Old spaces in Singapore find creative new uses

The foyer of The Projector, which screens indie movies in the former Golden Theatre. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
The foyer of The Projector, which screens indie movies in the former Golden Theatre. -- PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Golden Mile Tower, which has a distinctive circular staircase, now houses The Projector, an arthouse cinema, and collaborative space Dialogic. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Golden Mile Tower, which has a distinctive circular staircase, now houses The Projector, an arthouse cinema, and collaborative space Dialogic. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Disused rice mill The Mill has been hosting a painting and dance party for the past three weeks. It will be torn down in May to make way for a larger creative collaborative space. -- PHOTO: THE MILL
Disused rice mill The Mill has been hosting a painting and dance party for the past three weeks. It will be torn down in May to make way for a larger creative collaborative space. -- PHOTO: THE MILL
The rooftop of People’s Park Complex has been used for concerts as well as a night market and an urban farm. -- PHOTO: MATIN LATIF
The rooftop of People’s Park Complex has been used for concerts as well as a night market and an urban farm. -- PHOTO: MATIN LATIF

Old buildings are being revived for alternative uses, such as art shows, concerts and parties

On a Tuesday evening, about 20 people are in the foyer of what used to be the largest cinema in Singapore when it opened in the 1970s.

Lounging about on minimalist white furniture, they wait for a screening of Canadian-French film Incendies (2010) to start.

A cafe nearby is closed, otherwise they would have artisan coffee and popcorn in hand.

Fresh-faced ushers open the wooden theatre doors and scan e-tickets off the smartphone screens of patrons streaming in. Inside the cinema, a trailer for Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961) plays.

Welcome to Golden Mile Tower - just one of a number of old buildings in Singapore either getting or long overdue for a revival from the ground up.

Once the go-to place if you are hankering for authentic Thai food or catching a bus to Malaysia, the brutalist-style building in Beach Road has undergone a sea change.

Just one storey down from The Projector, an old-new art-house cinema in the refurbished Golden Theatre, an art installation about murders in hotel rooms is now the main attraction, in a former film-reel storage space.

John Martin, The Butcher And The Surgeon by local art collective Vertical Submarine is an imaginative rendering of a hotel room, with seemingly normal interiors concealing hidden dioramas of secret rooms for the inquisitive visitor.

Meanwhile, the open-air carpark of People's Park Complex in Chinatown has also become a breath of fresh air.

Since January last year, the 63,000 sq ft space has been used at one point as a rooftop farm by urban agricultural consultancy Edible Garden as well as a night market and concert venue.

The rooftop space is managed by event curator Josh Theoh, 34, on behalf of carpark owner Xiang Loong. In April this year, Anglow Group, which owns food establishments such as vegan eatery Afterglow on Keong Saik Road, will launch Lepark, a tapas bar and beer garden, on the same rooftop.

Mr Theoh says the management hopes to develop the carpark rooftop into "an alternate social space" to host events and collaborative projects to woo "younger generations to historical Chinatown".

And over in Bukit Merah, artists and partygoers have descended on The Mill, a 54-year-old former rice mill.

Over the past three weeks, the building - which is now a collaborative space shared by six creative firms - has been drawn and painted on, hacked at and sung and danced in. The arty party, titled Destruction & Rebirth, ends tomorrow.

The Mill will be demolished in May to make way for a larger creative collaborative space, still helmed by The Mill group founder Roy Teo.

The trend of reappropriating old buildings has a lot to do with nostalgia-tinged appreciation. They may look rundown, dusty and dated now, but concrete forms such as Golden Mile Tower and People's Park Complex are landmarks in the development of Singapore architecture.

Golden Mile Tower, built in 1973 by Goh Hock Guan Design Team, sports unique pill-shaped windows and a striking spiral staircase with wooden banisters. In those days, its anchor tenant, Golden Theatre, with its 1,500-seat hall, was the largest cinema in Singapore and Malaysia.

