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30 Years of Conservation in Singapore since 1989: Nuts and Bolts

  Published: 14 November 2019
  Theme: Heritage

It was uncharted territory then in tackling the nuts and bolts of enhancing the physical environments of historic districts. It involved experiments from back lanes, tiles to timber flooring.

A lot of unseen work goes on in support of historic districts and buildings to make them viable. The earlier years focused more on the physical realm, putting in place essential infrastructure in historic districts to meet modern needs and enhancing the experience of areas at the street level.

Ler Seng Ann, URA’s current Group Director for development services led various infrastructure and restoration works over the years. He was a young engineer then when he joined URA in 1982. He shares some key highlights.

The back lane

He recalls one of the first few major infrastructure works carried out in the Tanjong Pagar area that was part of Chinatown. While 32 units were identified for restoration to demonstrate their value to the public, the area was in need of major improvements. It did not have a proper sewerage system. The bucket approach was used, where waste was collected manually.

Creating the back lane between the shophouses in Tanjong Pagar

Creating the back lane between the shophouses in Tanjong Pagar

To provide the necessary sewerage system, an entire new back lane had to be created in between the rows of shophouses. “The buildings then were constructed back to back to each other so that made it more challenging. The Tanjong Pagar and Duxton areas were also located on hill slopes at different levels,” says Seng Ann.

The back lane served many purposes in supporting essential electrical and water supplies, including doubling up as a fire escape route. In cutting through the shophouses to create the back lane, care was taken to “respect the roof form although it could not be perfectly symmetrical,” explains Seng Ann. Today, this little jagged back lane has evolved with a sub character of its own.

Tiles and trees

Beyond infrastructure, at the street level, efforts were made to take care of the smaller details that could enhance the public’s experience of the areas. For example, for the sidewalks in the Tanjong Pagar area, terracotta tiles were introduced to add to the character of the area.

The restoration work of 9 Neil Road as a showcase which took three months to complete showing the replacement of the fascia beam, staircase and remoulding the ornamentation

The restoration work of 9 Neil Road as a showcase which took three months to complete, such as remoulding the ornamentation

In determining the placement of trees along a historic streetscape, Seng Ann remembers having debates about them: “Should we plant in such a way that it will provide shade or plant in such a way that the conserved buildings can be unveiled?” It was a fine balance to strike in providing sufficient greenery in areas with conserved buildings while ensuring that these buildings were not completely blocked by the trees. 

Timber flooring

Within the shophouse interiors, there were also early challenges with the timber flooring for example. This is particularly for shophouses in historic areas such as Chinatown, Kampong Gelam and Little India where the timber material is required to be retained. “The timber material is important as it contributes to the authentic look and feel within the shophouse interiors,” says Seng Ann. But there were fire safety concerns as the timber material is combustible.

The restoration work of 9 Neil Road as a showcase which took three months to complete showing the replacement of the fascia beam, staircase and remoulding the ornamentation

The restoration work of 9 Neil Road as a showcase which took three months to complete showing the replacement of the staircase

Seng Ann and his team worked hard with the Fire Safety and Shelter Bureau, experimenting on site to show how to mitigate the concerns. “For timber, once it chars, it becomes resistant to fire. Engineering wise, you could actually design a timber with a residual timber within the char area to be able to support the building. So we showed that there is a way to retain the material,” he says.

Right approach

In tying the various efforts together, a critical aspect of the early focus was in finding the right approach to restoration. “It was about how to save the building,” says Seng Ann. “As a young engineer then; I learnt how to appreciate the structure and different construction methods used for buildings. Along the way, I developed a deeper appreciation for good architecture as well,” he adds.

Then Minister of National Development, S. Dhanabalan, visiting 9 Neil Road

Then Minister of National Development, S. Dhanabalan, visiting 9 Neil Road. He said: "If I were not a Minister, I would seriously consider buying one of these units."

 

 

This article is part of '30 Years of Conservation in Singapore since 1989', a special supplement that presents 30 reflections and stories of personal and collective struggles and triumph in charting Singapore’s conservation efforts in the last 30 years. The complete supplement will be coming to our website soon.

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