Complete Property Market Updates of Singapore

July 10, 2008

Going, going, gone

Filed under: General — Propertymarketupdates @ 5:03 am

Modern buildings of Singapore as an emerging nation deserve closer look before they go under the wrecker’s ball or replaced quietly

EVERY now and then, a middle-aged man shuffles into the Boys’ Brigade headquarters in Ganges Avenue, off Zion Road, taking pensive looks at its wooden windows, sunny corridors and tiny canteen fitted with a quaint chimney.

Its staff ask: ‘Can we help you?’

And the man goes: ‘Oh, I used to study in this school.’

The beige 1950s-era blocks used to house Havelock Primary School. These nostalgic visitors can count themselves lucky. It is one of the few – if not the last – remaining single-storey school buildings left in Singapore.

But it may have to go soon. The area sits on the fringe of the Orchard Road shopping belt, home to an increasing number of luxury condominiums and malls. The Boys’ Brigade can renew its lease only one year at a time, which means it can be sent packing quickly if the increasingly valuable land it stands on is slated for redevelopment.

The school is just one of the many properties marking modern Singapore’s early years under threat from the current construction boom. Unlike colonial-era shophouses, bungalows and stone-columned monoliths, these relatively modest properties or structures tend to exist out of the limelight until they disappear altogether.

Yet, they are equally, if not more, significant. They were built at a time when Singapore was finding its own feet as a nation and laying out the first of its infrastructure on a shoestring budget.

This brave new post-colonial world required new ways of thinking – about the way people lived, worked, learnt and shopped – and the utilitarian buildings that consequently emerged reflected such ideals.

The heavy ornamentation of the past gave way to clean lines as architects embraced Modern architecture with climate-sensitive touches like perforated concrete screens that provided a clever mix of natural light, shade and ventilation. These resulting schools, libraries, homes and offices were the workhorses for the emerging nation, and the original icons of Singapore before the word ‘iconic’ became commonplace. Today, they are fast disappearing.

Many still rankle at the demolition of the red-bricked National Library building in 2004 to make way for the Fort Canning tunnel. Other significant properties have also quietly disappeared.

Architectural historian Lai Chee Kien, for example, laments the loss of three blocks of red-bricked flats in Albert Street built by the early housing authority Singapore Improvement Trust in 1949 amid the post-war shortage of building materials. The facade of red brick and panel work were important experiments for future housing designs and a key part of Singapore’s housing heritage, he says.

Similarly, 14 blocks of six-storey emergency flats that were built in a year to house victims of the terrible 1961 Bukit Ho Swee fire – which propelled the then-newly formed Housing Board into the spotlight – have been demolished.

None of the 6,800 buildings conserved so far comprises public housing, one of the major components of modern Singapore’s built heritage. About 6,400 of those conserved were shophouses, and another 100 were bungalows.

Typically, the facades and major structures of conserved properties cannot be altered. While the URA identifies buildings and structures for conservation, owners can also volunteer their own properties for such protection.

The first and only batch of government-built housing to be conserved are 20 blocks of pre-war homes in Tiong Bahru currently classified as private flats.

The HDB declines to reveal how many blocks it demolishes every year, but says its plans to redevelop Queenstown and Yishun incorporate ‘heritage corners to feature local history and landmarks’. It tries to retain the character of ageing estates by upgrading instead of demolishing them, but resettles residents to higher-rise flats nearby where that is not feasible.

The URA says that its conservation officers have systematically combed the island over the years to create an inventory of buildings worth conserving. But it does not reveal what these buildings are apart from those already gazetted for conservation.

While the Urban Redevelopment Authority has, in recent years, given legal protection to newer buildings like the former Jurong Town Hall, architects and heritage lovers say there are many more that deserve a far closer look.

Quiet heritage markers

THEY include the Queenstown Community Library in Margaret Drive – the first full-time branch library in Singapore – the subtly graceful former Ministry of Education headquarters in Kay Siang Road and the striking former Singapore Polytechnic campus in Prince Edward Road, now rented out for office use under the moniker ‘Bestway Building’.

Add to that list a rare batch of brick-walled flats in the Dakota Crescent area built by the SIT in 1958, as well as the 32-year-old Tanjong Pagar Plaza, a high-rise, high-density living environment that incorporated spaces for living, shopping and mingling in the heart of the city.

Humble bus stops erected in the early years similarly combined modern style with heavy-duty function. Some of the oldest bus stops still standing can be found in Old Choa Chu Kang Road. The elegant concrete structures will be replaced with pre-fabricated ones by 2011, as part of an upgrading exercise by the Land Transport Authority.

Finally, there are private strata-titled buildings, of which talk of conservation is most contentious. Owners of noteworthy properties like Pearl Bank Apartments and Golden Mile Complex have made plans to sell the buildings collectively for higher returns. Conservation would probably hurt their chances for a sale as it is more typical for developers to tear down old condos rather than refurbish them for sale again.

