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Photo by Shu Siqi

Singapore Heritage Society asks Govt to reconsider demolition of historical building

The Singapore Government is planning to demolish a substantial part of the Ellison Building to make way for the North-South Highway; it will be rebuilt after the Highway is completed.

The authorities described the decision as an "exceptional course of action" that is to be taken after considerable study and deliberation by the agencies.

This is despite the Ellison Building's status as a conserved structure stated by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

Ellison Building is located at the junction of Selegie Road and Rochor Canal Road and was built in 1924.

Ellison Building was gazetted under the Planning Act in 2003 because it has been judged to have “special architectural, historic, traditional or aesthetic interest” (Planning Act, section 9).

Three units of the building will be demolished. They are Unit Nos 235, 237, and 239. These units make up a significant portion of the building.

The Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) expressed its disappointment on the decision. It is also trying to ask for reasons and ascertain whether had there been consultations and efforts to find another way out to make way for the North-South Highway without disturbing the building.

SHS wrote on its Facebook:

SHS believes that heritage and development can be reconciled if there are political will and commitment to the search for innovative solutions.

SHS would like:

  • Plans to demolish and reconstruct Ellison Building to be reconsidered;
  • To know if there was any heritage impact assessment carried out to inform decisions about Ellison Building; and if so, would the report be disclosed for public viewing and consultation?;
  • The relevant authorities to provide platforms for stakeholders and experts to come together and explore viable alternatives to current plans.

What is reconstruction and why is it not a good option?

SHS notes that the reconstruction of heritage buildings is making a replication and fabrication of these buildings to recreate its historical significance.

It pointed out that the international heritage community only accepts reconstruction for heritages destroyed by war. Even so, there is immense debate over whether reconstruction should be followed – for example, in the case of the Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, UNESCO has announced that reconstruction is no longer being considered.

It brought out rare cases where reconstruction has been carried out, for example, the Stari Most (Old Bridge) of Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina which was destroyed during the 1993 Croat–Bosniak War, anastylosis was adopted to safeguard the material authenticity of the structure. Anastylosis a process of reusing as many historic fragments as possible with minimal new building materials.

The 1976 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Safeguarding and Contemporary Role of Historic Areas has also specified that “reconstruction work is causing serious damage to … historic heritage”.

SHS pointed out that reconstruction is not a good option because it is the falsification of historical artefacts, whatever is done it is not the genuine original. Too often it is taken as the easy option instead of exploring other means and techniques for preservation and conservation.

A money saving decision over efforts in preserving of cultural heritage

SHS noted that destroying and reconstructing a building is usually cheaper and more time-saving than planning and working around such a building,

It stated. "Furthermore, in the case of a reconstruction, there is a high likelihood that modern construction methods will be used in place of traditional ones. Reconstruction will also typically result in the simplification of original architectural features."

Also in the case of a reconstruction, there is a high likelihood that modern construction methods will be used in place of traditional ones. Reconstruction will also result in the simplification of original architectural features.

SHS believes that heritage and development can be reconciled if there is political will and commitment to the search for innovative solutions.

SHS would like the government to reconsider its plans to demolish and reconstruct Ellison Building, to know if there was any heritage impact assessment carried out to inform decisions pertaining to Ellison Building; and if so, would the report be disclosed for public viewing and consultation? And to ask for relevant authorities to provide platforms for stakeholders and experts to come together and explore viable alternatives to current plans.

So what can be done?

SHS wrote on its Faceook post,

How can one help or get involved in heritage advocacy? Three things you can do:

  1. Spread Awareness: You can help to create awareness by sharing heritage news and/or links through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. You could also comment from your personal perspective what is the significance of heritage.
  2. Advocacy: Speak to your family and friends about heritage in danger. You may want to take a step further by speaking to your elected member of parliament.
  3. Partner or Volunteer: You, your family, your friends, and even your organization can volunteer your time or resources with non-profits organisations, such as our society.