The second iteration of the Singapore Art Museum

19 01 2020

A set of buildings in Singapore close to my heart are those that belong to the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) on Bras Basah Road. I spent four memorable years at them at the end of the 1970s, when the structures that have been protected as a National Monument, belong to St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI). With the school vacating the site it had occupied since 1852 in 1987 and urban redevelopment having already then arrived at Bras Basah Road’s doorstep, the former campus and the world around it has changed almost beyond recognition. I am grateful for at least the familiar sight of the school’s protected façade, which with its curved wings appearing like the arms of a mother to embrace her children with a warmest of welcomes. Another thing that I am grateful for, is the dignified manner in which the school’s old buildings have been repurposed.

Singapore Art Museum, which is undergoing redevelopment, will only reopen in 2023.

We should soon seen a second iteration of SAM in the former SJI, since the first that came in its 1996 conversion.  Several structures of the old school were torn down in the 1996 iteration, which included the much loved Brothers’ Quarters on Queen Street. The quarters’ building, the bottom of which contained the school’s tuck shop, was replaced with a service block which has been demolished to accommodate the set of changes that will come next. The proposed interventions, which will perhaps take a bit of taking to, will include an entrance plaza at Queen Street, the addition of a floating box over the two courtyards known as the Sky Gallery, and a gallery bridge that will link the set of structures on the SJI side of the SAM to the SAM @ 8Q section on site of the former Catholic High School (CHS).

Mr Chan Soo Kian of SCDA Architects presenting the proposed new entrance plaza at Queen Street.

In isolation and on first impressions, the new additions will seem almost monstrous in proportions, and the gallery bridge does seem to give the impression of an archway into Queen Street — where several other structures that I refer to as “monsters in our midst”, now seem to dominate. Having had the opportunity to hear from the creators of the proposed new additions and a chance to look at the artist impressions of the structures together with the parts that make the National Monument up  – the conserved main façade, the former Anderson Building on Waterloo Street, and the chapel block, it does seem that as a whole the additions are for the better.

An artist impression of the proposed Queen Street entrance plaza with the Sky Gallery also seen (©Singapore Art Museum).

The Sky Gallery was the addition that grated most on the senses — at first glance and seemingly something that would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb that will overwhelm the monument’s landmark façade. On closer inspection, the feature does however serve to provide a backdrop that could help in neutralising the effect of clutter currently behind the SAM. This could have the effect of drawing greater focus on the façade. The gallery will also series of reflective glass panels running its length, with each angled towards the dome — which does seem a brilliant touch. The effect to the observer is the shifting of reflections as one moves past, reflecting both the old but with the dynamism of the continuously changing and multi-faceted new — something that the museum hopes to do to enhance its position as a showcase of present and future contemporary Southeast Asian art.

An artist impression of SAM’s façade with the proposed Sky Gallery (©Singapore Art Museum).

The façade seen in May 2019.

The additions will not only create space as the SAM seeks to enhance its position as a show case of Southeast Asian contemporary art, but also make the old and new spaces much more usable. The additions will help to increase gallery space, which will grow some 30% area-wise. The more significant impact is to also have space created that will have greater height and volume – as will be seen in the two courtyards. Once spaces for assembly and play and now covered by the “floating” Sky Gallery, they will see large volume and column-free gallery space being created. Although not ideal for the old boy that I am looking to reminisce about things such as the aerial threat that was carried by the pigeons with seemingly overactive digestive systems who inhabited the rafters above, the change will make the space a lot more usable, more comfortable and perhaps much better appreciated.

An artist impression of the view from Queen Street of the former buildings of CHS with the gallery bridge and the proposed interventions at CHS (©Singapore Art Museum).

The gallery bridge — along which more gallery space will be created — will help integrate the isolated former CHS section fo the museum. To be erected over Queen Street, it will seem very much like a gateway into street from Bras Basah Road and place a focus on the street at street-level.

An artist impression of the gallery bridge (©Singapore Art Museum).

