Opening Remarks By 2M Desmond Lee at the Special Plenary Session of the mASEANa Conference

Nov 1, 2019

I am delighted to be here to open the Special Plenary Session of the mASEANa (modern ASEAN architecture) Conference 2019. I like to first and foremost thank the International Committee for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites, and Neighbourhoods of the Modern Movement (DOCOMOMO) Singapore Chapter. I would like to thank Ho Weng Hin, Tan Kar Lin, Lai Chee Kien, Jonathan Poh, Karen Tan, and Colin Yip for initiating this. 

The theme for this afternoon’s discussion is entitled “Rejuvenating Modern Buildings: The Social and Economic Values of Heritage”. This is certainly a timely topic in Singapore’s heritage landscape, and the era is upon us where we have to grapple with difficult questions. 

Just last week at the 25th Architectural Heritage Awards, we commemorated 30 years of our urban conservation programme in our city. We took the opportunity to pay tribute to our pioneers in conservation – the early generation who made those important, tough decisions – which were sometimes unpopular, or not right for the time, but thank goodness they made those decisions. Trailblazers who fought to safeguard our precious old buildings in our early independence days, against a tide of intensive urban renewal and against an exonerable pace of development. These were our passionate urban planners, architects, and conservationists, who partnered with policymakers and citizens at the time to ensure that our built heritage was saved, restored, and put to good use. Because of our pioneers, today, close to 7,200 buildings and structures across our island are conserved. 

Our Modern Buildings as Heritage Icons 

Today, we are at another juncture in our conservation journey – the buildings that represented the first phase of our urban renewal can now also be considered heritage icons in their own right. Many of these are large, mixed-use complexes built in the 1960s and 70s. Many were ground-breaking in their design, were conceptualised by local architects, and were constructed by our local builders. Collectively, they embody the ambition and energy of a newly independent nation. They stand as reminders of our turbulent and progressive years, when Singapore first forged a future for ourselves. 

Partnering the Community 

As we move forward in our conservation journey, we must continue to work together. From the beginning, our planners, architects, and policymakers weren’t the only stakeholders involved in the conversation on our built heritage. Key partners such as the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) were critical in championing the value of old buildings – as a way to preserve our collective memories, so that they can be remembered by future generations. Working together, it took an entire ecosystem to build a city with unique character and identity. 

Such partnerships are equally important today. Heritage conservation continues to be inherently interdisciplinary – the issues surrounding conservation are not just architectural, social and historical, they are commercial and practical considerations as well. This is why platforms like the mASEANa Conference are important. They allow us to share ideas and engage with each other’s views, so that working together, we can do more. 

On one hand, the Government is leaning in. We are learning from our experience with Pearl Bank Apartments. For buildings that are being considered for conservation, we are now engaging owners, developers and stakeholders much earlier in the process – so that we can establish a common understanding with owners and stakeholders about their building’s significance in our heritage landscape, and facilitate a more productive conversation about the possibilities of integrating original structures into a new development, along with the building’s development potential as a whole. This can be a lengthy process, with some push and pull. But this allows us to work towards a good outcome for all parties, or as good an outcome as possible. 

In the longer term, we hope this will secure stronger support for conservation overall. We are also looking at how we can reduce the perceived risks and challenges surrounding conservation and adaptive reuse, so that there are fewer deterrents to restoring large-scale, mixed-use complexes. We recognise that rehabilitation is a complex and costly undertaking for any developer, with many uncertainties, especially if we don’t have many local precedence to align with. In this light, we are studying how best to allow flexibility for these complexities to be worked through, including how we can better facilitate the in-depth structural and design studies that need to take place, in order for viable conservation schemes to be generated. 

But we cannot work alone – your support and expertise would be critical. 

As architects, planners, and built environment specialists, we must together make a clear and compelling case for why conservation is not only desirable, but feasible as well. In this spirit, let us work together even more closely to: Study each building closely, to understand the structural challenges and opportunities well; Create innovative design possibilities to capture the imagination of owners and potential buyers; Understand inhabitants’ lived experiences and work to find practical solutions to the real frustrations of ageing infrastructure – and to that end, ensuring that the built environment specialists, contractors, sub-specialists and tradesmen have enough understanding, expertise and practical experience to undertake some of these challenges; Also look at conservation from a financial and commercial standpoint as well, so as to understand the business case for the adaptive reuse of an old building, especially in the face of redevelopment pressures, and owner and stakeholder interests. 

Doing this will take the entire ecosystem working together to find solutions – planners, architects, policymakers, developers, building specialists, building owners and occupants, stakeholders and conservationists. 

I hope that today’s session will generate new perspectives and insights that can take us forward and take us further on this journey. I look forward to a lively discussion this afternoon, and recognise that today it will perhaps be the beginning of a new journey of conservation and conversations about heritage. Thank you.