What makes a national monument?

THE recent announcement that the Jurong Town Hall building will be accorded "national monument" status comes as a pleasant surprise.

Jurong Town Hall is a prime example of modern architecture in post-independence Singapore and was designed by Architects Team 3 in 1974. Buildings from this period are generally considered not "old" or "historic" enough to be deemed important by many and, as with much of modern architecture, you either hate it or love it.

In the light of this, the decision to grant Jurong Town Hall national monument status should be applauded as a sign of increased recognition of the importance of modern architecture. Nevertheless, this decision also raises a few questions as to how we decide what buildings to recognise and protect, and the rationale behind the decision-making processes. Discussing these questions will not only raise architectural awareness in Singapore, but also help inform ongoing debates over heritage-significant buildings.

First, can the National Heritage Board (NHB) share with the public its reasons for upgrading Jurong Town Hall to national monument status, bearing in mind that it is already a "conserved" building?

In November 2002, the need to protect modern architecture that captured Singapore's path towards independence, as well as our nation-building efforts, was raised in the Subject Group Report on Old World Charm as part of the Parks & Waterbodies Plan and Identity Plan.

In response, Jurong Town Hall was given conservation status in 2005 by the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

What significant information did the Preservation of Sites and Monuments of NHB and its advisory board uncover between 2005 and 2015 to warrant the upgrading of Jurong Town Hall from conserved to national monument status? Are there any developments or threats that require this status upgrade to better protect it?

This is not a pedantic question. It has implications for other conserved modern buildings.

Are conserved modern buildings such as the former Sembawang Fire Station, former Victoria School, Asia Insurance Building and Princess House, former Kallang Airport, former Subordinate Courts of Singapore (State Courts) or the Singapore Improvement Trust's Kampong Silat flats not worthy of national monument status? In other words, by sharing the selection rationale for awarding Jurong Town Hall national monument status, the Preservation of Sites and Monuments and its advisory board would educate the public on the difference between a conserved building and a national monument.

The second question is related to the first. Why upgrade Jurong Town Hall and leave the Singapore Science Centre vulnerable to demolition or major alteration?

Not many people know of the architectural relationship between the two buildings. The Singapore Science Centre was designed to be an inward leaning companion to the outward slanting cantilever of the Jurong Town Hall. The former was completed in 1977 by Mr Raymond Woo, a member of Architects Team 3 that designed the Jurong Town Hall. It is also a prime example of modern architecture in its own right.

Last year, plans were announced to redevelop the Singapore Science Centre. Why not protect the Singapore Science Centre instead of upgrading the already conserved Jurong Town Hall? The Singapore Science Centre also qualifies as a building of national importance because it symbolises a young nation's reliance on science and technology in its journey towards First World status. Many generations of Singaporeans have filed through its doors as students to be enthralled by the wonders of science. The last building of such social importance to our childhood memories that was demolished was the National Library.

The final question is what this change of status entails.

A set of preservation guidelines is issued for every national monument. Each set of guidelines comprises a historical record of the building in question and a set of technical guidelines to provide a framework for future restoration and/or renovation works that may be carried out on the building. The preservation guidelines are made onerous and stringent for good reason. National monument status comes with higher preservation standards than a conserved building.

Has such a set of guidelines been issued for Jurong Town Hall? Or will it suffer the fate of another national monument - the Cathay Building, which has been criticised as an example of facadism, that is, the preservation of a building's mere facade and the hollowing out of its interior and social meaning?

The recognition of Jurong Town Hall as a national monument is undoubtedly a positive decision. However, we have to go beyond plucking the low-hanging fruit when it comes to building conservation.

What's the point of endowing only buildings and sites that are in absolutely no danger of being demolished with legal protection? Do we need the political will to champion heritage-significant buildings that are vulnerable? Such issues are worth talking about if we are to take heritage more seriously in Singapore.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

Yeo Kang Shua is an architectural historian and conservator, and Terence Chong is a sociologist. They are honorary secretary and vice-president respectively of the Singapore Heritage Society.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2015, with the headline 'What makes a national monument?'. Print Edition | Subscribe