Pearl Bank is a distinctive 38-storey horseshoe-shaped building in Pearl’s Hill and was the tallest residential building in Singapore when completed in 1976. Golden Mile, meanwhile, is an innovative mixed-use terraced complex in Beach Road, which was feted as a regional pioneer for such developments when completed in 1973. Both were considered hip dwellings for the well-heeled but have today turned scruffy with age as foreign tenants and businesses move in.

Long-time Golden Mile resident Ande Lai, 60, harbours no illusions of permanence about the place he calls home, where he also runs a photography shop. He says quietly: ‘There’s no turning back to the good old days. Many people who bought the place and live here are not the people who want the building conserved. They see it as an old building and want it to be torn down.’

But the URA’s deputy director for conservation and development services, Mrs Teh Lai Yip, feels that such pessimism is premature. Collective sales, she says, can be a good thing for conservation if the developers who buy such properties retain and refurbish them. That is probably easier than dealing with hundreds of owners with competing interests in a strata-titled building, each with little stomach for the financial commitment needed to overhaul an ageing building.

This is a growing reality as modern buildings are bigger – and hence would have more and more stake-owners.

But as it stands, no developer has conserved a property after a collective sale. The much-vaunted 32-year-old elliptical condo Futura in Leonie Hill Road will soon make way for ‘a new ‘Futura’ – one that would be iconic, distinctive and futuristic’, according to its en-bloc buyer City Developments.

Public awareness of modern buildings is also low, which makes it easy to dismiss the value that they hold. But as architectural writer Dinesh Naidu, who is writing a book about modern Singapore buildings, says: ‘A city should have layers of history in it. You should have a sense of the age of a city and all its different periods through its spaces, and streets and buildings and so on.

‘You don’t want to feel like you are living in a city that was built yesterday, even though it’s a 200-year-old city.’

A money game

TYPICALLY, the Government picks buildings for conservation not just for their architectural merit, but also their importance in Singapore’s history and society. But it treads a policy tightrope. While it dishes out only a slim set of benefits to building owners whose properties are conserved, it is wary of imposing too much of a financial cost on them.

The URA extends some owners extra saleable space on the plot where their conserved property stands. If the authority reclassifies a conserved building to allow for a more valuable use – like commercial use – its owner does not have to pay a development charge for improvement work he does on the property.

In contrast, authorities in the United States and Australia dole out many sweeteners. They let owners sell off the extra development potential in return for conservation work on their heritage property.

Re-use and recycle old buildings

TAX credits are also given to owners of heritage buildings in the US on a portion of the costs to rehabilitate a heritage building.

The URA does not plan to adopt any financial incentives currently offered overseas. Instead, it is appealing to civic-mindedness.

As Mrs Teh says hopefully: ‘It is important to have ‘white knights’ – buyers who recognise and appreciate the value of conservation – to step in to save a building and unlock the untapped potential by embracing conservation.’

But heritage advocates here say that conservation is as much about dollars and cents as it is about preserving history. The fact that buildings in land-scarce Singapore always cost less than the land they stand on already acts as a disincentive for conservation.

Developer Daniel Teo, chairman of Hong How Group which is currently restoring and redeveloping some heritage properties in Armenian Street, reckons it costs about 10 per cent more to keep and restore a heritage building than to tear it down for another development.

‘It’s all a money game. If there is enough incentive, I’m sure more would take it up,’ he says.

Architect Tay Kheng Soon, who designed Golden Mile Complex, moots using taxpayer funds to help maintain private heritage buildings. ‘There is such a thing as collective ownership because of our obligations as citizens.’ Even if such buildings are closed off to the public, Singaporeans would at least still have ‘visual’, ‘historical’ and ‘emotional’ access to them, he reasons.

Wanted: Fresh ideas

IN THE near term, the best way to keep Singapore’s early modern buildings alive is probably to find new uses for them when old ones run out.

The former Ministry of Education headquarters is safe from the wrecking ball for now because New York University Tisch School of the Arts Asia has turned a part of it, formerly used by the now defunct Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore’s TV studios, into a ’shabby chic’ campus, after a $9 million refurbishment.

Tisch president Pari Sara Shirazi will not have traded it for brand-new premises. She says: ‘I don’t want anybody to tear it down. You have stories you tell about buildings – this was once a TV studio during a special time in Singapore’s life…Maybe the next Oscar winner will be educated here.’

The former Telok Kurau West Primary School in Telok Kurau Road, meanwhile, houses an art gallery and the studios of about 30 artists. One of them, performance and installation artist Amanda Heng, points out: ‘We have a lot of these abandoned old schools which have to be maintained. When they are converted to art premises, artists can help maintain these buildings.’

Ingenuity will also work. Enlightened owners, says Mr Naidu, can help refurbish a modern building well enough to make people see them in a new light. ‘People will start to say, hey, I used to think that was a very grotty heap of concrete – just like people used to say I used to think shophouses were slums – but now after you did yours up, I think that is quite cool, I want to live there!’

But leave it to chance, and the alternative scenario could be grim – Singapore will be left with little more than photographs and memories to understand how it got there.

He says, almost matter-of-factly: ‘As we lose them, they will become so rare and precious that we will cling to them, just like shophouses today.’

Source : Straits Times – 7 Jun 2008

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