Pearl Bank apartments. People’s Park Complex. Golden Mile Complex. Their days are numbered as the wrecking ball looms alarmingly close, even as most Singaporeans make the appropriate noises about the killing of our architectural landmarks.
But Darren Soh, Chua Ai Lin and Randy Chan are not about adding to Internet chatter or sending plaintive pleas to the powers that be. They’ve formed a resistance movement of sorts, working in their own ways to conserve or document the buildings for posterity.
Mr Soh, for one, has been capturing images of Singapore’s buildings for over a decade. He has an ongoing exhibition showing some of these buildings, such as Tanglin Halt Estate and Rochor Centre. He has also published a book and filmed a documentary to complement the exhibition.
What reaction does he hope to get from the public? “All that you see in my exhibition, book and documentary – they are likely to disappear within a decade. How do you feel about that?” he asks.
Refusing to be a bystander following the sale of Pearl Bank Apartments in February, Dr Chua, executive director at the Singapore Heritage Society, has submitted a position paper to the Ministry of National Development, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the National Heritage Board, proposing a slew of measures to lengthen the lifespan of buildings.
Meanwhile, Mr Chan is part of a group of architects and heritage specialists who have banded together to start a petition to conserve Golden Mile Complex and People’s Park Complex.
It’s still too early to tell if these heritage protectors’ efforts will succeed or come to naught. But for now, the task is to keep raising awareness. “We hope that this debate will encourage different stakeholders – Singaporeans, owners and tenants of these buildings, planners, policy makers and developers – to work together and explore alternative ways of revaluing, rehabilitating and repurposing these heroic icons of Singapore,” says Mr Chan.
If you chance upon a bespectacled photographer framing his shots in an old housing estate, it’s likely to be Darren Soh.
The 42-year-old runs his own studio and spends his time documenting Singapore’s built landscape. The bulk of his work is architectural photography, capturing new buildings for architects, engineers, builders and developers.
He is also known among his peers for photographing old buildings, some of which have already been torn down. Mr Soh has an ongoing exhibition at Objectifs, titled Before It All Goes, that captures buildings from Singapore’s early independent days, including Tanglin Halt housing estate, Pearl Bank Apartments and People’s Park Complex.
“I don’t draw a line between capturing new buildings and old ones, because at the current replacement cycles of our buildings, new buildings that I photographed a decade ago might very well be earmarked for redevelopment in another 20 to 30 years,” says Mr Soh. “I see the paid work that I do photographing new buildings as a large part of this documentation of our built landscape.”
He began capturing Singapore’s built landscape in 2004. “I returned to my first home in Commonwealth Close to take photos, and it was then I realised how quickly Singapore was changing,” he says. “I feel a lot of our older buildings that are not conserved need to be systematically and properly photographed so that they can be remembered should they not stand the test of time.”
He also realised the need to try and save some of Singapore’s modernist icons, such as Golden Mile Complex and People’s Park Complex, because they were built at a time when the country was a newly independent nation finding its footing on the world stage.
“Unfortunately many of these shining examples are now either going to be demolished or being put on collective sale, on the road to demolition,” he explains. “I feel that this will create a state of national amnesia, where we will be missing a huge gap in our built history because we have many conserved pre-war and colonial buildings but only a handful of post-independent buildings have been gazetted.”
His exhibition has garnered interest not only from historians, heritage groups and architects but also from the general public. “Judging from the people who have come for the exhibition and emails and messages I’ve been receiving, it appears that many people do care that their memories and childhood spaces are being destroyed in the name of progress,” says Mr Soh.
Despite having photographed well over 100 buildings, Mr Soh is in a race against time. “I’m not exaggerating when I say that destruction, demolition and development are all happening in multiple sites, at the same time,” he notes.
He hopes that with engagement and education from the ground up, policymakers will realise that there is value in these modern buildings beyond just letting them be sold to the highest bidder for redevelopment.
He is aware that buildings will eventually have to be torn down, but doesn’t feel the many hours of photography will go to waste. “Nothing is done in vain because even if I cannot save the buildings, at the very least we have a thorough documentation of them in photographs to help us remember our follies,” he adds.
Before It All Goes: Architecture From Singapore’s Early Independence Years, is on till Sept 29, at Objectifs, 155 Middle Road. Opening hours from Tues to Sat, 12pm to 7pm, Sun, 12pm to 4pm. Admission is free.
CHUA AI LIN
Chua Ai Lin, 44, always had a strong passion for history and heritage. She has two masters degrees and a PhD in history, and has spent half her life at the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS), first as a member, then as vice president in 2011, president in 2013, and now as its executive director.
At SHS, she has witnessed or been at the forefront of major conservation issues such as the demolition of the old National Library, the Rail Corridor and Bukit Brown.
