The Straits Times says

Breathing life into Civic District

The disappearance of sui generis assets, like heritage and natural biodiversity, tends to be rued only when it's apparent that loss is irreversible. While it exists in one form or another, historical buildings and places might be left in a state of benign neglect, for example, to avoid ill-judged restorative work that could undermine authenticity. In some cases, pressing needs might prompt society to look away despite the parlous state of remaining vestiges of the past - as happened in Nepal when over half of the World Heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley were destroyed by last year's major earthquake. And yet in other cases, historic areas are degraded when collective amnesia sets in, leading to the appropriation of sites for commerce or motley uses with nary a thought for their national significance.

Against this, it's heartening that little is being spared here to protect heritage landmarks in the Civic District. A $740 million plan was disclosed in last year's Budget to ensure the nation's historic heart is capable of evoking vibrant responses within those walking through it. A sum has also been allocated this year to draw more people into the area, as well as neighbouring Bras Basah-Bugis precinct, via a range of activities.

Some observers might think form is being elevated over substance because of the perceived grand scale of the transformation of the former Supreme Court and City Hall buildings into the $532 million National Gallery Singapore. While it was an undoubtedly ambitious undertaking, the designers were guided by the need to achieve "a very respectful and modest restoration" of the two structures, in the words of the architect. The pursuit of grandeur, for its own sake, would have been at odds with the values of those who had once walked down its corridors. Another misperception is that the large budget represents a chequebook approach to developing culture and the arts to counter what is seen as the city's "money-driven and somewhat sterile" image, as the BBC posited in a report.

In preserving the architectural and historical integrity of significant structures and managing activities and events in the Civic District, the single overarching goal is to connect the soul of the place with its citizens. That process has to be both managed and left to develop organically. And it has to go beyond concrete and glass to embrace much more. Gratifyingly, pains have been taken to create a 3km-long Tree Trail to draw attention to heritage rain trees in Connaught Drive that go back to the mid-1880s, the angsana and an Indian rubber tree that first sank its roots in 1955. Also finding a place in the district is a sound sculpture installation which broadcasts 24 hours of sounds from across the island. It will take such a mix of offerings, both stately and quirky, to help build affinity to the Civic District among Singaporeans.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2016, with the headline 'Breathing life into Civic District'. Print Edition | Subscribe