Some see red over colourful facade for Bishan HDB blocks

Residents sign petition over fresh coat of paint for iconic red-brick flats as part of ongoing repairs for estate

Ms Charlene Koh (centre), who proposed the terracotta colour scheme, stands in front of a painted block with parents Koh Kheng Joo, 60, and Kristine Koh, 59. -- ST PHOTOS: ONG WEE JIN
Ms Charlene Koh (centre), who proposed the terracotta colour scheme, stands in front of a painted block with parents Koh Kheng Joo, 60, and Kristine Koh, 59. -- ST PHOTOS: ONG WEE JIN
A block in Bishan Street 23 partially painted with a base coat. -- ST PHOTOS: ONG WEE JIN

A fresh coat of paint usually brings cheer, but a splash of colour on Bishan's beloved red-brick flats has upset some people instead.

Some terracotta housing blocks, like those in Bishan Streets 22 and 24, will be doused in a medley of colours, with combinations such as grey, silver and golden yellow, as part of ongoing repairs by the area's town council.

But the mishmash of colours has upset some residents, architects and heritage experts.

Architectural and urban historian Lai Chee Kien said the paint job will change the feature of an estate known for its red-brick facade. "Red-brick panels and bands were probably chosen by the estate's original architects to present a common, unifying aesthetic identity. Today's town councils must look at this from a larger scale and keep the entire town in mind when making these changes," he added.

Resident Quek Kim Chuan, 62, a retiree, said the Bishan-Toa Payoh Town Council should leave the flats as they are. "They have looked like that for the past 20 years that I've lived here. I've liked it natural and distinct."

Ms Catherine Lim, another resident, said the red bricks help Bishan stand out "simply yet solidly" from neighbouring Toa Payoh and Ang Mo Kio. "It's important that estates have a physical identity so residents can have a sense of ownership and pride," said Ms Lim, co-founder of All Things Bukit Brown, a group devoted to the cemetery of the same name.

At Blocks 201 to 219 in Street 23, residents were presented earlier this year with three colour palettes starkly different from the original. They included a pink and purple combination.

Resident Charlene Koh, 27, a designer, was upset. "The rows of red-brick blocks evoke a sense of warmth... They are iconic and distinct. I don't want to look out my window and see a horrible colour on the next block."

She and brother Kenneth, 23, who works in the airline industry, knocked on doors and got about 600 residents to sign a petition.

She approached her MP Josephine Teo and later came up with three new terracotta-themed colour schemes. One of Ms Koh's colour combinations was put to a vote in March, alongside the town council's original options, and emerged tops.

Mrs Teo told The Straits Times: "I was delighted that a resident cared enough to do something instead of just talking about it." She said flats are given fresh paint to spruce up the estate, fill in hairline cracks and reduce the risk of water seepage.

But not all residents are upset.

Housewife Alice Chew, 50, called the painting timely, while teacher Roy Gan, 40, said: "The new colours look fresh and updates the area's appearance."

Dr Lai said red-brick flats represent a chapter in the Republic's nation-building history when the local brick industry was booming.

Before World War II, Singapore had at least 20 kilns. With self-governance in 1959 and an intensive public housing programme, demand for bricks grew.

To maintain their look, the bricks merely need to be washed and the mortar binding bricks can be treated with sealant, a sealing substance. Painting is not needed, he noted. He said: "It's a Singaporean attitude. Every few years, we have an upgrading programme and some choose to paint over our bricked flats. Other countries allow their brick buildings to age."

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