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Preserving architectural icons in Singapore

With Golden Mile Complex proposed for conservation, two designers and a property developer look at how heritage buildings can be adapted for new uses.

THE day that the silhouette of the Pearl Bank apartments disappeared from the Singapore skyline was a sad day for architecture and heritage buffs. Despite a spirited campaign to conserve the iconic 70’s era horseshoe-shaped building, it was reduced to a pile of rubble early this year to make way for One Pearl Bank – a 39-storey condominium that is expected to be completed by 2023.

But some consolation for conservationists came when another iconic landmark, Golden Mile Complex, might be saved from the wrecking ball when the Urban Redevelopment Authority announced earlier this month that it would be proposed for conservation given its historical and architectural significance. That means whoever redevelops the 47-year-old complex will have to retain the main building with its signature terraced facade.

Rather than scare off potential developers, the URA is offering a set of incentives. They include bonus floor area for an additional 30-storey tower to be built on the existing site; partial development charge waiver on the extra floor area; the option to top up the lease on the land to 99 years; and the flexibility to adapt the building to a mix of uses.

The move has earned the praise of associations such as The Singapore Heritage Society, International Council on Monuments and Sites Singapore, and the DoCoMoMo Singapore Working Group.

The group said in a joint statement that with these incentives in place and innovative design, “such projects can refresh and add value to aging buildings and the experience of the city itself”.

Architect Jonathan Poh, a member of the Singapore Heritage Society, says the unprecedented conservation proposal is a critical breakthrough in the way large modernist buildings are recognised in future. It will help to ensure that significant buildings from different periods of Singapore’s development are retained for future generations.

Ultimately, the key to successful conservation lies in adaptive reuse, adds Mr Poh, citing The Brunswick Centre and the Barbican in the UK as prime examples. “Both prove that the regeneration of large mid-20 th century modernist structures can be very successful.”

What ultimately happens to Golden Mile Complex is still up in the air and the URA has invited the public to share feedback until Nov 8. In the meantime, three design professionals share their own suggestions and experiences with adapting old buildings to the present day.

  • Architectural icons singapore

    The Macalister Mansion, a boutique hotel with eight rooms.

Jerome Ng
An alternative Golden Mile Complex

Designer Jerome Ng couldn’t be more pleased to hear about the proposal to conserve Golden Mile Complex. “Rethinking and turning away from the demolish-and-rebuild tabula rasa approach to urban development will spawn new ways of readapting and regenerating theold building,” says Mr Ng, who is also an architectural designer at RJ Crocker Consultants, amulti-disciplinary engineering consultancy firm.

He felt so strongly about the building that he even created an animated short film showing how the building could be redeveloped. Titled Metabolist Regeneration of a Dementia Nation, it even snagged him a Best of the Best Award at this year’s Red Dot Design Concept competition, where he was also a luminary nominee.

The Bartlett School of Architecture graduate’s personal connection to Golden Mile is his best pal, who used to live there when they were children. “We would explore the different areas in Golden Mile Complex and just hang out,” he says. “To me, looking out from the mid-level void deck area is one of the best memories I have of it.”

Since then, Mr Ng says he has always been “fascinated by the amazing structure and the way it’s designed”.

Architectural icons singapore

Golden Mile Complex reimagined

He adds, “Such buildings played a significant role in that moment of history which defined the architecture and building style of that time. They embody the ambition and aspiration of a newly independent nation.”

While conservation means less flexibility for potential developers, he feels that with technology today, “there will be many innovative ways to redevelop the building.”

His animated feature, therefore, explores an alternative vision that not only saves the building but absorbs physical artefacts from Singapore’s threatened urban infrastructure. In a series of interviews with a fictional group of residents, the film imagines what life would be like living in the Golden Mile Complex in the future.

The 10-minute animation begins with residents fraught with dismay about moving out and losing what they love about the building. But an architect shows what a refurbishment could bring them – a lush garden in the void deck; a miniature Merlion statue and a dragon playground; moving meditation pods that overlook the neighbourhood for quiet moments.

Residents marvel at the building’s new lease of life, and the film ends with a narrator summing up the moral of the story – that a country needs to evolve, not demolish, if it wants to preserve its culture and heritage.

“Metaphorically, I see Singapore as a dementia nation, as citizens see their own identity erased bit by bit, forgetting the significant landmarks that have made an impact in the development of this tiny island,” says Mr Ng, who believes that storytelling of architectural concepts is best done through film.

  • Metabolism Regeneration of A Dementia Nation can be viewed at bit.ly/3jrK4n2

Adrian Cheng
Creating value in the community

In Hong Kong, heritage buffs waited with bated breath as the State Theatre seemed destined for demolition after it was acquired by a property developer.

But that was not in the plans of New World Development which has launched an architectural conservation project for the 68-year-old building. Located at North Point, Hong Kong’s oldest cinema first opened as the Empire Theatre in 1952, before it was renamed in 1959. At a time where there were no large-scale cultural event venues, the State Theatre was key to bringing arts and culture to the public.