Another change that I thought will be positive, is the removal of glass panels along the previously open verandahs of the main building. It will give me a chance to walk the corridors as I once did and gaze at the statue of St. John the Baptist de la Salle – the founder of the religious order behind the school. The statue, a feature that was used as a navigation landmark, is a replica of a marble sculpture by Cesare Aureli in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican that was donated to the school on the occasion of its Diamond Jubilee.

An artist impression of the Queen Street Courtyard (©Singapore Art Museum).

 

An artist impression of the Waterloo Street Courtyard (©Singapore Art Museum).

The reopening of SAM, has been moved to 2023 due to the restoration effort that is required on the old buildings. On the evidence of what is in store, it would be well worth the added wait. The redeveloped museum will see learning studios and a library, public art spaces and promises “exciting” retail and café spaces. SAM will however continue to remain active during the extended period of closure through partnerships with both Singapore and overseas art spaces and museums. More information on SAM related events in 2020 can be found at the calendar of events on the SAM website.

Dr Eugene Tan, Director, SAM and an old boy of SJI.

 


 





“Lenin’s Tomb” at Raffles Place

17 01 2020

Constructed in an effort to beautify the city, the “underground” car park topped with a roof garden that came to define the Raffles Place of post-independent Singapore, came in for some criticism as it was nearing completion. Likened to Lenin’s Mausoleum, its critics even went so far as to suggest that it be used for the repose of Singapore’s distinguished citizens. Despite the early reservations, Raffles Place Garden – as it was christened, was a quite a joy to behold. With its floral clock, fountain and a backdrop provided by Raffles Place’s characterful buildings, the garden became what could be thought of as the 1960s equivalent of an instagram-worthy spot.

Christmas 1966 on the roof garden at Raffles Place, with Robinson’s behind.

That Raffles Place was certainly a place I connected with.  My visits there usually coincided with the preparations for the year-end season of giving, which invariably led to Robinsons Department Store’s quite memorable toy department. Large and well stocked, the department was every child’s dream. I looked forward to visiting each year, even if that meant having to catch sight of Father Christmas, whom I was terrified of. Out of Robinson’s famous Christmas lucky dip, I once pulled out an orange coloured battery-operated submarine. It was a prized toy, even if I had to contend with using it once every three months during our seaside holidays at Mata Ikan – in the holiday bungalow’s bathtub!

The promise of good food was another thing to look forward to when visiting Raffles Place. Makan time would on a special occasion, lead me to the Honeyland Milk Bar at Battery Road, which was just around the square’s northeast corner. There was always a sense of anticipation that I got as the parting of the café’s heavy doors delivered a cold rush of Worcestershire sauce scented air. The café’s chicken pies were to die for. I enjoyed the pies with a dash of tomato ketchup – which I never could quite manage to cajole out from the sauce bottle without some help.

Raffles Place’s little “corners”, which included Change Alley, added much to area’s unique charm. “Chin Charlie” to me and many non-English speakers like my maternal grandmother, it was a fascinating place to wander through and one of the places that made the Singapore of the 1960s, Singapore. The famous alley, which featured in films and in a BBC newsreel,  seemed to be always be full of life and for a while, laughter – emanating from numerous laughing bags being set off in the alley by its many toy vendors as a form of advertisement. Popular at the end of the 1960s, the toys took the form of tiny drawstring bags that contained sound boxes.

The Raffles Place end of Change Alley, 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

Little did I know it as a young child, but the laughter, along with the Raffles Place that I knew and loved would soon to see lasting change. A tragic fire in November 1972, which resulted in the loss of nine lives, also saw to Robinsons losing its iconic Raffles Chambers home it had occupied since 1941. The subsequent move – of Robinson’s to Specialists Centre in Orchard Road – also severed the store’s connection with the square, which could be traced back to 1858.

Raffles Chambers – before Robinson’s moved in.

