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Commentary: Holes in the Heritage Conservation Wall
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By Yeo Kang Shua and Terence Chong (First published in TODAY, 11 July 2013 http://www.todayonline.com/commentary/holes-heritage-conservation-wall)

Walls are prodigious metaphors. More than just physical barriers, they also signify security, privacy or exclusivity. Majestic examples like the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall are symbols of defence to keep the enemy out, while others like the Berlin Wall were icons of containment to keep people in. In short, walls have social meaning.

 

A more local wall hit the headlines recently. Two weeks ago, it was reported in the media that part of the boundary walls around CHIJMES was to be torn down as part of a S$45-million facelift for CHIJMES. The reports cited eight changes to be made, including the lowering of the boundary walls along Victoria Street and the puncturing of new entrances in the wall. Part of the cloister wall would reportedly be removed and the space fitted with grilles.

This announcement raises three important issues that bear public discussion.

Can a national monument like CHIJMES retain its social meaning when its architectural integrity is compromised?

In keeping with its original religious function, CHIJMES was designed as a cloister or enclosure to seclude the inside from the outside for a quiet and tranquil space. Crucial to the cloister design is the wall enclosure around the former chapel and school, which serves to separate the sacred from the mundane.

However, the proposed lowering of the boundary wall to 80cm of its original height and the installation of metal grilles will destroy the cloister’s raison d’etre by increasing the “visual porosity” from Victoria Street to the inside. Although physical segregation is retained, the essence of a cloister is lost.

As for the “new entrances” that will be created, whether these erode the concept of the cloister will depend on the size of the openings as well as their design.  Meanwhile, the bigger question remains — do we really need to have porosity along Victoria Street where pedestrian traffic is low?

Unfortunately, the removal of boundary walls from local heritage sites is not new. Other precedents include the National Museum of Singapore, Old Parliament House and the Malay Heritage Centre.

While pedestrian connectivity and site porosity were similarly cited reasons, unlike CHIJMES, the architectural integrity of these three examples was not seriously affected.

 

WHERE TO DRAW THE LINE?

The second issue at stake is the role of the authorities in heritage matters.

CHIJMES is a national heritage site governed by two authorities. The Chapel and Caldwell House are gazetted as national monuments and come under the Preservation of Monuments Board, while the rest of CHIJMES comes under the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as a conservation site.

It is assumed that CHIJMES’ architecture and setting, a reflection of our nation’s past, warrants its stature as a national monument and conservation site.

URA has done a good job conserving old heritage buildings, with more than 7,000 gazetted buildings around the island coming under its protection. However, more can be done.

For example, has there been any serious attempt to take advantage of CHIJMES’s history in marketing the site as an urban oasis within a busy city centre? Is the need for visual connectivity and porosity from Victoria Street driven purely by commercial interest? If so, where do we draw the line between commercial and heritage interests?

Such questions will become increasingly important as we look for commercially sustainable ways to preserve heritage buildings. In giving these older buildings a new lease of life, it will be crucial to strike a balance between the maximisation of commercial interests and their historical identities.

Exactly where this balance lies will vary from case to case, building to building, thus making it fruitful to have ongoing dialogue and compromise between the relevant stakeholders, such as building owners, heritage experts, government, and business interests.

 

CONSERVE, AND CONSERVE WELL

Thirdly, the CHIJMES boundary wall issue plugs into the wider debate over the upkeep and maintenance of our national monuments.

In April, when the Cenotaph was vandalised with spray paint, we were rightly outraged. It was a straightforward case of gross disrespect.

However, defacement comes in many forms. The media reports note plans to remove the cobblestone floor of CHIJMES and to raise the colonnade roof. These are permanent changes which will, collectively, change the identity and character of the space. And unlike spray paint, changes to building structures cannot be easily erased.

It is no longer enough not to knock down old buildings. The key architectural characteristics of buildings have to be conserved if we are serious about heritage. This will take commitment and political will.

For a nation constantly in search of its identity, it will be well worth the effort.

Yeo Kang Shua and Terence Chong are Executive Committee members of the Singapore Heritage Society. This commentary was first published in TODAY, 11 July 2013.

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