Complete Property Market Updates of Singapore

April 30, 2008

Unwanted child of S’pore conservation?

Filed under: 1 — Propertymarketupdates @ 2:35 am

For too long, the once-lovely Capitol Theatre has stood forlorn and forgotten, the unwanted child of Singapore conservation.

Newspaper reports once held out hope of it being transformed into a performing arts centre for musicals, plays and ballets.

That, alas, was in January 1996.

Even then, the report quoted government officials as saying that the plans were ’still being studied’.

Never mind that the site had been earmarked for development in 1984, and acquired by the state in 1987, nearly a decade earlier.

More delays followed. In 1998, Capitol screened its last movie and the cinema was shut down amid much sadness and hopeful talk of plans to put it to better use.

The project was handed over to the Singapore Tourism Board to pursue in 2000. But in 2006, it decided not to proceed and handed it back to the Singapore Land Authority. Last year, it was finally declared a conservation area.

Sadly, over the years, nobody seemed either to own the project or to care all that much about it.

So, pardon me, but I could not help being more than a little sceptical when I read a report earlier this month which talked of fresh plans for the Capitol Theatre and the structures around it – Capitol Building, Capitol Centre and Stamford House.

The report raised as many questions as it answered: Just what do the authorities now envisage for the site, which they say will be sold as an ‘integrated one’ next year? So far, officials have said only that the area has not been ‘fully maximised to its development potential’ – indeed! – and the ‘timing and details’ of their plans ‘are being finalised’.

Why has it taken decades for any progress to be made on conserving this area? What is the cost of leaving Capitol idle all these years, allowing it to crumble away to a dusty death? And just who will ensure that the plans are realised this time?

These are legitimate questions, not least since the buildings concerned are very much part of Singapore’s architectural heritage.

Capitol Theatre turns 80 next year. The neo-classical style building was built in 1929 by M.A. Namazie, an early Singapore pioneer of Persian origin. The accompanying four-storey building, where the popular Magnolia Snack Bar once stood, was completed in 1933 and called the Namazie Mansions back then.

The cinema was Singapore’s very first, where the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks performed to promote their silent movies. In the 1960s, the Capitol hosted variety shows featuring performers like Sakura Teng and Rita Chao.

The adjacent Stamford House has an even longer history. It was designed for commercial use in 1904 by R.A.J. Bidwell, the man behind other outstanding buildings such as the Raffles Hotel and Goodwood Park Hotel.

Few seem to recall the furious debate that broke out in 1991 over whether Stamford House should be saved instead of Eu Court, built in the 1930s, across the street.

Then National Development minister S. Dhanabalan declared that Stamford House would be preserved as it had a ‘more outstanding architectural style’.

I was prepared then to give the minister the benefit of the doubt, and wait to see if the ramshackle Stamford House of those days would indeed be transformed into the conservation gem he envisioned.

So, when the Victorian facade of the building was unveiled three years and $13 million later, I had to concede that it did look splendid, as the minister had said.

But sadly, it never quite lived up to his promise of becoming ‘an active and successful commercial centre’, given its motley collection of furniture shops, galleries and eateries, several of which came and went.

The wider issue here is this:

Just how does Singapore go about conserving its architectural heritage, saving grand old buildings and giving new life to them?

Of course, given the space constraints on this tiny island, I have never believed in keeping buildings as museum pieces, or standing in the way of development.

But, in these days of globalisation and rapid change, a sense of place and continuity is needed if Singaporeans are to remain rooted to this country.

Indeed, at the moment, Singapore is undergoing another spurt of redevelopment. Just as in the 1980s and 1990s, when familiar sites like the modest C.K. Tang store or the huge open field where Ngee Ann City now stands gave way to skyscrapers, the Ion Orchard and Orchard Central are rising rapidly from the ground in Orchard Road. These, and the redevelopment of the Asia Hotel site in Scotts Road, as well as the new St Regis Hotel in Tanglin Road are transforming the face of the downtown area as we know it.

So how to ensure continuity in the face of such change?

Well, to be fair, there have been quite a few success stories in conservation over the years, such as the Fullerton Hotel, Raffles Hotel, the National Museum, the old Parliament House, and the old St Joseph’s Institution building.

In these cases, the buildings’ structures were painstakingly conserved, even as their interiors were retrofitted to allow for new uses, commercial or otherwise. Sure, the purists moaned, but the conservation purpose was served.

There have been some bad misses too. Orchard cinema and the National Library were both razed to the ground despite fervent public protests.

Or ponder this: Just what is the difference between the ghastly named Orchard Cineleisure and the supposedly conserved Cathay building?

Precious little, actually. The former was built after tearing the old cinema down completely, while the latter was simply erected around a sliver of the facade of what was Singapore’s first skyscraper, as a sop to the conservationist lobby.

Clearly, there are lessons to be learnt from these hits and misses over the decades to help ensure that the re-development of the Capitol area turns out right.

To do so, the authorities need to:

·  Spell out their Capitol conservation plans in much greater detail.

While they are at it, they should consider redeveloping the SMRT HQ building across the street. Why a public transport operator needs such a large prime site, all walled up and uninviting, has always been a mystery to me.

There is much potential to liven up the entire area on both sides of Stamford Road, with an array of streetwalk dining, retail and entertainment options.

·  Engage the public, both to get ideas and foster a sense of ownership of this historic district.

Surely, Singaporeans should not wait until plans are announced to demolish an old building before taking an interest? Nor should they be left to bemoan conservation efforts gone awry after the fact.

·  Announce a timeline to make clear how and when the authorities will ensure that the area’s ‘development potential is fully maximised’, at long last.

It would be a pity if Singaporeans have to wait another decade to read the next report on new plans ‘being studied’ for Capitol.

Source : Sunday Times – 20 Apr 2008

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