Study to give new lease of life to modernist buildings

It will guide URA's policies on how to maintain, rehabilitate buildings from 1970s and 1980s

Golden Mile Complex, which was completed in 1973, is under consideration to be conserved. Rehabilitating buildings could allow them to retain elements of heritage, identity and a sense of community, said a spokesman for the Urban Redevelopment Author
Golden Mile Complex, which was completed in 1973, is under consideration to be conserved. Rehabilitating buildings could allow them to retain elements of heritage, identity and a sense of community, said a spokesman for the Urban Redevelopment Authority.ST FILE PHOTO

Built during Singapore's postindependence years in the 1970s and 1980s, they are an important and often striking feature of the cityscape.

Yet time has taken its toll on many large modernist buildings, which are in need of major retrofitting and upgrading.

Now, these simply designed structures will be the subject of a study called by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to guide its policies on how to maintain and rehabilitate them.

It will examine buildings constructed in the modern architectural style that are about 30 to 50 years old, and have a gross floor area of at least 8,000 sq m or are at least eight storeys tall.

"The findings could also facilitate the conservation efforts of some large modern buildings which represent our initial phases of urban renewal," a URA spokesman told The Straits Times yesterday. He added that instead of redevelopment, URA would like to encourage building owners to explore rehabilitation.

This involves keeping a good portion of the building's existing features while upgrading its structure if necessary or keeping essential services up to date.

"This extends the buildings' lifespan and allows them to be adapted for new uses," said the spokesman, adding that it could allow them to retain elements of heritage, identity and a sense of community.

Modernist buildings across the world are typically known for their simplicity and are constructed with reinforced concrete, in combination with glass and steel components.

"Such designs... represent an important era of design reflective of construction methods of the time," said the URA spokesman. He added that the Government has also taken the lead to rehabilitate a number of prominent state-owned modern buildings.

While the URA did not give examples, architectural conservator Yeo Kang Shua said that such buildings may include Jurong Town Hall - a national monument.

Associate Professor Yeo, who is from the Singapore University of Technology and Design, said he welcomed the study, adding that buildings that may fit the bill include those built in the 1970s and 1980s such as People's Park Complex, Beauty World Centre and Queensway Shopping Centre.

Another modernist building, Golden Mile Complex, was completed in 1973 and is under consideration to be conserved. Prof Yeo said rehabilitating large modern buildings was not only a technical challenge but also a financial one.

"It typically is less profitable for owners under current real estate market conditions to rehabilitate buildings than to tear down and rebuild them, hence it would be useful if there are also policy studies on how to make rehabilitation more financially viable," he said.

"This will correct the current financial imbalance between conservation and redevelopment of older buildings, and may incentivise more to consider conservation."

He added: "Rehabilitating buildings will serve Singapore not just on the heritage front, but also in terms of sustainability, especially with the high carbon footprint for demolishing buildings."

Heritage conservation expert Johannes Widodo, from the National University of Singapore's department of architecture, lamented the loss of modernist buildings such as the National Theatre, National Stadium and Pearl Bank Apartments.

But he added that many modern large buildings that are historically, architecturally and socially significant still stand today, including the hexagonal hawker centre in Tanglin Halt.

"Conserving and adaptively reusing our extensive stock of modern large buildings is environmentally responsible, economically sensible and scientifically reasonable," he said.

Professor Widodo added that the study was "timely and urgently needed", given that the Covid-19 pandemic had "provided us with the opportunity to rethink the possibilities to retain, recycle, reuse, and rehabilitate our modern heritage".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 17, 2021, with the headline 'Study to give new lease of life to modernist buildings'. Subscribe