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Secret Penang Spice

The renovation and conversion of four historic shophouses into a boutique homestay in George Town, Malaysia creates a beautifully updated example of Straits Eclectic architecture.

Built between the end of the 18th and beginning of the 20th century, the row of four shophouses that now house the Spices Residence are situated in the heart of what used to be a centre of Islamic study and a congregation point for travellers undertaking the Haj.

Whilst modern transport has since superseded the sea voyages that would carry pilgrims to Mecca, the area retains its religious significance, housing a Mosque dating from 1808.

The shophouses, however, had been neglected for years, and, as BYG Architects describe, were a “ramshackle and unoccupied place of despair”. Despite this, the would-be owners of the properties were charmed by their historic charm, saw great potential in the structures, and thus embarked on a project of restoration and adaptation.

The architects were given a brief to convert two of the houses into a private dwelling, and two into a series of rooms to be rented out as short lets. Much of the original construction was to be retained, but modern elements were necessary to repair damage and provide modern amenities to residents and guests.

Ornamentations, pilasters, doors and windows were restored to their original forms except for the ground floor façade, where a glass door was consciously introduced as a new yet subtle element to grace the main entrance.

Upon entry one would be greeted by a generous lobby with a direct view of the open courtyard at the rear and the dining hall located to the left through an archway. The multi-tone colours and texture of the exposed and unplastered brickwork at the lobby create an earthy, rustic mood, leading one’s attention to the canopy of the Bodhi tree that hugs and straddles the wall.

Recycled and reused timber roof beams are deliberately exposed as architectural features in the rooms of the upper floors, and newly incorporated elements such as steel balusters and frames for staircases are also exposed to depict what is new and what is old.

The most interesting idea in the project is the marrying of the courtyard and the back lanes behind the residence to recreate a new urban landscape. The lane – once dirty and unkempt – is now a landscaped garden visible from for the library and the ground floor. The wall supporting the Bodhi tree was also strengthened by adding structural steel frames and rafters within to ensure support to the weight of the growing tree.

As the architects conclude, “The warm and inviting interior of Spices Residence with a private landscaped courtyard is likened to that of a little secret known only to a few.”


Spices Residence

BYG Architecture

Photography: Lucas & Joyce Photoworks