By the time of the fire, the area had in fact already been in the cusp of change. At the glorious waterfront – Raffles Place “backyard”, the grand old turret-topped 1923 built Ocean Building had come down in 1970 to make way for a towering third. The 1923 Ocean – the second to stand on the site – was the forerunner of a building frenzy that would shape Singapore’s bund at Collyer Quay, which by the 1930s possessed a quality that could be compared to Shanghai’s more famous embankment. The second Ocean’s demise set a reversal of the process in motion. Two more of the waterfront’s grand 1920s edifices erected a year after the Ocean, Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers and Maritime (ex-Union Insurance) Building, would also make way for the new.

John Little’s Building early in 1946 – when it was used temporarily as the Shackle Club [source: Lizzie Ellis on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)].

On the square, one of its famous landmarks – John Little’s Building – was sold in 1973. This would lead to Raffles Tower (now Singapore Land Tower) being put up in its place. Incidentally, Raffles Tower when it was still under construction,  was the scene of a dramatic aerial helicopter rescue – the first in Singapore’s history. The rescue on 21 October 1980 came at a time when 19 out of tower’s intended 48 floors were completed. A fire broke out on the 18th floor, which left a crane operator stranded on a tower crane perched on the top of the uncompleted building some 60 metres above ground. The daring rescue effort saw the operator plucked from the crane’s boom to safety by the crew of a RSAF Bell 212 helicopter .

Singapore’s first helicopter aerial rescue was over Raffles Place on 21 October 1980.

Raffles Place would also lose its car park and roof garden not so long after this incident. A well-loved feature by that time, the garden’s lifespan fell short of the “many, many decades” that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had predicted it would last when he opened it in November 1965. The construction of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system just two decades later, meant that the structure and its garden, went the way of Raffles Place’s older icons in mid-1984.

Raffles Place – still with its garden – in the late 1970s. The former Mercantile Bank can be seen at the end of the square.

The building of the MRT also took out the other landmarks that could be identified with old Raffles Place. The former Mercantile Bank (built 1929) was one. The building, which marked the square’s southern end, had been purchased by Chartered Bank to house its Singapore headquarters while its 6 Battery Road HQ at the square’s opposite end, was being rebuilt. Chartered Bank’s new premises at 6 Battery Road, which was put up at the start of the 1980s incorporated a provision for the MRT to be built at a time when the question of whether the MRT should be built was still being deliberated.

Over a CBD in transition at the end of the 1970s. Renewal, redevelopment and reclamation would change the face of a part of Singapore that at the point of independence, had a certain old world charm (photo source: Panoramio).

Raffles Place today, wears a look of modernity reflective of Singapore’s impressive progress since the car park and its roof garden was unveiled. Cold as it may have become enclosed by the wall of towering symbols of success, Lenin’s tomb it is not nor a place of repose for the distinguished – other than the distinguished past. There are the reminders of the square that was replaced if one looks hard enough – found in the names that are retained and in some of the new structures that have come to define the new Raffles Place.


 

Raffles Place over the years

 

 

Raffles Place stands on the site of a hill that was levelled in 1822 to provide filler for the reclamation in way of the south bank of the Singapore River that provided the grounds for Boat Quay.

 

Raffles Place in the late 1800s. The garden seen in this G. R. Lambert print was one of Commercial Square’s early features, which was laid out, planted with trees and enclosed by a low wall and a wooden fence in the mid-1830s. The marble drinking water fountain seen in the photograph was the one presented by John Gemmill in 1864. The donation involved more than just the fountain as it required the laying of pipes from Mr Gemmill’s property at Mount Erskine to Raffles Place. The fountain originally had metal cups chained to it. The fountain, which now stands outside the National Museum of Singapore, found its way to Empress Place, before being moved to the museum in the 1970s.

 

Gemmill’s fountain – at the National Museum of Singapore.

 

Another G R Lambert print from the late 1800s. Originally Commercial Square, it was named Raffles Place by the Municipal Commission in 1858.