Mr Randy Chan, principal of architecture firm Zarch Collaboratives, has called Golden Mile Tower home for the past two years and was the man that introduced Pocket Projects and Vertical Submarine to the space.

"I've always wanted to activate this kind of place and bring like-minded people together. I hope it will become a hip place," says Mr Chan, 44.

He declines to say how much rent he pays, but reveals that it is “much cheaper” than that of his old office in the Selegie area.

Artist Justin Loke of Vertical Submarine, 35, describes the appeal of Golden Mile Tower: “The area is still untouched. It’s not gentrified like Arab Street or Tiong Bahru, which have become hipster joints.”

As for People’s Park Complex, also built in 1973, the distinctive blue-and-brown edifice (now repainted yellow and green) was then the country’s first multi-use building, combining shopping, residential, office and parking facilities in one.

It was designed by Design Partnership, now known as DP Architects.

Today, the grittiness of such areas, in contrast to white cube galleries and spaces in town, appeals to young creative professionals here.

Says Mr Philip Francis, deputy director of sector development for visual arts in the National Arts Council (NAC): “With the public’s growing interest and awareness of Singapore’s heritage, NAC has also seen greater interest among artists in relating their practices to Singapore’s historical, cultural and physical geography.”

He adds that such projects help “encourage conversations about art, heritage and space” and can draw new audiences to the arts “in novel and unexpected ways”.

The NAC funded Vertical Submarine’s installation at Golden Mile Tower and also gave a grant of about $15,000 for the party at The Mill.

Public response to these initiatives has been positive.

More than 3,000 people have visited The Mill since Jan 31. About 1,700 people visited the installation by Vertical Submarine in the past three weeks.

The Vertical Submarine installation ends on Sunday, but the collective will continue to utilise the space for a curated platform for cross-disciplinary work, dubbed Dialogic.

Last year, The Projector hosted 3,000 people for film screenings during the 11-day Singapore International Film Festival.

“Artistic creativity is best invoked in unique, even challenging environments,” says associate professor Chang Tou Chuang of the National University of Singapore’s geography department. “Artists relish disused, even abandoned, sites, in the hopes of getting viewers to see the art works and spaces in new light.”

That said, repurposing old buildings comes with its challenges.

The Projector’s manager Sharon Tan, 30, admits having to get used to the quirks of the old building and accepting it warts and all.

“The plumbing, the electrical, the air-conditioning – sometimes, they don’t work the way they are supposed to,” she says with a laugh.

Both Ms Tan and Mr Loke say people have gotten lost while trying to find their way to the art cinema and installation – which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Subtle clues lead you to the cinema on the fifth floor. Illustrations on the doors and ceiling of the lift in Golden Mile Tower reference old movie posters, done in the signature style of local creative outfit Kult. Signs are scarce and discreet.

First-time visitors often trek the length of Golden Mile Tower and its neighbouring Golden Mile Complex, with its steamboat joints and massage parlours, before finding the new venues.

Says Ms Tan: “Everyone has Google Maps nowadays. This way, they get to discover more of Singapore and meet all sorts of characters.”

Still, it remains to be seen whether these retro buildings’ renaissance will last.

In 2012, the tenants of Old School at Mount Sophia, which included galleries, design studios and independent theatre Sinema, had to vacate the former Methodist Girls School building, to make way for redevelopment.

Perhaps, the creedo for hipsters rejoicing over the revitalisation of aged complexes should be “enjoy it while it lasts”.

Illustrator Mary Bernadette Lee, who went to Getai Electronica at People’s Park Complex last Saturday, an outdoor gig on the roof featuring hot Singaporean indie acts such as .gif, organised by Lepark and instrumental outfit TAJ, says she enjoyed herself.

“Breathing new life into an old space is ingenious,” says Ms Lee, 30. “It’s a good way to highlight to our generation that these places still exist, shouldn’t be forgotten as part of Singapore’s history and are worth going to.”

nabilahs@sph.com.sg