Keeping up appearances

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 September, 2007, 12:00am

As Hong Kong's historically minded repeatedly try in vain to save even the ugliest of its long-standing man-made structures, our old rival to the south has become a relative beacon of preservation.

Singapore's well-established ethnic enclaves - Chinatown, Little India and the Malay quarter of Kampong Glam - are still defined by rows of gaily painted shophouses, many built a century ago and restored to perfection. Government building restrictions ensure these districts retain the charms, if not the vitality and - in some cases - sleaze, of decades past.

But, in a densely populated state where land is at a premium, history sometimes has to take a back seat to more pressing concerns. In its drive to ensure a swelling population has ample space to live, work and play, Singapore's main land planning agency, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), has adopted a 'pragmatic yet flexible' approach to preservation, which has recently produced some controversial results.

When an ageing structure can't be preserved in its entirety, URA guidelines - or concessions by developers - often ensure chunks of it are retained and integrated into a new project, producing a growing number of apartments, hotels and retail spaces that fuse modern structures onto old facades or foundations. Some see these creations as a harmonious marriage of past and present, or at least the best compromise possible in a space-scarce country. Others dismiss 'hybrid' developments as monstrosities, and have bestowed a name upon them that now resonates throughout the island's webpages and media outlets: Frankenstein buildings.

Few spots are more emblematic of this struggle than Amber Road, a sedate neighbourhood in eastern Singapore just a few blocks from the beach. Tucked among the high-rise condominiums that now dominate the area is Butterfly House, a mansion built nearly a century ago by A.J. Bidwell, the British architect responsible for the iconic Raffles Hotel. The imposing residence, now a forlorn, fading yellow, has a number of captivating touches: multiple Renaissance-style archways, open verandas that once overlooked the sea, decorative carvings framing windows. But its most distinctive features are those that lend it its moniker - the sweeping, curved 'wings' that extend from the centre of the house to form a graceful crescent, designed to admit as much of the ocean breeze as possible. It is the only structure of its kind left.

Unfortunately Butterfly House's wings are about to be clipped. Last August, developer AG Capital snatched up the mansion for S$9 million (HK$46 million) and quickly unveiled plans to erect an apartment block on the plot. No doubt to the company's - and the government's - surprise, the move sparked what amounted to a torrent of resistance in a city where most forms of protest are restricted.

Independent bloggers, activists and concerned members of the public joined forces with preservation-focused civic group Historic Architecture Rescue Plan (Harp) to bombard the developer and the URA with e-mails and letters that called for the house to be designated a conservation property and saved.

This was where things became complicated. After consultations with the developer and advocates for the property, the URA agreed the house needed to be spared - but only part of it. In June, the authorities unveiled a plan to name the plot of land at 23 Amber Road, along with the porch and entry hall of Butterfly House, a conservation area. No mention was made of the rear of the house or its characteristic wings, leaving the developer free to hack them off to make room for the building going up directly behind. AG Capital now envisions residents scurrying through the residence's facade on their way to lifts that will whisk them to 18 storeys of flats boasting sea views.

The company declined to be interviewed for this article, but director Tan Chee Beng was quoted in Singapore's Straits Times as saying the firm was a 'good citizen' for agreeing to spare part of a building that was close to being demolished. The URA, too, is calling the planned condominium a 'win-win' solution. The preservation-minded, of course, beg to differ.

'It will be an eyesore, a blight on the Amber Road landscape, and will constantly remind people of another chapter in Singapore's history of hideous architectural mistakes,' says Harp spokesman Terrence Hong.

The development is bound to be a 'disaster' as Butterfly House's curved arcades 'are the whole point of the building', agrees Ed Poole, a renowned Singapore-based architect who has reinvented several historic properties for corporate clients. 'What's the use of conserving the rest?'

According to the URA, applications to develop conservation properties have increased only slightly - 410 in the past year, compared with 387 in the 12 months before - but groups such as Harp say with the property market growing at fever pitch, there's no doubt higher prices have increased pressure on Singapore's shrinking roster of old homes.

A Georgian-style house in the central neighbourhood of Tiong Bahru, a unique twin-domed shophouse on the border of Little India and Singapore's former French embassy are among the properties on Harp's endangered list.

If past and present experience is anything to go by, many of these structures could end up in awkward marriages. Last March, the new incarnation of the Cathay Building, Singapore's first skyscraper, opened for business with a decidedly avant-garde design but its 1930s art-deco facade intact. The family home of former Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation chairman Tan Chin Tuan now sits at the foot of a 20-storey luxury apartment block. Buyers at Draycott8, a high-end residential development off the shopping hub of Orchard Road that commands prices of about S$2,000 per square foot, gain access to Singapore's largest condominium clubhouse - an intact two-storey colonial-era home that now contains mahjong and billiard rooms.

And more are on the way. A stone's throw from Amber Road, developer Singapore Land is erecting the Grand Duchess at St Patrick's, which will place five condominium blocks around the former seaside bungalow of merchant Tan Soo Guan (a descendant of 19th-century businessman and benefactor Tan Kim Seng), erected in the 1920s.

