Has Singapore's built heritage been forsaken for profits?

Has Singapore's built heritage been forsaken for profits?

Domino effect

Text: Aravin Sandran

Image: Darren Soh
Image: The Substation

News of Golden Mile Complex's collective sale coincides with two art exhibitions that are fuelling a long overdue conversation around Singapore’s problematic relationship with its built heritage

"I came in like a wrecking ball
I never hit so hard in love
All I wanted was to break your walls
All you ever did was wreck me"

It's tragically funny how apt a metaphor a teary-eyed Miley Cyrus straddling a wrecking ball could be for the current love-hate discourse around the conservation and nostalgia of Singapore's built heritage.

In the last two years, Singapore has witnessed a phenomenal spree of en-bloc deals and redevelopment schemes that have sent the property market into a dizzying spin, turned ordinary middle-class Singaporeans into overnight millionaires and made housing communities into social war zones. There's been so much drama that it has even inspired En Bloc, a television show, currently available on Toggle, about how these collective sales can cause friction among families and residents.

Yet, like some sort of twisted teenage infatuation, when National Day comes around on 9th August every year, we see these structures erected once again as caricatures of their former selves on floats and in throwback videos to be glorified as icons of our social history. If the state's 30-year tabula rasa approach to our modernist architecture continues, we will only be left with a scattering of shophouses for tourists and colonial black-and-white bungalows as a reminder of our architectural past.

Following the sale of Pearl Bank Apartments to private developer Capitaland for a hefty $728m earlier this year, other Brutalist buildings began forming collective sales committees. In August, it was announced that Golden Mile Complex had received a majority vote to go en bloc. 

Home to Thai discotheques, eateries, a large Asian grocery store and hordes of buses heading across the causeway today, Golden Mile Complex was regarded as a ground-breaking addition to Singapore's cityscape in the early seventies. Respected architects such as starchitect Rem Koolhaas and Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate Fumihiko Maki hailed it for its bold Brutalist form and high-density usage. In stark polarisation, more than two decades later, local opinions about it are strongly divided. NMP Ivan Png famously referred to it as a "vertical slum" and "national disgrace" in 2006, citing its dilapidated state, while media coverage of its seedy vice activities and violent spates have smeared its reputation.

The local art community has responded to the news of the impending demolition by taking to social media to voice their concerns. More notably, a group of architects that includes Randy Chan of Zarch Collaboratives and Yee Chin Teo of The Singapore Architect, has started a petition addressed to the Urban Redevelopment Authority, to confer conservation statuses on Golden Mile Complex as well as People’s Park Complex, which might see its demise soon.

This month, two art exhibitions fuel this long overdue national conversation around Singapore's problematic relationship with its built heritage.

Installation  view  of  No.  55,  Main  Road  (2010)  by  Hayati  Mokhtar  for  Deathsong,  Installation  view  of  No.  55,  Main  Road  (2010)  by  Hayati  Mokhtar  for  Deathsong

From 21st August to 23rd September, The Substation presents a mini-festival ominously titled En Bloc, or Buildings Must Die, as part of its year-long interrogation of local heritage. It has opened with exhibits that serve as elegies for the passing of Singapore's modernist buildings, coinciding intentionally with the Hungry Ghost month. 5000kg of sand, Raymond Goh's broken tombstones and Min-Wei's creepy meander through a soulless Jurong HDB flat plunges visitors 6-feet under while Post Museum's VR-fuelled getai show shines the spotlight on the once-forgotten Bukit Brown Cemetary.

Installation view of Bukit Brown Index #132: Triptych of the Unseen (2018) by Post-Museum 

"Our landscape is constantly shifting, and the loss of cultural markers impacts both our individual and national identities. We want to be able to explore these issues in a more meaningful way", said Alan Oei, artistic director of the Substation. "Conservation shouldn't only be about historical or architectural value, but about the impact it has on communities and continuity for a sense of self."

Former Queenstown Cinema photographed by Darren Soh

For those less inclined to the macabre, acclaimed architectural photographer Darren Soh presents his long-term documentation of sites that are slated to disappear or have already vanished at Objectifs. Fifty images, most of which are shown for the first time, feature Golden Mile Complex, alongside past casualties such as Rochor Centre and Queenstown Cinema.


In a series of Facebook and Instagram posts preceding the exhibition, Soh questioned the worth, perception and treatment of built heritage. Since Queenstown Cinema was demolished under HDB's Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme in 2013, Soh has steadily photographed buildings that have been slated to be torn down. Through his exhibition and accompanying monograph and seminar, Soh hopes his images will not only kickstart a conversation about our shared memories of these resonant spaces and buildings but also, inspire photography enthusiasts to document and immortalise them in images, even if it is only for extra street-cred on Instagram.

As Koolhaas suggests in his seminal 2010 text Singapore Songlines, Singapore's architectural history tells a story of displacement, eradication and artificiality. Today, its generic sterility is its signature style and, in fact, has become a coveted model for many Asian, Middle Eastern and European cities around the world. Looking abroad for a heroic conservation effort, the Barbican Estate is one of London's best examples of Brutalist architecture. Part of a utopian vision to transform an area of London left devastated by bombing during the Second World War, the forty-acre, multi-purpose mammoth sprawl features residential buildings, an internationally-renowned arts centre, the Museum of London, a school, a tropical conservatory and a lake. Back at home, there is hope. The partial conservation of Dakota Crescent estate in 2017 signalled a shift in attitudes towards redevelopment. If Singaporeans truly want these relics to stick around, they will need to participate, lobby and advocate through open dialogue and relentless documentation while putting pressure on authorities to safeguard what is truly sentimental and historically significant.

Before It All Goes: Architecture from Singapore's Early Independence Years is on view at Objectifs until 29th September 2018.

The En Bloc, or Buildings Must Die programme runs at The Substation until 23rd September 2018.