 

By the 1900s Raffles Place was well developed into a commercial and banking centre. This postcard view of Raffles Place in the 1930s shows several banking institutions established around in the square such as (from left to right): Mercantile Bank of India, Banque de l’Indochine (French Bank) and Yokohama Specie Bank (YS Bank in Meyer Chambers).

 

Preparations for war, 1941. A machine gun pillbox seen in front of a John Little’s Building fitted with brick barricades.

 

Air raid wardens are dousing an incendiary bomb in Raffles Place in 1941 as part of a regular weekly mass demonstration to make Singaporean’s bomb conscious and informed (source: Library of Congress – no known copyright restrictions).

A bomb damaged Raffles Place following the first Japanese air raid on Singapore on 8 Dec 1941.

 

Raffles Place in the 1950s, by which time stores such as John Little – established in the 1840s and Robinson’s, founded in the 1850s, were already very well established and were household names.

 

Plans for a garden at Raffles Place were first announced in Nov 1963 during a State Government policy address made by Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak to the Legislative Assembly – the first with Singapore a State in Malaysia and the last ever. Work commenced on what was to be a 150 car capacity underground car park topped by a roof garden in July 1964. By the time LKY opened the carpark and roof garden in Nov 1965, Singapore was an independent country. LKY expressed his disappointment that the car park had to be elevated a metre above the ground for ventilation and access and observed that some had likened one end of the structure to Lenin’s tomb. He also noted that there were also suggestions that “we might perhaps repose the precious remains of some of our more distinguished citizens in one end of this square”.

 

Mr David Ayres’ capture of Raffles Place in 1966, which made its rounds around the internet in 2012. The photograph shows the roof garden and looks towards the northern end of the square with the Chartered Bank Chambers on Battery Road at the far end (source: David Ayres on Flickr).

 

Another northward view – this one in 1969 courtesy of Mr Kim Hocker (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

The five-foot-way along John Little’s Building in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

Trishaw riders outside Oriental Emporium at Raffles Place in 1969 (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

A view of the car park from street level with a staircase to the roof garden (Kim Hocker Collection).

 

The Malacca Street end of the car park and its location today.

A view towards the north end with MRT construction work, 1987 (National Archives of Singapore).

 

A northward view today. The John Little’s Building is replicated on the main entrances to the MRT.

 

A southward view of Raffles Place today.

 

The Singapore Land tower (R) – where the rescue of the crane operator took place in 1980.

 

One Raffles Place – which occupies the site of Robinson’s and Meyer Chambers.


 





Lost Places: the park at the new cemetery

28 10 2019

In a Singapore where spaces for the dead are often repurposed to meet the needs to the living, it will come as no surprise to find new life being welcomed on a site once devoted to eternal rest at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital – Singapore’s largest maternity hospital. The hospital’s grounds since its move in 1997 from across Kampong Java Road, it was part of a larger site that was occupied by Bukit Timah Cemetery. Singapore’s third Christian cemetery, it was also referred to as “New Cemetery” when it opened in 1865 after the old Christian Cemetery on Fort Canning Hill had reached its capacity.

A view of Bukit Timah Cemetery from the Singapore Heritage Society publication “Spaces of the Dead, a case from the living”.

The cemetery closed to new burials from 1 January 1910, after Bidadari – for which land was acquired by the Municipality in the 1903 – had been opened, but not before a small northwest expansion in 1906 saw its area increased by 0.24 ha. Burials however continued on reserved plots well into the 20th century. Among the graves at the cemetery, were those belonging to Russian and German sailors, and interestingly, that of Singapore’s first Japanese resident, Yamamoto Otokichi a.k.a. John Matthew Ottoson.    

Kampong Java Park and its pond.

“Eternal” in the case of the rest that was afforded to those interred in Bukit Timah, was a maximum of a hundred years. The cemetery was exhumed in 1970 to make way for Kampong Java Park – part of which would in the 1990s, be redeveloped for the hospital.  The park – the first in Singapore to be provided with lighting – was where Kentucky Fried Chicken opened a well-patronised drive-in outlet in 1979 together with the Kampong Java Squash Complex that it developed. The park has since made way and is now the site of tunnelling work for the future North-South Expressway.

