“I'm never bored on this job,” says Karen Tan, the founder of Pocket Projects, a creative development consultancy and management company. “I’ve been extremely stressed, I’ve been on a high, I’ve been down. I’ve been all sorts of things, but I’m never bored, and I’m really happy with that fact.” Tan’s work focuses on the regeneration of urban areas and heritage buildings, transforming blind spots, dilapidated buildings and forgotten spaces into ones relevant to current urban conversations and times.
“At some point when I was a kid, I wanted to grow up and design the sets of theme parks,” says Tan, who went to architecture school in Melbourne. “But I left in the second year and moved to London [to] read economics at the London School of Economics (LSE).” Then, she became a real estate investment banker, before working for a boutique developer in London, doing small property projects.
“Eventually, I came back to Singapore and started Pocket Projects,” she says. “So it’s a culmination of all my various bits of experiences and knowledge, which is why we can look at things from a very creative perspective, architectural perspective, and also the financial perspective, to make sure that projects are commercially viable, even though, on the surface, they might look a bit crazy.”
Courtesy of Pocket Projects
From left: Within Unit 11 of the Lorong 24A Shophouse series, a central staircase built from a steel foundation that bridges the old and new parts of the property; while raw concrete and metals dominate the new section of the house, the adjacent original section has preserved its timber floors and joists, soaring ceiling heights, spacious rooms and the old breeze blocks within its walls.
Working with her two co-founders Sharon Tan (her sister) and Blaise Trigg-Smith, Tan’s first brainchild, The Lorong 24A Shophouse Series, involved transforming eight shophouses situated in the Geylang district of Singapore into pop-up spaces from 2010 to 2013. Eight young local architects (now older, and more established) restored and interpreted each shophouse to change the physical landscape and the way people perceived the Geylang area, notorious for its red-light activity. “We used the spaces like art spaces, collaborated with a lot of artists and held a lot of events at that time,” says Tan. “The idea of pop-ups in vacant spaces is something we see quite often now, but back then, when we did it, it was very unusual. I can’t claim to have seeded anything, but I’m glad that when we did it, it was still fresh, and hopefully it inspired other people to do similar projects or have similar approaches to things.”
Another one of Tan’s attempts at urban reimagining is The Projector, which launched in 2014 as an independent cinema, dining and event space located within the Brutalist architecture of Golden Mile Tower on Beach Road. It currently comprises three theatres: The Green Room and Red Room are separate 250-seater theatres divided from a 500-seater circle area, which belonged originally to a 1,500-seater single screen mega theatre — the remaining 1,000 stall seats, on a lower floor, are now occupied by Carnival Cinemas. The third theatre, the Blue Room, seats slightly over 100, and used to be a church. “We were very interesting neighbours,” says Tan. “You had this start-up indie theatre, and then you had this church, which would do overnight vigils. We had our night crowd, and they had theirs.”
After The Projector, similarly experimental projects started appearing in the same building. Two years after The Projector started, a pop-up bar called The Great Escape, owned by Tan’s friend, occupied a space in the building carpark for three years. “Because The Projector existed, it could pop up and people could then experience more of the building,” Tan says. “They sold beers out of a camp bus at the back. They would have parties and DJ nights, and you got an amazing view of the bay.” The Projector also collaborates with an architecture firm on a lower floor; part of its space is an architectural art gallery. “It’s about seeding this sort of ecosystem within this big complex,” says Tan. “When you have a knock-on impact like that, it becomes much bigger than yourself.”
Courtesy of The Projector
Each of The Projector's spaces, comprising three cinema theatres and a bar, serves more than its primary purpose, capable of being transformed to accommodate diverse events.
To Tan, a project is successful when it impacts people who use it and makes a cultural difference. “People can talk about commercial success. That’s easy to measure, and for a project to be sustainable, it’s got to be commercially viable,” she says. “But I think that’s definitely not just it.” The Projector has held film festivals (from an Israel Film Festival to an Eco Film Festival), dress-up film nights, parties and other social events. “When people come and get surprised or somehow have a takeaway, that is a measure of success, because we have contributed to them in some way,” Tan says. “Maybe I just live vicariously through people. I derive a lot of joy from just coming to these spaces that I’ve created and watching people use it in their own way — it’s even better if I have not designed the way they’re using it.”
Ultimately, when people find new ways to engage with built heritage, such as The Projector, those spaces remain relevant — and conserved in the process. “And you can only really do that if it’s done over a period of time,” she says. “Especially when you’re changing people’s perceptions.” Both projects underscore the idea that Tan calls the “adaptive reuse” of urban spaces. Before her team approaches a space, besides looking at the architecture and ways to programme the space for use, there are also immense — yet not impossible, Tan says — pragmatic concerns. “How does one make a project that oftentimes hasn’t been done before make sense financially?” she says. “And if you are doing adaptive reuse, especially if you’re approaching it from a creative standpoint, you’re always trying to push the envelope — that involves risk.” Investors, for one, have needed more coaxing due to the higher stakes, compounded by high real estate prices in Singapore and the novelty — and hence, uncertainty — of adaptive reuse projects.
To the entrepreneur, The Projector is just a beginning — and seeks to forever be one, an adaptive space that continually reinvents itself.
Tan recently started the Singapore chapter of the international non-profit organisation Docomomo, which seeks to conserve modernist buildings in the nation. The conservation of heritage buildings, such as the Golden Mile Tower and the adjacent Golden Mile Complex, has fallen into her hands. As those 1970s buildings were built by local architects during Singapore’s early nation-building era, “they’re a physical expression of Singaporeans trying to build their own future,” she says.
As for The Projector, Tan is working on ways to diversify and future-proof the brand. Potential threats to its survival include, at the present, the fact that the building it inhabits faces the risk of an en bloc sale; and the tall order of translating a fundamentally physical experience of cinema-going online. In July 2020, The Projector Plus (P+) will launch as the first virtual cinema streaming platform on its website, which comes complemented with an online food and alcohol home delivery service. P+ will also host online film festivals, watch parties, in addition to live Q&As, DJ Zoom parties, film quizzes and comedy nights.
The lockdown period due to Covid-19 only motivated Tan’s team to speed up reinventing the brand, a process that had already been underway. “Suddenly we’re like these creative people turning into tech people overnight,” says Tan. “But it really forced us to step back, evaluate what exactly we’re doing, and why we’re doing what we do.”
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