It survived a fire in 1995, but parts of the building remained in a state of disrepair, while the theatre itself was used as a snooker hall until earlier this year.

Despite its sorry state, the building holds much architectural significance. Its distinctive curved facade features a relief mural by late contemporary Chinese artist Mei Yutian; small square windows with projecting concrete frames are typical of 1950s Modernist architecture; and a series of arch-shaped structures on the roof were considered an engineering marvel at the time. For this reason, the State Theatre was listed as a Grade I Historic Building by Hong Kong’s Antiquities and Monuments Office in 2017.

Adrian Cheng, CEO of New World Development, is determined to preserve it. He says: “Conservation is part of the company’s long-term commitment to transformation, sustainability and creating shared value in the communities we live and work in.”

Last year, the firm launched its art and design district Victoria Dockside, which was formerly Holt’s Wharf, once considered one of the major world ports.

Mr Cheng is working with British firm WilkinsonEyre and Purcell and Hong Kong-based AGC Design on the conservation project, which will see it restored to its original cinema form. Scheduled for completion in 2026, State Theatre will once again be the thriving events venue it once was.

“Our goal is to go beyond simply preserving the essence of the building or commercialising the area,” says Mr Cheng. “We are developing it into a hub for Hong Kong’s cinematic culture for generations to come. If we don’t restore it in a way that’s true to its storied past, the memories and cultural value of the building will be lost forever.

The group has been engaging with local communities to collect memories of State Theatre and North Point, from which it will create historical documentaries for guests to learn more about their history.

“We’re painstakingly preserving many antique pieces from the State Theatre. About a hundred relics and memorabilia, such as old ticket stubs, components of its projectors, the theatre marquee and screening contracts will be on display,” says Mr Cheng.

He adds that the conservation project has a wide-ranging impact on Hong Kong’s cultural identity and education, and sets a precedent for heritage projects in Asia.

“In Hong Kong, the State Theatre is one of the last standing entertainment buildings from the 1950s. There is immense educational value in its conservation for the younger generation.

Much of what the young knows from this era is through vintage films and movies – with the State Theatre’s restoration, we now have an opportunity to connect and immerse modern audiences in Hong Kong’s cinematic past.”

When completed, the theatre will be a platform to connect international art, design, cinema and architectural minds to local audiences, believes Mr Cheng. “The confluence of ideas from Hong Kong and the world will transform the State Theatre into a platform for new ideas and innovation, and showcase local, next-gen talent on a global stage.”

Colin Seah
Conservation with respect

As the founder of Ministry of Design, Colin Seah is no stranger to conservation projects. In fact, he made his name with his first – the former Majestic Hotel, deemed “the” place to stay or dine during its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.

Under conservation rules, Mr Seah had to retain the facade, but he went wild with the interiors, exposing the building’s historical layers and its raw ceiling. The New Majestic Hotel made design headlines, and the raw look, trendy.

He was next called upon to put his spin on the now defunct The Club Hotel, at Ann Siang Hill – these two projects practically became his calling card, as accolades followed, along with his next conservation job.

This was in Penang, where he earned extra acclaim for his work on boutique hotel Macalister Mansion. He’s now has four projects in the Malaysian city.

His inspiration for the eight-bedroomed Macalister was the man himself – Sir Norman Macalister, the former governor of Penang.

Imagining him as the host of the mansion, “We designed the lobby as the living room. And, in place of a restaurant, we saw the space as the dining area,” Mr Seah says. The concept worked, and Mr Seah takes pride in knowing that guests often booked out all the rooms and the public spaces, so they could enjoy the space like a real home.

Mr Seah then moved on to the Majestic Theatre, Penang’s oldest cinema, turning it into an event space. He also converted a row of shophouses next door into the Loke Thye Kee Residences, another boutique hotel.

While he designed the interiors for these projects, his latest one was adapting a 100-year-old colonial bungalow in Penang for new use – as a show gallery for a property developer.

The house had to be kept, but the client also needed additional space. An easy way out would have been to build a new glass structure behind the house, but Mr Seah says, “that would have been disrespectful to the old building.” Instead, he used the old house as a cookie cutter, and extruded a new building behind it. The pediments and pitched roof of the old building were continued into the new. In the end, he effectively created a building with an old and a newfront.

Conservation projects, with their sometimes onerous requirements and challenges, such as crumbling walls, excite him. “The firm has no preconceived responses to a design issue, we do not have fixed aesthetic strings attached,” says Mr Seah. “When dealing with conservation projects, we ask ourselves, what is the nature of this conservation? Is it preservation, is it about adaptive reuse, or is it about transposition? If there is nothing for us to respond to, this becomes a problem.”

While the outcome of each project largely depends on the client and designer’s collaboration, one thing for sure is that “we don’t want to replicate the past”, says Mr Seah, which explains why his projects often have contrast and create dialogue, rather than stepping back in time. “You are never in doubt that you are in a modern space even if it is an old building.”

Mr Seah’s approach to conservation “is to be respectful, but not to a point where you are too awed and reverential to make any changes. It is about respectfully moving ahead while still maintaining the building’s DNA.”

This article was originally published in The Business Times

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