So, what’s next for the Rail Corridor?

21 05 2015

Almost four years have passed since the rumble of the last train, we hear new noises finally being made over the Rail Corridor. Also known as the Green Corridor, calls were made by nature and heritage groups and enthusiasts for its preservation in the lead up to the move of the terminal from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands. The hopes were that the space, long spared from development due to the railway, be kept untouched, uninterrupted and green; a space that will allow us in Singapore not just to remember the links we long have had with our northern neighbours, but also as a connector of green spaces down the length of the island.

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It wasn’t long after the railway’s last journey, that we in Singapore embarked on a new and uncharted journey through the 23 kilometre long corridor with the Minister for National Development, Mr Khaw Boon Wan, providing an assurance, in July 2011, that the corridor would be preserved as a green corridor. This was reinforced by the Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, in his National Day Rally speech of the same year.

There was much discussion that followed as to how this could be realised. An ideas competition held at the end of 2011 as a primer for a design competition, all with the 2013 Master Plan in mind. A dispute on development charges on the former railway land between Malaysia, which owned the land prior to the terminal’s move, and Singapore, however, meant that a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a master plan and concept proposals for the Rail Corridor could only be held this year. The pre-qualification for the RFP, which attracted a massive response with 64 teams making submissions, was recently concluded with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) shortlisting five teams yesterday for participation in the next stage.

The five teams, who all have strong lead landscape architects – not surprising given the emphasis on the landscape element in the Rail Corridor, will be given until 21 August 2015 to make submissions for Stage 2A. This stage involves the development of an overall Concept Master Plan and Concept Proposals that will include two special interest areas: the urban-green-blue integrated concepts at Choa Chu Kang and a concept design for the adaptive reuse of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

Having had a glance at the pre-qualification submissions made of the selected teams, what does seem encouraging is that there has been a lot of thought put in not just in retaining as much of the Rail Corridor’s natural environment, but also in enhancing it. The natural environment is to me one of the features of the Rail Corridor that makes it what it is and I am all for keeping it as natural as possible, with as little intervention (I do recognise that some intervention would be necessary) as is possible. While it is important that it does become a space available to the wider community, what would be nice to see is that some of its unique spaces retained as they are and that as a whole the corridor remains a place one can always find an escape in.

After the submissions are made on Stage 2A, one team will then be selected, an announcement for which can be expected in October 2015. There will also be exhibition held from October to November 2015 that will put on display the submissions of all participating teams. During the period of the exhibition, members of the public will be provided with an opportunity to give their feedback. Along with feedback from stakeholders and the respective agencies, this will be taken into account in the next stage, 2B, which will involve a 8 week revision of concept designs (January to March 2016). The team will then move on to Stage 2C, a 12 week long preliminary design effort that will be undertaken for a 4 kilometre signature stretch of the Rail Corridor. More information on the RFP is available at the URA’s Rail Corridor RFP site.

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Monday not so blue

20 05 2015

It has been a long while since we a celebration of the new day as spectacular as the one seen on Monday.

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Colours of the new day, Monday, 18 May 2015, 6.48 am as seen from the beach at Kg Wak Hassan.





The vermilion bridge in the naval base

19 05 2015

The vermilion bridge, of a style and colour that is distinctively Japanese, stands almost garishly out of place in the expansive garden of an equally generously sized colonial house. Set in an area whose flavour is overwhelmingly one of the days of the empire, the bridge, and the landscaped area it arches across, is said to have been constructed through the efforts of Japanese Prisoners-of-War (POWs). It is one of at least two structures that the POWs built in an area that was at the heart of the huge British naval base, the other being a swimming pool on the grounds of Old Admiralty House.

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The house with the bridge, is one of many in the “black and white” style, commonly employed in the construction of homes for the colony’s senior administrators and military men, to be found in the area. Along with several residences with red-brick faces influenced by the arts and crafts movement, the “black and white” houses, in lush green and spacious surroundings, served as married quarters for the base’s senior officers. The house, the largest in its cluster and located so that it commanded a view of the base’s former stores basin and dockyard, was reserved for the dockyard’s most senior officer, the Commodore Superintendent.

An aerial view of the former Commodore Superintendent's residence.

An aerial view of the former Commodore Superintendent’s residence (posted in the Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook Group).

The dockyard passed into the hands of the then newly formed Sembawang Shipyard in 1968 and the base saw its last days in 1971 with the British pullout, and the ownership of the house was transferred to the State, but with an arrangement that it, along with several other similar property be made available for use to the United Kingdom and also to Australian and New Zealand Forces deployed in Singapore under the Five Power Defence Arrangement. It perhaps is due to this that the house, which subsequent to the pullout, served as the residence of Commander of New Zealand’s Force SEA, and the brightly coloured bridge, set in an area that the the URA’s 2014 Masterplan tells us is “Subject to Detailed Planning”,  still stands today in a part of Singapore in which the winds of change are now blowing ever stronger.





