Commentary: Conserving Golden Mile Complex is a paradigm shift for Singapore architecture
Instead of tearing down an ageing building, giving developers incentives to develop an old icon is progress, says Associate Professor Yeo Kang Shua.
SINGAPORE: The COVID-19 pandemic has precipitated a rethinking of our built environment. With so many of us still working from home, we are once again questioning how we should be designing our domestic, work, and urban spaces.
In Singapore, the way we look at redesigning homes or urban spaces has evolved over time too. Central to how privately owned architecture changes here is the collective sale, or what is known as en bloc redevelopment.
This is where an existing old building is sold to a developer or consortium who then proceeds to demolish and rebuild.
Since 1995, there have been 579 transactions marked by two periods of en bloc “boom” in Singapore. The first was between 2006 and 2007 - 250 transactions worth about S$20 billion - and the second was between 2017 and 2018 with 79 transactions worth about S$18 billion.
Since then, the numbers have tapered off.
Today, when we look at how to deal with ageing infrastructure, the question of sustainability comes into play. How long can we prolong the lifespan of what we consider to be important?
Seen in this way, the proposal to gazette Golden Mile Complex for conservation is a paradigm shift of how we design and renew buildings going forward.
COMPLEX CHARACTER OF OLD BUILDINGS
The mixed-use Golden Mile Complex has drawn both accolades and criticisms. Those who oppose its conservation often cite the building as being old and dirty, requiring quite massive renovations.
The building was originally called Woh Hup Complex as it was built by Woh Hup (Pte) Ltd. The 16-storey building was one of the first strata-titled developments in Singapore to have shops, offices and residences.
Completed in 1973, it is known for its “terraced” design – which enhances natural light and ventilation and three architects, Gan Eng Oon, William Lim and Tay Kheng Soon worked on this building.
Over the years though, as foreign workers congregated and the complex became known as “Little Thailand”, it struggled to find buyers – with hundreds of different strata-titled owners and a 99-year lease that began in 1969. Two attempts at collective sale in recent years fell through.
Developers stayed away seeing it as too risky as there was no gross plot ratio assigned to the land in the masterplan, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) had announced in late 2018 when the first collective sale was ongoing, that the building is under conservation study.
The former meant that it was unknown if developers can add extra floor area to the land, while the latter meant that until the conservation study was complete, there may be additional conservation regulations that will need to be complied with.
Conservation is often seen as a hindrance to development, and vice versa. Like it or not, the relationship between development and conservation is strained and tenuous.
From the perspective of the developers, conservation meant that they are restricted by how much extra floor area they may be able to add, on top of having to conserve the existing structure.
It is more expedient both in terms of financial and time consideration that both owners and developers tend to opt for demolition and redevelopment.
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An example is the Pearl Bank Apartments. After a long and difficult campaign, 91 per cent of the strata-titled owners agreed to a voluntary conservation proposal by the building’s architect Tan Cheng Siong, which included the addition of floor area within the development.
However, this meant that there will be changes to the aggregate share value of the lots in a Management Corporation Strata Title (MCST).
For this to proceed, the existing MCST must be terminated with 100 per cent owner’s approval to allow for the reconstitution of a new MCST. Eventually, collective sales prevailed, and the building was demolished for redevelopment.
Regardless of the building’s architectural merits, most owners are worried that their deteriorating properties, made worse by minimal planned maintenance, will have a considerable decrease in financial value should it attain conservation status.
There are exceptions, as is the case of Tiong Bahru estate.
Its art moderne heritage remains attractive for aficionados who are willing to invest precisely because of the neighbourhood’s architecture and historic character. In this case, the financial value, though important, need not be the main consideration.
Furthermore, when a privately-owned building is old, owners are generally unwilling to spend on maintenance as they expect a collective sale in the near future.
This is unlike HDB estates, which are regularly refurbished by the state at a highly subsidised rate.
WHY THE GOLDEN MILE CASE IS SPECIAL
The Oct 9 announcement to propose the gazette of Golden Mile for conservation is significant in that for the first time, the state is prepared to balance out the biases toward redevelopment by tilting the equation towards revitalisation.
They have done this through the provision of incentives to private development owners or prospective buyers and developers, should the Golden Mile Complex be conserved.
Many of these incentives are unprecedented. The extent and clarity of the incentives demonstrate the state's willingness to balance out various stakeholders’ interests, including financial viability.
The incentives include a one-third increase in floor area, as opposed to the uncertainty of any allowable floor area increase previously and the adjustment of site boundary to facilitate a more regular and rational building footprint to accommodate a new 30-storey tower from the increase in floor area.
What this signals is that costs of revitalisation are reduced or subsidised by the state to safeguard the common good of the country’s architectural heritage.
Revitalisation, regeneration, and redevelopment of buildings and real estate development can be mutually compatible. The real estate market expands, rather than contracts, with such a perspective.
Conservation is not about keeping every single element intact and thereby subverting creativity. It is the creativity of our minds that will allow us to tap on to existing history and character, in redesigning our domestic, work, and urban spaces.
Just as Golden Mile Complex is a symbol of the ingenuity of Singapore’s pioneer generation of building professionals and our bold urban living vision, its conservation will allow many to carry forth such spirit of resourcefulness, with the determination to create interesting and sustainable spaces within the parameters of our building stocks.
Yeo Kang Shua is an Associate Professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. He is also President of ICOMOS Singapore – Singapore’s committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites.