Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Links to the past

Old flats in Tiong Bahru have been revamped into a snazzy boutique hotel called Link.
TAY SUAN CHIANG tracks down other transformations.

New lease of life
Instead of being torn down, three old buildings are being refurbished with heritage intact

By Tay Suan Chiang, DESIGN CORRESPONDENT, The Straits Times (29/07/07)

IN THESE days when it is hip to recycle, some people are going beyond plastic bags... to bricks and mortar.

A growing number of property owners and developers are choosing to work with the buildings they have on hand rather than tear them down and create a spanking new building.

Not only is the heritage of the building retained, but industry experts say refurbishing an existing building can sometimes also be half the price of tearing down and building a new one.

One building getting a new lease of life this way is the former Asia Insurance Building at Finlayson Green in downtown Raffles Place.

The 53-year-old landmark building - which was the tallest in South-east Asia during the 1950s - was bought by serviced residence owner and operator The Ascott Group last year for $110 million.

It is being turned into serviced apartments at a cost of $60 million, and is due to open next year. It's also acquiring a swanky new name - Ascott Raffles Place.

Though the 20-storey building is not required by regulations to be conserved, Ascott is conserving and restoring it anyway.

'The building has a special place in local architecture,' says Mr Gerald Lee, chief brand and marketing officer of The Ascott Group, 'and like an unpolished diamond, it has charm upon closer look.'

What's more, by conserving a building of its age - with the character that comes with it - Ascott is able to offer jaded travellers a different experience from the usual contemporary-modern serviced apartments.

Mr Lee, 41, adds that given the building's historical significance, the retro residence tucked away amid skyscrapers might well become a tourist attraction or a 'must-see' for visitors.

At trendy Tiong Bahru, two blocks of former Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) flats have been converted into the newly opened Link Hotel, with 288 rooms of boutique accommodation.

The SIT is the predecessor to today's Housing Board, and built affordable housing for workers.

Link Hotel's director and general manager George Chen, 38, says: 'Being one of the oldest housing estates in Singapore, Tiong Bahru has a rich heritage of its own. The charm and cultural history of these two buildings are part of this heritage and should be retained.'

This move is getting the nod of approval from industry experts.

The president of the Singapore Heritage Society Kevin Tan, 45, hails the move to give a new lease of life to Singapore's architectural golden oldies.

He says: 'Buildings are meant to be used and not only to be admired, and these efforts should encourage more developers to convert iconic buildings for modern living.'

Well-known architect Mink Tan, 42, of Mink Tan Architects, says it is crucial to leave a part of past architecture to the next generation, as it 'shows the transfer of aesthetic values through the years and in some cases, even cultural values'.

However, he adds that such buildings should not be conserved just for the sake of conservation, but have 'energetic redaptive use'.

In other words: 'Ultimately, they should still continue to encourage people to come to the place.'

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