The glow in the park

12 05 2015

The quiet green surroundings of Fort Canning Hill provides the setting for the Pinacothèque de Paris’ home away from home, in a building whose best features the museum seems to have brought out, especially with its nighttime illuminations. The rather majestic looking building, looking resplendent after a huge makeover, dates back to 1926, beginning its life as a barracks block of the Malaya Command Headquarters. The Malaya Command HQ occupied a large part of the grounds of a mid-18oos British fortification, of which part of the wall and a gate, the Fort Gate, remains. Named after Lord Canning, the Governor-General and Viceroy of British India at that time, the fort was also what gave the hill its modern name.

The new glow at the formerly very dark cemetery at Fort Canning.

The new glow at the formerly very dark cemetery at Fort Canning.

I first got to know the three storey building that is now the Pinacothèque in my days of youthful adventure when the hill was a draw for as much for its seclusion of the hill, as it was for its mystery. Known also as Bukit Larangan, the Forbidden Hill, it was so named as it was the abode of the ancient kings both in life and in the afterlife. The dark and uncertain slopes, desecrated by the ornaments of the new order the most noticeable of which were the reminders of Singapore’s first Christian burial ground, seemed more forbidding  then than forbidden.

Fort Canning Centre at the start of its transformation into the Pinacotheque de Paris.

Fort Canning Centre at the start of its transformation into the Pinacotheque de Paris.

The monuments on the hill to the garrison no one imagined could be defeated, were less forbidding. In former barracks block, then converted into the “world’s largest squash centre”, Singapore Squash Centre, one was never without company. Established in 1977 when the game of squash rackets was at the peak of its popularity in Singapore, the centre boasted of 25 courts and as a facility for the game, was well used up until the 1980s. Unfortunately, the good times were to be brought to an end at the end of the 1980s. Plans were announced in 1985 to revamp Fort Canning Hill into a focal point for cultural and recreational activities in the city, with the barracks block serving as its hub. Following the expiration of the centre’s lease for the building in 1987, the building was renovated and unveiled as the Fort Canning Centre in 1991 into which arts related tenants such dance studios and theatre groups moved.

The building in the 1980s (National Archives of Singapore).

Overlooking Fort Canning Green, the site of the former Christian cemetery, the Pinacothèque de Paris, which opens its doors on 30 May 2015, adds not just a stunning backdrop to the now open-air concert venue, but also provides a good reason to head up a hill on whose slopes much of our early history was written.





Signs of the times: the final Halt

28 04 2015

What perhaps is the final “Halt” in Singapore is to be found in the area where the former Loewen Camp, part of the former British Tanglin Barracks, was located. The former military camp, used in the post 1971 (British military pull-out) era to house Singapore Armed Forces units such as HQ Medical Services (HQMS) and the 9th Division (9Div) HQ, has recently been refurbished with the buildings found within it being put to new uses. One of the things that, rather surprisingly, can be found in the midst of the old buildings, is a remnant of times when traffic was brought to a halt.

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The halt found in a road marking comes from days when “Halt (at) Major Road Ahead” signs were in use rather than the red octagon Stop signs we are used to seeing these days that are supplemented by “Stop” road markings. The previously used “Halt (at) Major Road Ahead” signs were originally introduced in the United Kingdom in 1935 and its use was then extended to Malaya and Singapore in the same decade.

Halt Major Road Ahead sign and road marking seen at the junction of Transit Road and Sembawang Road in Nee Soon Village, 1966 (photo from David Ayres’ wonderful collection of Singapore and Malaya in the 1960s on Flickr).

I am not quite certain when the more internationally recognised “Stop” signs we see today replaced the “Halt” signs, but it would have been in the very early 1970s. The new “Stop” signs had their origins in the United States, having taken its form and colour in the 1954 Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD). It was one of two variants specified under the 1968 United Nations Vienna Convention Road Signs and Signals and has since been widely adopted in many parts of the world.





Panguni Uthiram 2015 in photos

4 04 2015

Panguni Uthiram, a Hindu festival similar in the way it is celebrated to the better known Thaipusam, is celebrated during the full moon in the Tamil month of Panguni (which falls in March or April). In Singapore, the tradition is observed at the Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar temple, a temple now at Yishun Industrial Park A with its origins in the British Naval Base. The original temple was located off Canberra Road and it was there that the festival was first celebrated at the temple in 1967.

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The lively festival, which unfortunately music and singing has been disallowed (along the procession route), features both a procession of the Silver Chariot on the eve and a kavadi procession on the day itself. More on the festival and photographs from the previous festivals can be found at these links:

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The very grand house that Brewer built

2 04 2015

Perched on a small hill just south of hills given to the those who have passed on at Bukit Brown, is a place built as a dwelling for the living, so grand, that it has had members of royalty, a president as well as many powerful military men, find shelter within its walls. The dwelling, Command House, is well hidden from the public eye. It only is on the incline of its long driveway, well past the entrance gate at Kheam Hock Road, that we get a glimpse of its scale and appearance; the drive in also provides an appreciation of the expanse of the sprawling 11.5 acre (4.5 ha.) estate the house is set in.

Command House at 17 Kheam Hock Road.

