Cathay Building — a triumph of money over heritage?
The shimmering skin of LED lights reflects the sunlight hitting ION Orchard’s glass facade.
Sitting in a prime location on Orchard Road, the massive shopping complex is just one of many new buildings that have sprouted up across the island state in the past decade. But just a few years ago the area was a park where Filipino maids would spend their Sundays off. Now they are forced to crowd the walkway alongside Lucky Plaza Mall. Whereas before they could sit on the grass in the open air and enjoy their picnics, they now sit in the middle of the busy pedestrian area.
Not far from Orchard Road lies another victim of Singapore’s endless need for land.
Thought to have originally been built in the 1920s as a Chinese family home, The Mitre on Killiney Road became a hotel in 1948. It fell into disrepair when its licence was not renewed in 2002 and the dilapidated building was left untouched for years. The reason for this neglect was a bitter court battle by the many owners over the sale of the large and valuable plot of land the hotel stood on. The one dissenting relative who refused to sell up instead sold beer at the abandoned hotel after hours. Late night visitors described the building as a relic of the past, complete with mysterious tenants, abandoned luggage and creaky floorboards.
By all accounts, there is genuine shock at encountering a place that contrasts so greatly with the pristine image of modern Singapore. However, in 2007, the sale of the Mitre finally went through and the old hotel and once popular night spot has become like so many others – a construction site.
As a spokesperson from the National Heritage Board explained to me, because Singapore is so small, the government cannot preserve every old building. Sometimes it is possible to recycle buildings, such as the Fullerton building, which used to house the General Post Office, and now houses the landmark hotel, or St James Power Station, the country’s first coal fired power station, which is now an entertainment complex.
According to the spokesperson, what the government – together with the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the NHB — is trying to do is preserve Singapore’s heritage whilst at the same time allowing for the country’s rapid progress and subsequent need for space.
Perhaps belatedly the government set up the Preservation of Monuments Board in 1971. This has so far gazetted 61 buildings and structures in Singapore as The National Monuments of Singapore. These buildings have mostly escaped demolition due to being of special historic, traditional, archaeological, architectural or artistic value.
But for many residents it is not enough.
Renowned architect Johannes Widodo describes the former Cathay Building as a prime example of the triumph of money over heritage.
Inaugurated in 1939, The Cathay Building was a groundbreaking edifice, the first skyscraper in Singapore and at that time the tallest building in Southeast Asia. The Cathay was also the first public building in Singapore to be air-conditioned. The front facade of the building was gazetted as a national monument in 2003. The new complex features an avant garde glass façade which incorporates the original art-deco facade of the old Cathay Building.
But, says Mr. Widodo,“at night you can’t even recognize that piece of wall because it is swallowed by the glowing lights from the big glass box on top of it.”
He goes on to ask: “If a National Heritage can be turned into something like that, how about the other heritages?”
Singapore’s rampant construction of luxury apartments with multi-million dollar price tags has resulted in the razing of many such historic buildings.
To some conservationists, it is a tragic trampling of the country’s history and heritage.
To others, it is an example of the progress that has turned this once malaria-infested trading outpost into one of the most advanced, wealthiest and most efficiently run countries in the world.
The writer is a freelance broadcast journalist who previously worked for Britain’s Sky News and Press Association.