SINGAPORE: The Golden Mile Complex (GMC) state of conservation plans have been extremely well received by the conservation circle.
This is a landmark decision for heritage conservation in Singapore as it opens a new page in our efforts to preserve important architectural heritage.
In particular, given that GMC is a titled property in strata, the classification of this substantial private property for conservation purposes while being sufficiently encouraged for development is indeed pioneering at the local and even regional level.
As the first such project, we might want to look at the framework within which this decision was made and how the community can adopt the framework objectively.
Conservation is value-based, it is about passing on an important heritage to future generations. The buildings that are preserved are identity markers of the achievements of the company of which the community in the future can be proud or debated.
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The conservation of architecture is above all a socio-cultural enterprise. Historic buildings are preserved for their intrinsic role in the development of society and the community, and not just for the technical or aesthetic value of the architecture.
However, much remains to be done to convince the current generation that a rigorous appraisal process has been carried out in conservation decisions to determine the value of heritage to the community.
This is fundamental in the conservation process. There are three pillars in the assessment of conservation based on internationally recognized value: historical, social and architectural value.
In the case of the GMC, a lot of research and advocacy has taken place behind the scenes: the Singapore Heritage Society, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) of Singapore, and the International Committee for the Documentation and Conservation of Buildings ( DoCoMoMo) Singapore at the forefront of promoting the conservation of Modernist buildings in Singapore.
Likewise, architecture students from NUS and beyond had explored the preserved and reused future of GMC.
HOW THE GOLDEN MILE COMPLEX WAS DESIGNED
To begin with, all buildings and town planning are products of the historical and cultural development of a society. Urban and architectural designs reflect the context of society and contribute to national history in its development.
In the early 1960s, Singapore went through difficult times with a lot of political turmoil. However, with independence in 1965, the new nation looked to an exciting future with a new identity.
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It is in this context that the Government has sought a new vision of planning, urban design and architecture to usher in a new era of self-confidence and nation.
The result was the plan to develop the eastern section of Beach Road into the nation’s new shopping, office and residence center, hence the name Golden Mile.
Bold planning and architectural initiatives were quickly proposed to create modern infrastructure, like streets in the sky and separating vehicular and pedestrian traffic along the main road.
And GMC was the first multi-purpose complex built as a symbol of progress in efforts to propel Singapore into a global city, as architectural specialist Koon H Wee pointed out.
GMC has a historic position in shaping the national program at the founding stage. The Former Singapore Conference Hall, the People’s Park Complex and the former subordinate courts are other examples of successful conservations.
But there are also others that have escaped the net – the old National Theater and the Pearl Bank Apartments are two that come to mind.
HOW TO DEFINE SHARED VALUES?
In the context of historical development, we should also look at architectural heritage in the way it was viewed by society during its lifetime, including current attitudes.
Issues such as identity, shared memory and sense of belonging should be examined.
The social value of built heritage has been considered increasingly important for architectural conservation in recent years.
It is an embodied value that can only be revealed through qualitative studies, including focus group interviews and participatory engagement.
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I would say that social value is a crucial criterion in determining the importance of heritage buildings for conservation.
Due to GMC’s position on Beach Road, initially between rows of stores, then next to HDB estates, and due to its mixed-use design, the building has always been the center of the neighborhood community.
In recent years, when GMC became a Thai community center, it took on a different social significance in Singapore. Society is changing, there are constant changes and in Singapore, sometimes at breakneck speed.
Conservation is essentially the management of change. Preserving the social significance of the GMC and other heritages should be a key objective of architectural conservation.
THE BEAUTY OF BRUTALIST ARCHITECTURE
Architecturally, GMC represents an important example of the International Brutalist style, a movement that flourished between the 1950s and 1970s.
Brutalist buildings, which display structural honesty with exposed raw concrete, were adopted by many great 20th century architects, such as Le Corbusier and Paul Rudolph.
The style is seen as a tour de force of the rebirth of societies after the ravages of World War II. Due to its quiet monumentality, the style was also chosen for the institutional architecture of some countries after their independence from the colonial powers.
The elements and architectural language used in this style are also part of the modernist movement in architecture which connotes modernity and internationalism.
Being part of a small group of brutalist buildings in Southeast Asia, such as the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh (Vann Molyvann 1964), Tanghalang Pambansa in Manila (National Theater, Leandro Valencia Locsin, 1969) and the building at the top – Australian Commissariat in Kuala Lumpur (Joyce Nankivell Associates, 1979), GMC Conservation will lead the conservation efforts of these post-war structures.
GMC has a well-articulated shape, excellent spatial experience and relates well to its waterfront location.
As one of the first mixed-use developments with shops, offices and housing in a mega-block, GMC is also a pioneer in architectural experimentation with the podium-and-block typology that is now common in large-scale development in Asian cities. .
Architects William Lim, Tay Kheng Soon and Gan Eng Oon of Design Partnership (now known as DP Architects), demonstrated architectural mastery in giving GMC clarity of form through the distinctive separation of three features: A large block of shops around a summit. illuminated atrium, an office building with a facade emphasizing horizontality and a new tiered housing block.
This is an important contribution to the architectural form of mixed-use development, both in Singapore and in the region.
WHAT FOLLOWS FOR SINGAPORE ARCHITECTURE
GMC occupies an important place in the history of Singapore. The progressive vision of a new country was translated into physical form by three pioneering architects.
Trained at the two renowned architectural schools in London and Boston, as well as the local school of architecture, Lim, Tay and Gan have played a crucial role in the discourse on town planning, architecture and culture. of the new nation, as well as serving as a planning and built environment think tank consulted by the government.
The two major flagship projects of the architects, People’s Park Complex (1973) and GMC, embody the aspiration of the practice of architecture to “produce architecture that uplifts the human spirit”.
The impact of their vision and architecture can still be seen in the practice projects. This is essentially the historical value of GMC.
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Due to its simplicity of form and elements, Modernist architecture tends to be the least accepted by the public. Many of them can be functional in design and considered too utilitarian and mundane in appearance.
However, post-war buildings generally have institutional and communal use, such as schools, hospitals, public housing, and commercial buildings.
These are the cornerstones of everyday life that built modern Singapore and should be seen as important parts of our history.
Many young architects in Singapore are very keen to keep the Modernist legacy alive, with great respect for their architectural values, and are able to transform GMC and other structures for contemporary use.
The potential for conservation and adaptive reuse of Modernist architecture is enormous, so the current conditions of buildings should not be a barrier to their conservation.
The way forward for architectural conservation in Singapore should be a holistic and honest assessment of our modern heritage that articulates its architectural, historical and social values in light of the formative years of nation-building.
This is an issue facing many rapidly developing cities in Asia, but which receives very little attention due to the outdated view of what constitutes heritage.
We should consider GMC as the first of many modernist buildings in Singapore for conservation due to the vigorous social, architectural and historical value assessment.
Singapore can and should lead the region in the conservation of Modernist architecture.
Ho Puay Peng is Head of the Department of Architecture at the NUS School of Design and Environment and Professor of the UNESCO Chair in Conservation and Management of Architectural Heritage in Asia.