Command House at 17 Kheam Hock Road.

The scale of the mansion, built in 1938 with six bedrooms with bathrooms attached, a huge wine cellar as well as servants quarters and other service buildings laid out over its grounds, must impress. It however is its simple but aesthetically pleasing design that catches the eye. Said to have been inspired by the Arts and Craft movement of which its creator, the well respected Singapore based architect Frank W. Brewer, once of Swan and MacLaren, was a keen follower of, the mansion features elements of Brewer’s interpretation including the distinctive exposed brick voussoirs that is also seen in other Brewer designed houses (some examples: 5 Chatsworth Park and 1 Dalvey Estate).

Many of Brewer's work feature very distinctive exposed brick voussoirs.

Many examples of Brewer’s work feature very distinctive exposed brick voussoirs.

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Several recognisable architectural contributions have been attributed to Brewer. In Singapore, these include the Cathay building and St. Andrew’s School. Visitors to Cameron Highlands would not have missed another of his works, the Tudor style Foster’s Smoke House, a landmark in the popular Malaysian mountain resort.

A Google Maps satellite view of the grounds and the surrounding area.

A Google Maps satellite view of the grounds and the surrounding area.

Built as Flagstaff House, the residence of Malaya’s most senior military commander, the importance placed on its intended occupants can be seen in the house’s grand appearance, as well as in its expansive setting and its somewhat lofty position. Flagstaff House’s completion had come at the end of decade in which the emphasis was on building Singapore up militarily to support its role as an outpost for the British in the Far East.

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

The back of the mansion.

The back of the mansion.

Laid out on a “butterfly plan”, commonly seen in the architecture of the early Arts and Crafts movement, the mansion and its beautiful grounds must be as perfect a spot as any in Singapore for a dream wedding. While that may not be possible today given the current use of Command House, playing host to a grand wedding reception was in fact what Flagstaff House’s very first act was, shortly after its completion. In September 1938, Flagstaff House played host to a reception for a wedding described in this Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Adviser article of 8 September 1938 as being “the biggest military wedding yet seen in Singapore”.

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The wedding was of Lieutenant O C S Dobbie and Ms Florence Mary Dickey, held just a month or so before the house’s intended occupant, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of Malaya, was to move in. This was possible as the groom, Lieut. Dobbie, was not only the GOC’s aide-de-camp, but also his son. Lieut. Dobbie’s proud parents, Major General W G S Dobbie, had then still not moved from the older Flagstaff House at Mount Rosie.

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Two other GOCs were to occupy the house before the Japanese made nonsense of the illusions the British held of their invincibility. The last before the inglorious event was Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, the unfortunate face of what has been described as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”. Based on an account by an eyewitness, Herman Marie De Souza, an officer in the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force, at his interview with the National Archives, the last time Percival set foot in the house would have been on Saturday 14 February 1942:

“On a Saturday afternoon, I was at Flagstaff House ground when I saw a large car approaching. I jumped to the road and stopped the car. And there was Percival in the car. I recognised him, I had met him before. And I said, I don’t think you place is very safe, because the shells are flying all the time. You hear the whizzing over. But he said he had something to do there.  He went in there, and I didn’t realise he was burning his papers. And there I was holding, looking after him, sort of, until he finished what he had to do and went off. He wished me goodbye and went back to Singapore.”

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Following the fall, the mansion is thought to have been used to accommodate Japanese troops. The British military commanders returned to live in the house after the occupation ended. Lord Mountbatten, the uncle of the future Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, was one, he stayed in the house in his capacity as the Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia Command, in 1946. Prince Philip, the consort to the Queen, was also to stay as a guest later, doing so during a visit to Singapore in February 1965, by which time, the property was already referred to as Command House.

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In all, Flagstaff / Command House was to see some fifteen commanders pass through its doors as residents; Commanders-in-Chief of the British Far East Land Forces in the post-war period. The pull-out of British forces in 1971 gave the Singapore government possession of the property and it continued its distinguished service when it became the official residence of the Speaker of Parliament. Dr Yeoh Ghim Seng, who held the position from 1970 to 1989, was the only speaker to have taken up residence at Command House. Dr Yeoh’s successors, Mr Tan Soo Khoon in 1989 and Mr Abdullah Tarmugi in 2002, decided against using the official residence.

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It was during Mr Tan’s tenure as Speaker that Command House was briefly made the official residence of the President of the Republic of Singapore, who was then Mr Ong Teng Cheong. The move was necessitated by the extensive renovations to the Istana that took place between 1996 and 1998.

Command House, when it was used as the official residence of the President. Here, we see the then High Commissioner-designate of Zambia at his ceremonial welcome in 1997 (Photo: National Archives of Singapore online catalogue).

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

Today, Command House, stands not as a residence, but as a place of learning, the UBS Business University. Its tenancy was taken up in 2007 by UBS, a Swiss based financial services company, who initially used it as the UBS Wealth Management Campus-Asia Pacific, before relaunching it as the Business University. Command House was gazetted as a National Monument on 11 November 2009.

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An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

 








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