Kampong Java Park with a view to KKH.

Reminders of the Bukit Timah Cemetery can be found on the site of the cemetery at Fort Canning Hill that it replaced, where 12 gravestones deemed to be of historical value were moved to following the exhumation. These stand at the northeast corner of Fort Canning Green. 


Gravestones from Bukit Timah Cemetery at Fort Canning Green

Gravestones moved from the ‘New Cemetery’ at the northeastern corner of Fort Canning Green.

 

 

 


 





Lost places: Woodlands Town Centre

24 10 2019

The old Woodlands Town Centre, with its proximity to the checkpoint and the causeway, could have been thought of as a border post.

It certainly felt like it, with scores of folks crossing the causeway from Johor Bahru – many on foot – thronging the busy bus terminal and the shops in the old centre.  Completed in 1980/81, the centre belonged to the generation of Housing and Development Board (HDB) designs that followed on the second generation Ang Mo Kio, Bedok and Clementi New Town projects.

A unique feature the town centre was given was a bazaar, which house 88 shops resettled from the length of Woodlands Road. The town centre’s air-conditioned shopping complex could also be thought of as a pioneering attempt by the HDB to venture into shopping complex development.

Vacated in 2017, its proximity to the causeway was probably a contribution to its demise – part the the site which the now demolished centre occupies will be used to build an extension to the especially busy Woodlands Checkpoint.

A plan of Woodlands Town Centre (source: HDB).


Photographs:


The old bus terminal.

 

Woodlands Cinema.

 

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Deporting the port

15 10 2019

Change often seems the only constant in Singapore. Its relentless pace has altered its face, so much so that many in my generation feel that home is foreign place. Nothing seems sacred, places that we have grown accustomed to and build ties with can disappear in the blink in an eye.

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Vanishing scenes at Tanjong Pagar.

One change Singapore is in the midst of, the redevelopment of the Greater Southern Waterfront. This, while positive in the longer term, has the impact of removing places that are not only familiar, but are also markers of significance to Singapore’s past. The port, which the city has long been associated with, and the reason for uch of the development along the southern shores, is being moved in two stages to the far west. The closure of Tanjong Pagar Terminal, the cradle of Singapore’s shipping container revolution, has already been effected. Cleared of most of its container handling paraphernalia, the terminal seems to have been put to use for handling Ro-Ro cargo.

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The container terminal has been stripped of it container handling paraphernalia and is being temporarily put to use as Ro-Ro cargo reception facility.

Tanjong Pagar – a promontory on which the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company, formed in 1864, would establish wharfs and graving docks. The company initially constructed a wharf of 229 metres in length in 1866, capable of berthing 4 ships of “ordinary size”, a graving dock, Victoria Dock would also be built in 1868. The opening of the Suez Canal late in 1869, brought with it increased steamship traffic and more wharfage was added. Albert Dock was also built in 1879.

Victoria Dock 1890s

A G. R. Lambert print of Victoria Dock in the 1890s. A ship in Albert Dock can also be seen in the background.

By 1885, the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company would acquire the Borneo Company. This gave the company access to 2 kilometres of wharves. The 1899 acquisition of the (older) New Harbour Dock Company at New (now Keppel) Harbour, formerly the Patent Slip and Dock Company, which built No. 1 and No. 2 Docks at New Harbour, made it a monopoly. In 1905, the company was expropriated and the Tanjong Pagar Dock Board, the predecessor to the Singapore Harbour Board and PSA, took over.

Borneo Wharf

Borneo Wharf, which Tanjong Pagar Dock Company acquired from the Borneo Company in 1885. The extended Tanjong Pagar promontory can be seen in the background.

Keppel Shipyard would assumed control of the PSA repair facilities, when the former was formed in 1968. Centred at Keppel Harbour, it continued using the historic Victoria and Albert docks until they were filled in during the 1983 PSA expansion of  Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal during. Keppel Island (the near shore Pulau Hantu) came into Keppel Shipyard’s hands in exchange.