Just to the north, a key landmark of the still-quaint Katong district, the fiery red Katong Bakery and Confectionary, is about to get a new lease of life as part of a serviced apartment and retail complex after nearly 80 years of dishing out cakes and curry puffs.

Those involved in these projects are quick to note not all 'hybrid' developments are created equal. Peter Wong of ADDP Architects, the lead architect on the Grand Duchess project, points out it will maintain Tan's bungalow in its entirety - as a clubhouse of course - and treat it with respect.

'The idea we have here is we not only wanted to conserve the physical building; we wanted to recreate the spirit of the place, bringing back the nostalgic lifestyle unique to Katong, where people have their afternoon tea along the verandas of the bungalow and children swim and have fun in the waters of the pool: a reflection of the sea that used to be there before the reclamation of land,' he says.

Zahid Yacob of Warees Investments, which owns the Katong Bakery, acknowledges the building is 'almost a monument' and says the company will preserve the exterior, 'right down to the red colour'.

Warees has communicated its plans to Katong retailers and grassroots groups, who feel it will 'revive the whole area, and that's very much welcomed', Yacob adds.

Those who look askance at 'Frankenstein' creations point out they all seem to serve the same purpose - shopping or housing - and that many end up cut off to the public.

'This whole half-and-half concept has gone off on a tangent in Singapore,' says Hong, sighing. 'On a small scale it could work, but right now most of [these projects] are just lip service for conservation.'

Agencies such as Harp believe that while the government may have good intentions, conservation rules tend to favour developers - and add fuel to the Frankenstein-building fire. Authorities keep a tight grip on the Kampong Glam, Chinatown and Little India districts while permitting companies to demolish the rear portions of shophouses and homes to erect new buildings in slightly younger 'secondary settlements' such as Joo Chiat and Jalan Besar. Here, it's only the original fronts that have to be maintained as long as developers abide by local height restrictions.

The status of independent properties is usually evaluated on a case-by-case basis, with the value of conservation as well as the development potential and economic impact of a site all taken into consideration. According to a URA spokeswoman, if a historically significant bungalow sits on a large plot of land the agency will typically require a company to work the whole structure into building plans. But if the site is relatively tight - as is the case with Amber Road - 'an old and new approach is usually adopted, to allow the familiar streetscape and street experience to be retained', while helping a developer 'to meet its objectives by building a new block at the rear'.

Few could contest the URA's assertion that given Singapore's growth plans - the government hopes to push the population from 4 million to 6 million in the next few years - trade-offs between preservation and the need to ready the country for a more crowded future are inevitable. But Hong still argues the administration could do more to save Singapore's visible history, such as offering tax rebates for people or companies that buy and maintain old houses.

Poole is more blunt: 'There are a lot of interesting buildings tucked around, but the way Singapore's going there's going to be nothing left.'

He believes his colleagues and developers have a responsibility to guard the historic architecture in their care, noting many 'wipe out interesting internal details' when reworking conservation properties for contemporary use. He clearly views refurbishments with some scepticism - the 'new' Raffles Hotel, which first opened in 1887 and was closed between 1989 and 1991 for a revamp, is 'disturbing' and the much-touted Chijmes complex, a cluster of entertainment outlets occupying a convent dating from 1840, 'a bit of fakery'. But he also believes hybrid projects can work, when they 'contrast the new with the old and clearly separate the two'.

Builders tend to have a more favourable view of the state of affairs. 'In general developers are receptive [to] conserving Singapore's heritage buildings and the government is giving developers incentives for doing so,' says ADDP's Wong, echoing the URA's view that the two sides often manage to strike win-win deals.

Even Hong sees reasons for hope in the 23 Amber Road debate. He says Harp was taken aback by the government's willingness to hear it out and he believes the dialogue over the project may have shifted some attitudes in officialdom. Hong also notes what's left of the house could draw even more locals to the conservation cause, provided it's unattractive.

'Perhaps people will forever remember it as a lesson, though generally Singaporeans aren't too keen on conservation,' he says. 'Eighty per cent of people here are born and live in high-rise estates, and what you don't know, you can't really miss.'

Proponents of conservation warn decisions to raze or overhaul Singapore's ageing properties may be based on unsound economics. The city-state's leaders have big plans to lure more tourists here: two 'integrated resorts', complete with casinos, will have opened by 2009; a massive observation wheel that strongly resembles the London Eye will begin accepting passengers early next year; and yet more retail complexes will be springing up on Orchard Road soon.

Hong says attractions such as these may bring people to Singapore, but the city's distinctive old properties and the historic atmosphere they contribute will do a better job of convincing visitors to stay.

'How many more shopping malls can you build?' Hong asks. 'Look at Macau; they've revitalised the old waterfront, or Shanghai; they're restoring concession houses. What are we doing? There's a false economy at the moment and we're making a lot of decisions people are going to quietly regret.'

Does that remind you of anywhere else?