The government is trying find a way out to implement its plan to demolish parts of the historic Ellison Building while dealing with vocal objections from groups such as the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) and ICOMOS Singapore, Singapore’s National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).
Ellison Building was built in 1924 and the three said units are located at the junction of Selegie and Bukit Timah Roads. The building consists of 16 adjoining shophouse units. The three affected units complete the Bukit Timah end of its two distinctive curved street corner façades, each crowned by a cupola.
In 2008, Ellison Building was gazetted as a conservation building by Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as part of the Mount Sophia Conservation Area.
The Land Transport Authority (LTA) and the URA has earlier announced its plans to demolish a substantial part of the Ellison Building to make way for the North-South Highway; the demolished parts of the building will be rebuilt after the Highway is completed.
In response to media queries, LTA and URA are now seeking the advice of a conservation specialist and the views of heritage groups on ‘how is best to protect the building’.
While LTA and URA states that they recognise the importance of Ellison Building as part of Singapore’s heritage and history but it is likely to still go ahead with its plans to demolish parts of the building as it claims that the NSC is unable to completely avoid Ellison Building ‘due to the heavily built-up corridor’, which includes the existing buildings, Downtown Line and North-East Line MRT tunnels and station, as well as the Rochor Canal.
LTA and URA in their joint statement wrote, “LTA and URA have been looking at ways to best minimise impact to Ellison Building during the construction of NSC. LTA has planned to engage a conservation specialist to provide advice. We have also engaged the heritage groups to hear their views on the possible mitigating measures to protect Ellison Building during the construction process.”
The statement added, “Implementation plans will be finalised only after the discussions with the heritage groups, and report from the conservation specialist is completed,”
However, as many have pointed out, LTA and URA’s statement of consultation is no more than a strategy to drag out the controversy of demolishing a conserved building and carry out the demolishing when no one is keeping a tight watch on the matter. Just as what the Singapore authorities had done with Bukit Brown cemetery and other
SHS in its earlier statement expressed its disappointment on the decision by the authorities on the choice of demolition. It had tried 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.
It believes that heritage and development can be reconciled if there are political will and commitment to the search for innovative solutions and 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.
While ICOMOS Singapore in its statement, states that it is deeply disturbed by the authorities’ disregard for the heritage value of this building and the lack of transparency behind this decision which is problematic and regressive.
The society also stated that it is regrettable that despite the building’s conserved status, the authorities have nonetheless decided to proceed with demolishing and rebuilding the three shophouses.
ICOMOS Singapore noted that the authorities have presented the ‘conflict’ in planning priorities as a false dichotomy — that of development versus heritage. The choice is not binary for a much more balanced and integrated approach is possible.
“However, this will require a great deal more political will, belief, and effort from all sectors than has thus far been evinced. This ‘exceptional course of action’ – to demolish and reconstruct part of a gazetted conservation building – will have long term implications on future planning and conservation policies.”
It behooves the authorities to undertake a proper Heritage Impact Assessment, consult with stakeholders, and engage with experts to explore alternative solutions. It is not evident if any of this has been done.
Indeed, the authorities have kept silent all these months on this proposal and only unleashed it on an unsuspecting public in mid-August this year.