing a Priceless View
The interior experience of the gallery brings visitors through four knowledge-based themes and ends with a full outdoor sensory experience of connecting to nature. We designed the rooftop viewing platform and cascading seats to encourage visitors to breathe in the cool, fresh air and soak in the beauty of nature.
Perched as it is at the edge of a hill slope, Edgecliff Bungalow boasts one of the best, unobstructed bird's-eye view of George Town and Butterworth. Ultimately, it is the opportunity to provide the public with this priceless view that makes the challenges worth it.
 Gibby, M. (2017). Penang Hill: A Journey Through Time. Entreport Publishing Sdn Bhd.
Tan Bee Eu
teaches at Universiti Sains Malaysia. She helms the Penang-based award-winning Architectural Practice, BETA (BEu Tan Architect), which was commissioned as Architect, Interior Designer, Landscape Designer and Curator for Penang Hill Gallery @ Edgecliff (In collaboration with Penang Hill Corporation), a milestone Project funded by the Penang State Government which was launched and opened to the public on 8 July 2022.