New heritage group on mission to save modern buildings here

Many were designed by local architects, tell of urban renewal in post-independence Singapore

A new heritage non-profit is looking to shift Singapore's conservation focus towards modern buildings - many of which were designed by local architects and tell of the country's urban renewal in its early independence years.

While about 7,200 buildings have been conserved here, many of them, including shophouses and black and white bungalows, were built during the colonial period, and are not representative of independent Singapore.

The new group, called Docomomo Singapore, is the local chapter of the Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighbourhoods of Modern Movement (Docomomo International). Founded in 1988, Docomomo International is currently based in Lisbon and has more than 70 chapters across the globe.

Dr Chang Jiat Hwee, the new group's research and content lead, said: "Singapore today is thoroughly modern, not just in the city centre but also in public housing estates. So if we want to tell the Singapore story, how can we not focus on Singapore's modern architecture?"

Dr Chang, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore's Department of Architecture, said modernist architecture spans roughly the 1930s to the 1980s, and includes four main styles - art deco, modernism, brutalism and postmodernism.

In the local context, these include large and striking buildings like the former Public Utilities Board Building in Somerset Road and the now-demolished National Stadium, as well as "everyday modern" infrastructure like animal-shaped playgrounds and Tiong Bahru estate.

While many of the group's founding members have been involved in Singapore's other heritage groups over the years, Mr Ho Weng Hin, Docomomo Singapore's chair, said the new group has domain expertise in modern architecture, and will be able to champion it in a targeted manner while collaborating with existing groups.

He added that being part of Docomomo International, with its focus on modernism, allows the Singapore chapter to tap the experiences of other conservation successes overseas and adapt them to the local context.

Ms Karen Tan, a design consultant and the group's treasurer, added that Docomomo Singapore's mission to save modern buildings here is an urgent one, especially as many are strata-titled properties, eligible for collective sale.

She said that with many modern buildings here halfway through their leases, they are at a tipping point - their economic value would likely fall quickly if they are not sold, and unit owners are keen to cash in soon due to the properties' rising maintenance costs.

Ms Tan, who is also the founder of independent cinema The Projector, cited Pearl Bank Apartments, a recently demolished building which brought the group together in 2018.

She said: "By the time we got together to save it, it was too little, too late - it was already sold. But we've learnt from that experience the importance of public awareness, and of starting conversations about conservation early, which is what we want to do now."

Mr Ho, an architectural conservation specialist and founding partner of Studio Lapis, said the group does not see conservation as opposed to redevelopment, but is pushing for alternative modes of development and adaptive reuse.

"It doesn't have to be the traditional tabula rasa, where we just demolish everything and rebuild. We feel that modern buildings have an accommodative ability and can still be used to meet current needs," he said. "With creativity, regular maintenance and green retrofits, the buildings can still be very liveable, and can regain the lustre which made them cutting-edge when they were first built - they can be progressive once more."

Mr Ho also highlighted the high environmental cost of "deforesting" Singapore of its modern buildings as one reason to consider conserving them.

Changing public perceptions towards modernist buildings - which are so common here that they may even be a "blind side" in conservation conversations - is also key, said Dr Chang.

To this end, Docomomo Singapore is in the midst of publishing a list of 100 modernist buildings and developments here on its website, docomomo.sg, which it hopes will act as a repository of knowledge about Singapore's modern architecture. The list is not exhaustive, but is intended to help kick-start conversations.

Besides buildings that are not yet conserved, the list also includes those already demolished and conserved, so that the public can get a big-picture look at what has been lost and kept, and these can factor into future planning decisions as well, said Dr Chang.

The group also plans to host talks and walking tours to educate more about modernism here.

It will hold a fund-raiser on Aug 26 at The Projector, where French film Gagarine will be screened followed by a panel discussion on community and conservation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2021, with the headline 'New heritage group on mission to save modern buildings here'. Subscribe