Debrief

Conservation of Golden Mile Complex paves way to protect S'pore's modernist buildings

The 48-year-old building represents the architectural and engineering prowess of Singapore's pioneer building professionals.
The 48-year-old building represents the architectural and engineering prowess of Singapore's pioneer building professionals.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Golden Mile Complex was gazetted for conservation last Friday (Oct 22), a year after the government announced its intention to do so.

The 48-year-old building represents the architectural and engineering prowess of Singapore's pioneer building professionals, and exemplifies Singapore's urban renewal in the early independence years as one of the first high-rise mixed-use developments here.

To address concerns from building owners that conservation may affect the chances of a collective sale, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has offered a package of incentives to make development options for the site more attractive to potential buyers, including a one-third increase in floor area with a waiver of part of its development charge.

Heritage groups that have been championing the conservation of modernist buildings here hailed the government's decision as a breakthrough.

Completed in 1973, the 16-storey Golden Mile Complex joins a number of other post-independence buildings to be protected.

But as the first large-scale strata-titled building to be conserved, it is unlike any other on the list. A large majority of Singapore's more than 7,200 conserved buildings are from the colonial era.

Why it matters

The move paves the way for other post-independence modernist buildings - which face similar and significant conservation challenges - to be protected, said Singapore Heritage Society president Jack Lee.

Like Golden Mile Complex, many of Singapore's post-independence modernist icons are strata-titled properties, eligible for collective sale.

With many of such buildings at the halfway point of their 99-year leases, they are at a tipping point - their economic value will likely fall quickly if not sold, and unit owners are keen to cash in soon due to the property's rising maintenance costs.

In the absence of incentives, conserving the building will diminish its real estate value greatly in the eyes of potential buyer-developers, who will typically demolish and replace the building with a higher density development, thus reaping higher profits by maximising the site's gross plot ratio.

Hence, the unprecedented mix of incentives offered by the government demonstrates strong political will, and shows that the state is ready to balance market forces to recognise Singapore's post-independence architectural heritage, said International Council on Monuments and Sites Singapore president Yeo Kang Shua.

The timing of the announcement is also crucial. Modernist developments such as Pandan Valley Condominium and People's Park Complex have had sales committees formed in recent years, while others like Pearl Bank Apartments in Outram have been lost.

Golden Mile Complex's conservation, coupled with incentives, shows these sales committees and potential buyer-developers that conservation and profitable redevelopment may go hand in hand.

The consultative conservation process also provides a blueprint for discussions on other large, strata-titled properties.

Before URA announced its conservation proposal in October 2020, it conducted an extensive two-year study that engaged a diverse group of stakeholders. URA sought inputs from building owners, heritage groups and industry players.

The authority further refined its proposal in the year that followed - evidenced by the additional incentive of an extended site boundary that includes part of the adjacent state land next to Golden Mile Complex.

Such extensive discussions should be the norm for other modernist buildings moving forward, said Docomomo Singapore founding chair Ho Weng Hin.

The conservation decision is also a sustainable one.

Dr Yeo said: "In view of the climate emergency now faced by the world, the decision emphasises how the refurbishment and adaptive reuse of existing buildings is a greener option than demolishing and rebuilding from scratch."

What lies ahead?

Conservation is the first step in what will be an important process of making Golden Mile Complex the poster child for adaptive re-use and rejuvenation of other modernist buildings.

Its successful sale and redevelopment will demonstrate to other owners and buyer-developers that, like conserved shophouses, Singapore's modernist icons have a financial allure.

Mr Ho said that with a "unique cocktail" of incentives, the ball is now in the court of developers to see Golden Mile Complex's value and seize it.

Dr Lee added: "A positive response from developers will be the proof in the pudding for the decision to conserve."

Golden Mile Complex's conservation, and the process that led to it, also unlocks possibilities for the conservation of other modernist icons, such as People's Park Complex, Peninsula Plaza, and even Singapore's earliest Housing Board blocks - another essential part of the country's post-1965 urbanisation.

To be meaningful, these conservation efforts would have to be supported not just by heritage enthusiasts, but by the general public, said Dr Yeo.

"More public education on the value of Singapore's modern heritage is needed," he added.

Online reactions to Golden Mile Complex's conservation reinforce his point - some netizens cheered the decision, while others questioned its merit.

On this front, those driving the conservation of modern heritage in Singapore - primarily the Government and heritage groups - have their work cut out for them.