Friday, September 14, 2007

'What are they doing to my buildings?'

The Straits Times
Sep 14, 2007

In the redevelopment wave that is sweeping the country, one group has been looking on in horror as its work and a part of Singapore's identity is slowly being demolished.

JEREMY AU YONG talks to three veteran architects, who speak out against what they consider to be the dirtiest of words: 'en bloc'

CAIRNHILL LANDMARK: Mr Victor Chew designed the 17-storey Hilltops Apartments in Cairnhill such that no unit looked into another. -- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

IT USED to be that Mr Victor Chew could not drive past Cairnhill Circle, Holland Road or Orchard Road without getting hot under the collar.

'I'd start uttering four-letter words,' says the 80-year-old architect.

But he was not swearing at traffic. Rather, it was buildings - or what's left of them - that made him fume.

Mr Chew, who belongs to Singapore's first generation of architects, believes he did some of his best work in those areas.

In Cairnhill, he designed Hilltops Apartments which, when completed in the 1960s, was a 17-storey residential building at a time when most apartments stopped at four floors.

In Holland Road, he designed the Holland Road Apartments, a block of walk-ups that stood on pillars called pilotis. Built before independence, these were, as Mr Chew describes, 'the first void decks in Singapore'.

At the top end of Orchard Road, he designed Ming Court Hotel, which in the 1970s was one of the city's most recognisable hotels.

Today, to Mr Chew's four-lettered dismay, barely a trace of his work is left.

Ming Court Hotel, later renamed Orchard Parade Hotel, was refurbished in 1998, resulting in a new facade and a new terracotta colour scheme.

The other two - Hilltops Apartments and Holland Road Apartments - had their date with the wrecking ball, thanks to that now all-too-familiar mechanism: the collective sale.

'When it hurts the most, it's not because of the beauty of the building. That part is just vanity.

'It hurts when the building was significant, when it led the way to other buildings in Singapore,' says Mr Chew.

Yet, by no means is he the only one to have seen his work crumbling into dust in the current property market boom.

In the long-running debate over Singapore's strategy of redeveloping sites through collective sales, one voice tends to be unheard - that of the architects.

More specifically, the generation of veteran architects who shaped the country's skyline in the early days, but are now resigned to watch helplessly as their work is wiped out en bloc by en bloc.

While accepting that renewal is inevitable in land-scarce Singapore, they make a call for a rethink of how buildings are redeveloped and the pace of such changes.

The concern is that what is being swept aside is not just a few architects' legacies, but more significantly, a country's memories, identity and history.

SINGAPORE'S FIRST CONDO: Among Dr Timothy Seow's favourite works was Beverly Mai condominium, the first to have shared facilities. -- ST FILE PHOTO

It is a part of history that architect Timothy Seow calls a 'Singapore built by Singaporeans'.

He says: 'Before independence, you had colonial buildings designed and built by the British architects. The formative post-colonial years of the 1960s ushered in an era where a majority of projects were designed by home-bred architects.

'Following which...there was an influx of foreign architects into the local scene, with the local architects playing the secondary roles.'

It is a view shared by the younger generation of architects.

Says architectural designer Eugene Lim, 28: 'Of late, you definitely see more foreign architects at the concept stage, with the local ones doing the implementation.

'I'd like to see local guys given more credit than they are getting.'

Says Dr Seow: 'It was a short period (when local architects' work dominated) and it would be a pity if the projects from the 1960s were wiped out. But in a few years, it will be all gone.'

Dr Seow, managing director of CPG-Timothy Seow Studio, is possibly one of the hardest hit, since much of his early work was in condominiums.

Horizon View, Futura, Beverly Mai, Westwood, Maxima, Belle Vue and Oxley Rise are all his projects, and all are either sold or in talks for sale.

Until the sale fell through on a technicality recently, Horizon Towers in Leonie Hill was also on that list.

Of the lot, Beverly Mai ranks among Dr Seow's favourites. For one, it is widely credited as being the first condominium in Singapore.