The container terminal goes back to 1972. Its first berths, at Tanjong Pagar’s East Lagoon, came into use on 23 June 1972, when the M.V. Nihon – the first container vessel to call here came alongside. This was an especially significant event, which launched the Port of Singapore’s journey into a mode of cargo transport that now dominates sea trade.

Now that Tanjong Pagar has been emptied of the containers, its container cranes and the container ships that have become synonymous with the name, the area hasn’t looked the same. The container terminal at Keppel are also being cleared, with Brani to follow. The container terminals built at great expense at Pasir Panjang, now operational, will also eventually be cleared. A huge southern extension created out of the sea southwards from Singapore’s western reaches, the Tuas South reclamation, will house the Tuas Mega Port. This will gradually be put into service from 2021, and by 2040 will be where port operations will be concentrated. The extension will also be the future home of the ship-repair and ship-building industry.


Parting glances:

Juxtapositions (2014).

 

A mega-container vessel, the APL Mexico City coming into port (2014) – the increased sizes of container vessels require larger and deeper berths, prompting the need to develop newer terminals.

 

Another view of a Tanjong Pagar still in operation (2014)


More views of the since deported port:

In 2012.

In 2012.

Keppel Terminal in 2018.

Keppel Terminal in 2018.

Keppel Terminal in 2018.


 





Parting Glances: Losing a Pearl

11 10 2019

Pearls Centre 1977A look back at Pearls Centre, which was demolished back in 2016 due to the construction of the Thomson-East Coast Line. The site for the mixed-use development was sold as part of the second wave of the Urban Renewal Department’s (later URA or Urban Redevelopment Authority) “Sale of Sites” programme. Initiated in 1967, the programme was an initiative to move urban redevelopment and renewal through the sale of sites acquired by the Government to private developers. and was initiated in 1967. Completed in 1977 – in an era of similarly designed buildings, Pearls Centre featured a 10-storey podium block with four floors of retail space and a multi-storey car park. A 12-floor block of luxury apartments was put up above the podium. The developers for the building was Outram Realty and the architect, Architectural Design Group. Its cinema would gain notoriety for screening R(A) movies.

The photographs below were taken in 2014/2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





Gone-block: discarding Eunosville

11 09 2019

A look back at Eunosville, seen in its final days about a year ago …

The cranes and earth movers taking over Eunosville, a former HUDC estate built in the 1980s.

The almost empty estate seen in August last year.


Built by the Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC) as it was in a period of transition in the mid-1980s, Eunosville differed from the HUDC developed estates that were built before it. Laid out – quite intentionally as part of a larger HDB development, the estate took on an appearance that made it a lot less exclusive as compared to the HUDC estates of the decade that preceded it.

Eunosville.

Among the last HUDC estates to be erected, it was privatised in 2011 with a view to a collective (or en-bloc) sale. The sale eventually went through in June 2017 for a price of S$765.78 million. The estate was vacated in August 2018 and has since been demolished for the Parc Esta condo development that is expected to be completed in 3 years time.

The divide. An amenity shared prior to its privatisation with the HDB side of the estate, split right down the middle.


The HUDC Scheme

The HUDC scheme was initiated in 1974. Its aims were to offer publicly developed housing to what may have been thought of as a sandwich class of middle-income wage earners who were not eligible for public housing and found private property out of reach. Among the first estates built were Farrer Court in 1976, Laguna Park, the first phase of Braddell View (1977) and Lakeview – all in 1977.

A shift in thinking, which saw a move to locate HUDC developments in areas of public housing rather than in private estates in the mid-1980s, saw estates such Eunosville being built before the HUDC programme was stopped altogether in 1987. The mid-1990s brought about the privatisation programme, which also saw all but one of the former HUDC estates go en-bloc. The last, Braddell View, relaunch a bid to go en-bloc in August this year.

Eunosville making its exit.


Discarding Eunosville – and seemingly, just about everything else …


Final Days