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Redevelopment and Conservation: A Zero-Sum Game?

  Published: 31 January 2022
  Theme: Heritage
  Written by URA

How can the memories of our past and present live on in future generations? Find out how strengthening our heritage and identity has been a priority for Singapore’s development from the start, and how we continue to navigate this delicate balance to this day.

The early years

Singapore’s pursuit of smart city planning and sustainable urban development has been a necessity and priority from the start. As a nation faced with multiple challenges such as shortage of housing, unemployment, poor living conditions and inadequate urban infrastructure, urban renewal was imperative during Singapore’s early years of nation building.

One would hardly imagine then that the prospect of retaining and repurposing old buildings amid urban development would be a crucial part of our planning approach. As a case in point, in the original proposal for the redevelopment of the city centre, a historic mosque – the Hajjah Fatimah Mosque – would have had to be demolished together with other historical buildings to make way for new public housing.

But Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, asked a pertinent question:  Had anyone thought about preservation?

Hajjah Fatimah Mosque
As one of the oldest mosques in Singapore, Hajjah Fatimah Mosques remains a relevant landmark in Singapore, frequented by not just the residents in the neighbourhood, but also those working in the offices nearby.

In response to this challenge, the Urban Renewal Department, the precursor of today’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), submitted another plan with the idea to conserve the mosque and have it integrated as part of the new public housing project.  The government endorsed this alternative, sparking a rethink of new possibilities for how our young nation could navigate the delicate balance between development and conservation, despite our land constraints.

Planners and policy-makers were persuaded that the selective conservation of old buildings with significant architectural, historic, and social value was possible, and could indeed go hand-in-hand with urban renewal. Soon, this approach was extended from buildings to whole streets, and conservation became embedded into Singapore’s approach to urban planning.

 

We reimagined a landscape of our own where new high-rise buildings and high-density developments – our “mountains” – are anchored by “foothills” – the naturally low-rise cultural areas of our old city – to create the new Singapore skyline.

 

Skyscrapers and shophouses along the Singapore River

A modern future rooted in our past

Unlike other cities, Singapore has no hinterland. Instead, through judicious land use planning and urban design, we reimagined a landscape of our own where new high-rise buildings and high-density developments – our “mountains” – are anchored by “foothills” – the naturally low-rise cultural areas of our old city – to create the new Singapore skyline. The conservation of older buildings and repurposing them for new roles where necessary, also creates opportunities for these “foothills” to flourish in a new era.

Work on one of these “foothills” began in the 1980s, when we embarked to conserve the historic precinct of Tanjong Pagar. Comprising shophouses from the late-1800s to the early-1900s, this area in Chinatown was a project to demonstrate the viability of conservation of both individual buildings and entire street blocks.

32 units along Neil Road were part of the first batch of shophouses that URA took on as part of the large-scale restoration project in 1987
32 units along Neil Road were part of the first batch of shophouses that URA took on as part of the large-scale restoration project in 1987.

 

The project proved a success, and persuaded private owners, architects, engineers, and contractors on the merits of restored heritage buildings. Today, they collectively weave the story of our historic districts, while doubling up for modern uses and as vibrant destinations for place-making opportunities.

 

Beyond conservation, other creative strategies such as integrating historical design elements... or heritage markers into new developments also enable the memories of our city, past and present, to live on... while allowing us to rejuvenate our city to meet evolving needs.

 

Beyond conservation, other creative strategies such as integrating historical design elements, artefacts, or heritage markers into new developments also enable the memories of our city, past and present, to live on in future generations, while allowing us to rejuvenate our city to meet evolving needs.

Taking on the chance of a lifetime

It was this practical and innovative approach that has allowed our cityscape to retain significant elements of its original character and identity, even amidst the drive to develop and modernise. Today, the historic districts of Chinatown, Little India, and Kampong Glam stand intact, and buildings such as the former Supreme Court and former City Hall have been given a new lease of life as the National Gallery Singapore.

In looking back at Singapore’s urban development, Lee Kuan Yew said, 
“I’m pleased that we redeveloped the city when there was a chance to do it. … And the big heritage sites in the city, like Fullerton, we left those alone.  That was the chance of a lifetime.”
 
National Gallery taken from the Padang

 

To date, the stock of conserved buildings in Singapore stands at around 7,200.  The latest addition is Golden Mile Complex, a large Modern commercial and residential development built in the early 70s. It is the first large strata-title building from this era to be conserved and heralds a new phase in Singapore’s conservation efforts.

 

To date, the stock of conserved buildings in Singapore stands at around 7,200.  The latest addition is Golden Mile Complex, a large Modern commercial and residential development built in the early 70s. It is the first large strata-title building from this era to be conserved and heralds a new phase in Singapore’s conservation efforts.

 

Its design exemplifies the spirit of our pioneer generation of architects, engineers and builders who had belief in the future of Singapore.  It now awaits an enlightened and daring investor to re-awaken it through restoration, adaptive reuse, and possibly intensification.

Golden Mile Complex

Levelling up industry capabilities

As the future of our built heritage depends on the care taken by owners and building professionals, the Architectural Heritage Awards (AHA) was launched in 1995 to encourage best practices in conservation.  To date, over 120 buildings of various types and sizes have been conferred this Award.

Beyond technical excellence, a revised scheme of the AHA has also been recently introduced to recognise more stakeholders, including those who create both tangible and intangible value in the long-term for the community through restoration and appropriate activation of these heritage assets.

 

Beyond technical excellence, a revised scheme of the Architectural Heritage Awards has also been recently introduced to recognise more stakeholders, including those who create both tangible and intangible value in the long-term for the community through restoration and appropriate activation of these heritage assets.

 

In doing so, we ensure that our conserved buildings continue to be part of our distinctive cityscape, showcasing Singapore’s cultural diversity and its rich history. They have also become, through their rarity, valued individual and community legacies as well as highly sought-after investments.

 The Red House in Katong

Conclusion

Our built heritage remains a key foundation upon which a sense of nation and common civic pride is raised. And, celebrating them in ways that are unique to the Singapore context, including through conservation, have become an integral part of our planning and will remain so into the future.

Insights from this article are adapted from a keynote speech given at the 10th Anniversary Conference of Urban Renewal Fund (Hong Kong) in Dec 2021 by Peter Ho Hak Ean, Chairman, URA

 

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