She is now pushing to lengthen the lifespan of historic and architecturally significant buildings, namely Pearl Bank Apartments, People’s Park Complex and Golden Mile Complex. To date, no post-independence strata-titled modernist building in Singapore has received official conservation status.
“Given the historic and architectural significance of these buildings, it is timely for current land-use policies and regulatory frameworks to be re-evaluated to facilitate the conservation of modernist structures for adaptive reuse,” she says. “And for private owners and developers to plan for a longer building lifespan incorporating evolving ideas for rehabilitation and regeneration.”
She recently submitted a position paper, titled Too Young to Die: Giving New Lease of Life to Singapore’s Modernist Icons, to the Ministry of National Development, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and the National Heritage Board, with recommendations to extend the lifespan of buildings. The recommendations include the following: building management corporations should be made to develop and implement better long-term maintenance plans; architects should propose alternative plans for building rehabilitation to educate and convince developers that conservation is a viable option; and bolder planning incentives for developers and building owners, such as offering greater bonus gross floor area and more flexible re-zoning options to encourage rehabilitation and conservation of these sites.
Dr Chua collaborated with architectural conservation specialist and Singapore University of Technology and Design assistant professor Yeo Kang Shua, and heritage conservation expert Ho Weng Hin on the recommendations. “They have been deeply thought through,” she says.
She is waiting to hear back from the government agencies. “The recommendations have precedence in related areas. We are at the point where we may change the future, so it is not time to say goodbye to these buildings, especially Golden Mile Complex and People’s Park Complex, yet.” She adds that giving such buildings conservation status “is a nudge for developers to not think of demolition as the easiest and fastest way to change a building”. She presses on: “It is not impossible to rejuvenate or repurpose a building.”
In the meantime, she continues to raise awareness about saving Singapore’s iconic buildings.
She is running an exhibition at The Substation, which focuses on the three buildings, why they are iconic, the forces that shape their fate today, and what can be done to save them.
Dr Chua is encouraged by the number of people who have come by to see the exhibition, because it shows they have an interest in the issue. “The younger people are able to recognise the buildings from the images we put up, and they are aware of the en bloc issue and say it would be a loss if the buildings were torn down,” says Dr Chua. “Usually the awareness for heritage issues is low, but the response we’ve gotten from the exhibition is encouraging.”
For buildings that she can’t save from the wrecking ball, such as the old National Library and soon Pearl Bank Apartments, she adds: “I can’t give up the fight. I have to move on because the next building needs our help.”
Too Young To Die: Giving New Lease of Life to Singapore’s Modern Icons is on at The Substation till Sept 23. Copies of the position paper are free to download at singaporeheritage.org.
SAVE OUR MODERN ICONS
Alarmed by the speed at which the wrecking ball will soon hit Pearl Bank Apartments and that the Golden Mile Complex MCST has garnered more than 80 per cent consensus to proceed with an en bloc sale, a group of architects and academics have come together in the hope of changing history.
The group of 12 have put forth a petition appealing to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to gazette Golden Mile Complex and People’s Park Complex with conservation status.
“We are almost out of time, but it is not too late. It is vital that we enact the gazetting of these modern landmarks before the sales are finalised,” says architect Randy Chan.
Architecture associate professor Chang Jiat Hwee adds that, “with the gazette, the development model for the new owners will be one of conservation, re-imagination and rejuvenation, rather than the traumatic process of demolition and new erection”.
Over 1,500 people have signed the petition in the last three weeks. For the group, it is less about numbers but more of conveying who supports the buildings’ conservation and the reasons for doing so. Architects and designers, educators, homemakers, realtors, and technicians among others have signed the petition. “They have expressed strong personal identification and connection to these buildings as a part of their lives and Singapore’s nation-building history,” says architect Jonathan Poh.
Designer Quek See Yee says: “We believe it is important to widen the discussion with the main objective being an appeal to a broader audience – besides the architectural fraternity – to give voice to the other ways in which these buildings are important to Singaporeans and the wider community.” Dr Chang emphasises that they are not asking for conservation in the sense of fossilisation, but conservation through revaluation and rejuvenation. “Instead of collective sales followed by demolition and rebuilding, are there other more creative and appropriate ways of redeveloping and rejuvenating these buildings that would provide the same economic benefits while also conserving and re-purposing the physical structures,” he asks.
The group has begun submitting the petition to the URA. “We cannot say for sure what our chances are, but we can only hope for the best outcome,” says architecture graduate Vincent Tan. He adds that, “if the conservation and rehabilitation of Golden Mile Complex and People’s Park Complex are successful, these would set a good precedent and build up momentum for other possible candidates in the future.”
Sign the Save Our Modern Icons petition at savesgmodernicons.com.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.