It was the first to have shared facilities, first with maisonettes, and the first to have units with no party walls (walls shared by two units).

Ironically, it was also one of the first to be sold.

STILL UP: Mr William Lim's jewel in the crown, Golden Mile Complex, is still standing, though some owners have lobbied for a collective sale. -- ST FILE PHOTO

Architect William Lim, 75, says he has lost count of the number of buildings he designed that have been destroyed.

Unlike the other two men though, his jewel in the crown, Golden Mile Complex in Bras Basah, is still standing.

For now, that is.

Some owners of the mixed development have lobbied for a collective sale, though it is far from a done deal.

The long- time opponent of Singapore's urban renewal strategy feels Singapore is now at a critical juncture if it is to rescue any of the country's architectural heritage or, for that matter, its memories.

'With the aggressive collective sales, Singapore will soon lose most of its post-war buildings. This is our last chance to do anything about it,' he says.

The Government also appears concerned with the en bloc wave, though perhaps not for the same reasons that upset the architects to whom Insight spoke.

Last month, a raft of changes were introduced in Parliament to legislation that governs collective sales.

They would give home owners more say and make the entire process more transparent.

Real estate analysts also expect the rule changes - when they kick in - to slow down the boom.

As it is, the collective sales market has been pushing on full tilt. According to figures compiled by Credo Real Estate, there were a total of 62 collective sales worth about $11.86 billion in the first seven months of this year.

That works out to an average of nine buildings slated for demolition a month, or more than one a week.

An architect like Mr Chew would, in his lifetime, work on around 30 buildings, most of which are private houses.

'Take away about a dozen or so houses and in the end I think only four or five have any real significance,' he says.

At its peak, the en bloc wave could theoretically wipe out the life's work of two Victor Chews a month.

'The way things are going now is pure madness,' he says.

'I don't think people understand what they are doing. They see the big money and they sell but they don't know what they are losing.

'In Hilltops, no unit looked into another. Now they are going to build twice the number of units.

Are people going to get the same thing even if they bought a unit back there?'

Whether the legislation changes will be enough remains to be seen.

Mr William Lim says that the system currently is weighed unfairly in favour of those who want to redevelop a site and home owners who want to sell.

And what has to make way is collective memories.

'The Red House Bakery in Katong, the National Theatre - these may not be fantastic examples of architecture but they said something to the people,' he says.

'But there is no respect for the memories of the invisible public. We even destroy cemeteries. If you ask me, a cemetery is more important than Golden Mile.'

The recent proposed changes to en bloc legislation may make it harder for deals to go through, but the veteran architects are calling for a more formalised structure for conservation.

Says Mr Chew: 'Right now we seem to be interested in only gazetting buildings built before independence. But that's not us.

'It's like Australia preserving only buildings by the Aborigines.'

What he would like to see is each building being examined to determine its value.

'And I cannot accept something like Chijmes as a conservation project. You must understand what the building meant to the people before. It's like turning the old Supreme Court into a food court.'

Mr William Lim would like to see the Preservation of Monuments Board and Singapore Heritage Society play larger roles.

'I know they have lists of buildings worth preserving. They could make these lists public and maybe the Government can pass a law to say that these buildings should be exempt from collective sale,' he says.

Dr Seow, in turn, would like the opportunity to upgrade his buildings.

'Honestly, a lot of my buildings are now 30 to 40 years old. These buildings have set a trend for the present-day condominiums in Singapore...These are well-designed buildings which, if given a chance to be upgraded, would still be able to take on a new look that is relevant to the times.'

Yet for all their impassioned pleas to save buildings, there seems in each one of the three architects a palpable sense of resignation.

'When someone dear dies, one invariably feels sad but one still has to get on with life. Living in this current climate, one has no choice,'Dr Seow says.

Mr Chew adds: 'Time marches on and something must give way. What can you do?

'For creative people, you want to create something timeless. Authors want to be Shakespeare.

But can you be Shakespeare in Singapore?

'I'm retired now and my legacy is in rubble.'

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