A gym is where you go and gasp and grunt for an hour or two, then give yourself a quick rub-down before going home, grabbing some grub on the way. It is also a place some will not choose to visit if they do not have to.
When Babel Fit owner Tan Boon Yao drew up its concept, he aimed to break the mould of the stereotypical gym. What he envisioned was a space where everything serves a purpose, and to which people flock because it plays an important role in their life.
“The design brief was that it should not look like people’s standard idea of a gym,” says Tan of Babel, which takes up 25,000 sq ft of the rooftop of Menara Ken TTDI in Kuala Lumpur. “This space is not just about fitness. It’s also about people and yourself.”
Gyms in Malaysia are typically 5,000 to 18,000 sq ft in size, he adds.
Babel boasts state-of-the-art equipment spread out in an environment designed to give members “an electrifying experience” as they burn calories, power up their endurance, boost their stamina, or cycle, dance, bend and stretch in a main studio, spin room, hiit (high intensity interval training) room and swim in an outdoor infinity pool overlooking Taman Tun Dr Ismail.
The workout buzz — generated by Technogym, Powerplate and Rogue equipment, multiplanar exercises, yoga on a mat in the covered pool and workouts synced to the beat of music and lights — is balanced by a garden rooftop lounge where one can cool down on a canopy swing; a sauna that offers a splendid view of the neighbourhood; changing rooms with luxe-hotel decor and fittings; and a lounge café where visitors can savour healthy snacks, juices and connoisseur coffee.
Creative interplay of black-and-white geometric patterns, metal bars and ribbed wooden panels enhance the look of the set-up that can comfortably accommodate 150 guests working out at the same time. There are no pictures of bulging biceps, gleaming six packs or envy-inducing silhouettes. Instead, large and tiny statues positioned at strategic spots make one smile and reach out, as though to touch the possibilities.
“We’re an experiential company and we aspire towards delivering how people imagine a gym can be,” says Tan. “Whatever that can improve your experience, we want to do it. Think of this as a very modern country club where you can access everything with your gym membership.”
Babel opened last December after two years of planning and had more than 800 members as at mid-August. Thirteen certified trainers who understand how bones, muscles and joints work are on the floor to show guests what is important for their body and recommend classes that can improve their overall fitness, posture and mobility, or how to just loosen up physically.
There is more to hitting the gym than wanting to look good. Some people need instruction training but not necessarily to bulk up, Tan says. They may wish to be fit, move better or lose weight and will naturally gravitate towards a space where they are comfortable doing things at their own pace. Hence, his emphasis on giving people that feel the moment they walk into Babel.
An eclectic mix of patterned flooring that pleases the eye and excites the mind, walls painted in neutral shades, acoustics panels, soft furnishings and cosy sofas put them at ease and appeal to their senses.
“People want a place where they can unwind after work, have some drinks and hang out with friends, or get a quick fix [courtesy of specialty brewers Eight Ounce Coffee] before their workout. We have created a living space where they can say, ‘I want to spend more time here’.”
This aspect of the gym’s direction is congruent with that of its landlord, a property developer passionate about art, design and trees, he adds. “We are really connected. There is an art gallery and a performing arts theatre downstairs. When the landlord built the rooftop, he wanted people to sit outside and have a meal or relax in his garden.”
Babel’s motto is to inspire change, says Tan, who knew nothing about gyms before he started. Learning on the job is important to him, as is engaging the right people — such as a general manager, a trainer of trainers and “one of the most famous dance instructors in KL”.
“Everything you do at the gym needs a purpose. It’s about understanding your body and developing it to the goal you have in mind. We want to help people achieve [that] and make a difference in their life.
“We have the expertise to train anyone from beginner level to competitive sports player or a trainer. Someone who is passionate about cycling, for example, could think about competing in the Tour de France. Another person who is very keen on TRX (a form of suspension training) could aspire to be a trainer.”
It is really about helping members push their limits, adds Tan, whose experience in computing, big data and AI has come in handy to create links between fitness and technology for his first big project.
His goal before taking it on was “to make a difference” in any industry. Research and an understanding of sports performance steered the athlete, who used to play badminton competitively, towards fitness.
He is not into gym equipment but likes bodyweight workouts. “At end of the day, it does not matter how much you can bench-press but how well you manage your body weight. Can you bend and touch your toes or do a pull-up the right way? What truly matters to me are mastering your strength and power, control, mobility and stamina. That’s what we want to focus on.”
There are a few ways to interpret the gym’s name, he replies as to why Babel. The first thing that comes to mind is the Tower of Babel, but there is a deeper meaning beyond a structure.
“When one mentions Babel, we immediately relate to the ancient world, inspiring thoughts of going back to the basics of motion in fitness. Although we have the best and most hi-tech equipment, it’s about self. Humans are meant to move about, but we are confined by our office cubicles. Hence this space, where you can come out and experience the maximum potential of your body and feel good about yourself.”
Members pay a monthly fee of RM250, but the joining fee will increase as the gym grows. There is room to expand by converting the outdoor area, now a sizeable 5,000 sq ft, says Tan, who hopes to expand across Southeast Asia and take healthy living to the next level.
Babel Fit is located at Menara Ken rooftop, TTDI. Call 03 7680 0000 or visit their website for more details. This article first appeared in issue no 89, Autumn 2018 of Haven.