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Conserved buildings: Consult public before slicing and dicing

Physical landmarks help people identify with their city and give them a sense of identity and solidarity

Since 1924, the Ellison Building has stood at the foot of Mount Sophia, a landmark for this area that used to be Singapore's Jewish quarter.

But a corner of this conserved building will soon be cut off to facilitate the construction of the North-South Corridor, a 21.5km expressway that will connect towns in the north to the city. The demolished portion, comprising one of nine units, affects house numbers 235, 237 and 239. The corner will be rebuilt once the corridor is completed in 2026.

Many in the heritage community have slammed the decision to demolish and reconstruct the Ellison Building, describing it as a regressive move. Architectural conservation specialist consultant Ho Weng Hin says: "It sets a precedent and sends the message that our conserved buildings, which are legally protected, can be subjected to this type of drastic intervention."

But as Singapore Management University (SMU) heritage law expert Jack Lee had observed, the conservation scheme here does not work to restrict the Government. If the Government wanted, it could grant permission for works despite the conservation order or even delist the building.

What the conservation scheme does prevent is intervention by private property owners that affect conservation properties, without the permission of the authorities.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

In the last few months, several other historic structures have had bits sliced off to make way for transport networks. A knoll that used to house the graves of Parsis, an early Indian community, was levelled earlier this year to facilitate the construction of the new Shenton Way Bus Terminal. It was part of the Palmer and Hill road area, where Sir Stamford Raffles hung the body of a merchant in chains after he had stabbed Colonel William Farquhar in 1823. Scholars believe the site was important and home to a thriving community.

Next to it, the annex buildings of Bestway Building, will be demolished as part of the construction works for the Circle Line's Prince Edward station. The main block of Bestway Building, the former Singapore Polytechnic building, is not affected, and is under study for possible conservation. The former polytechnic was home to Singapore's first architecture school. Some in the architectural community believe the site should be kept intact to be better understood as a school compound.

What that could mean is that while the Urban Redevelopment Authority may bandy about the figure of 7,000 conserved structures on this small island, there remains a risk that these buildings - or parts of them - will be sacrificed to future development.

THE ELLISON BUILDING

Back in 2008, when the URA gazetted the Ellison Building for conservation, it noted the Star of David on the building's facade as evidence of the early Jewish presence in the area, and that such buildings "bear social importance in reminding us of the communities that settled here".

The Ellison, a two-storey structure with two distinctive domes and balconies, stands at the corner of Selegie Road and Bukit Timah Road. It has served as a landmark for many years.

URA conservation guidelines also state that the fundamental principle of conservation, applicable to all conserved buildings, is "maximum retention, sensitive restoration and careful repair". The decision to chop off a chunk of the Ellison has therefore puzzled many.

It has raised hard questions about the URA's role as protector of the country's heritage, and the efficacy of a conservation gazette. The Singapore Heritage Society's (SHS) executive member, Dr Yeo Kang Shua, says the decision goes against the spirit of the law and makes a mockery of the conservation gazette.

Mr Ho, the architectural conservation specialist consultant, agrees and says planners should be avoiding, not cutting through, protected buildings.

The International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) Singapore, part of the international Icomos Unesco advisory body, says the move negates the critical role of heritage conservation in Singapore's national planning agenda. It adds that the decision undermines decades of painstaking efforts by state agencies, building owners, heritage stakeholders, professionals and builders, and the progress in conservation achieved so far.

Another point of contention is the decision to reconstruct the demolished portion.

SHS described reconstruction as the falsification of historical artefacts, too often taken as an easy option in place of exploring other means and techniques. Internationally, reconstruction is controversial, it says, even if heritage has been destroyed by war.

In URA's latest reply to The Straits Times, a spokesman said that once both private and state properties or buildings are gazetted for conservation, they will not be allowed to be demolished or undergo reconstruction. "Only in an extenuating situation, where it is unavoidable and necessary for the larger benefit of the community, that a considered decision may be taken to allow reconstruction as a last resort," he says.

He adds that planning for Singapore's land use and urban development is about overcoming the physical constraints of a land- scarce city-state, and achieving a fine balance between conserving the country's physical heritage and supporting infrastructure or development needs.

Describing the step of reconstruction as an exceptional course of action, he says this decision was only taken after the agencies concluded that it was not feasible to completely avoid Ellison Building in order to "realise an important national infrastructure that will serve the larger public interest".

The building protrudes slightly beyond its neighbour, the similarly conserved Rex Cinema.

Construction of the underground corridor uses the traditional "cut and cover" method. Older reports cite the Land Transport Authority (LTA) as saying that an expressway needs to be as straight as possible to accommodate higher speeds. It said acquisitions along the route were necessary because of the highly built-up area that includes Bukit Timah Road and Rochor Canal.

However, instead of tearing down Ellison's corner units, experts believe other methods can be deployed - such as propping the structure up while the corridor is constructed. They estimate such alternatives could take up 30 per cent more cost and time.

MOVING FORWARD

Since independence, Singapore has pursued rapid development in an era that was defined by the need to survive. It was therefore about growing the economy and building infrastructure rapidly, with swathes of built and natural heritage sacrificed.

Now, having celebrated its golden jubilee, perhaps it is time for this city state to take a more considered approach to the subject, folding in expertise from the community, and relevant public opinion.

Experts note that the recent decisions to chop up parts of the historic Tanjong Malang and the Ellison Building were made behind closed doors and announced as a fait accompli. It is also unclear how the options were derived and how exactly these decisions were made. They suggested introducing a mechanism for a proper review process.

In some countries, developers are required to announce that a heritage site is slated to undergo development. In places such as Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, people can make representations in a hearing which the authorities will evaluate before they make the final decision, notes SMU's Dr Lee. He believes it is timely for Singapore to adopt this approach.

Dr Yeo agrees. "It involves everyone because a protected building is a public good... So there must be some mechanism for the community to protest and object."

This approach has worked here before. Take the case of national monument Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. In October last year, LTA announced that parts of its platforms would be making way for the construction of the underground Cantonment Circle Line station. What differed in its approach was that it sought advice from the heritage community on possible solutions for the two affected parallel stretches. This was after an internal study by an architectural conservation specialist consultancy engaged to assess the heritage significance and condition of the former railway station and advise on mitigation measures.

The station was gazetted by the National Heritage Board in 2011, alongside two 80m stretches of the platforms. The remaining 350m on each side were not part of the gazette.

The case of the national monument was handled with great care. But all protected buildings should be given a fair chance to be retained holistically - not just national monuments.

This can be objectively discussed via heritage impact assessments - a tool that helps governing bodies to identify mitigation measures and options to minimise damage to buildings affected by development.

This would make for a more consistent approach.

Experts believe that the public should be engaged, alternative proposals solicited, tabled and discussed to open up the range of options available beyond the confines of bureaucracy where the main priorities are cost and speed.

It is important that decisions are made collectively as opposed to the more convenient top-down approach. Along with that, must come a change in mindsets so that the needs of one agency do not outweigh others, adds Mr Ho.

Government agencies must realise that heritage - both built and natural - is a public good as it gives a country its character. Roads do not, and neither do tunnels.

The cities of London, New York and Paris have managed to shape themselves into thriving hubs where massive transport networks run under centuries-old buildings.

How people identify with their city and heritage leads to a sense of identity, solidarity, and urban resilience, says Mr Ho. "Once you see the weight of that, it goes beyond brick and mortar."

In that light, there is a need to carefully consider what we want to leave behind for future generations of Singaporeans.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2016, with the headline 'Conserved buildings: Consult public before slicing and dicing'. Print Edition | Subscribe