For 170 years, as Singapore went from a colony to a nation, trudging through war, riots and disasters, a little-known building stood quietly in Telok Ayer.
A clan of Hokkien Peranakan merchants, who called themselves the Keng Teck Whay association, occupied it and kept it private.
To the outside world, it was often mistaken as part of the adjacent Thian Hock Keng temple, a Unesco award winner.
But after more than two years of revamp work, the building, now a house of worship, is ready to rival its famous neighbour. It even bears a new name: the Singapore Yu Huang Gong, or Temple of the Heavenly Jade Emperor.
Gazetted a national monument in 2009, it will finally open to the public next month.
“We didn’t have the experience or the funds, but we’ve made something out of nothing,” said Taoist Mission president Lee Zhiwang, whose group acquired the building for an undisclosed sum in 2010. “Now we have a place we can call home, and we’ve preserved our heritage.”
Visitors will be greeted by a pair of dragons at the entrance and a newly replaced imperial treasure gourd at the top of a three-storey pagoda.
They will also see the restored roof truss, timber columns, balustrade walls, double-leafed doors and encaustic floor tiles.
A team of craftsmen, including sculptors from Quanzhou, in the southern Fujian province of China, were brought in to work on the interiors.
“Timber logs had to be lifted by hand as there wasn’t much space to bring in heavy machinery,” said Master Lee.
The timber beams and columns were transported log by log from Telok Ayer Street by six workers who hoisted them with just light tools like pulleys.
The work was onerous. Conditions were bad as the roof of the entrance had started to sink inwards. When restoration began in 2012, the site was declared unsafe for occupancy.
As the structures are made of wood, termite infestation was a concern, said Dr Yeo Kang Shua, the project’s architectural conservator.
The roof was taken apart to access the timber components below, and these were disassembled to check for damage and repaired before re-assembly.
Said Master Lee: “It was challenging because we are not constructing a new building but restoring an old one.”
On Jan 1, a stretch of Telok Ayer Street will be closed to traffic from 1pm to 9pm for the opening celebration. The public can visit the monument from Jan 2. Admission is free.
All, however, is not complete. The cost of the revamp is about $3.8 million and the mission is short of $400,000.
It has raised about $3.4 million, including from Singaporeans of other faiths and tourists from countries such as Indonesia.
Said Master Lee: “When people realised the temple was in need of a facelift, they came forward to help.”
Even as the pedestrians welcome the upcoming transformation of the Singapore city’s civic district, one sector of society are hard hit by the proposed changes. Along Connaught Drive, one can find many tour buses waiting at the Kerbside for their tourists after dropping them off Merlion Park. A four lane one-way road at Connaught Drive will be changed to a two way road with access limited only to coaches and buses. These changes which are part of the transformation of the Padang area, will be completed for the next’s years SG50 celebrations. Attractions like Asian Civilisations Museum along the Singapore River will be given a boost though.
Nearly two years since their launch, the river taxis that ply the Singapore River have failed to take off among Singapore commuters.
Introduced in January last year, the service was branded as an alternative mode of transport for those who live and work in the area as well as a way to ease traffic congestion on the roads. The river taxis are operated by Singapore River Explorer and Singapore River Cruise.
Today, the bulk of the service’s clientele, however, continue to be tourists. About 70 per cent of Singapore River Explorer’s customers are tourists, said its operations director Terence Ng. Singapore River Cruise could not be reached for comments.
Both companies cover routes that run from Jiak Kim Street in River Valley to the Marina Barrage, with each operator given 13 different landing spots along the river. The firms also offer 40-minute sightseeing boat tours that are targeted at tourists.
The area served by the boats is simply too small to attract daily commuters, said Mr Ng. Office workers in the area, such as Mr Aaron Lee, 27, who works at a private school in The Central mall, said he could easily walk along the river.
Those who live around the Singapore River also tend to drive their own car or have a chauffeur, Mr Ng added.
The river taxis came under the spotlight late last month when banker Ng Keng Nam wrote to The Straits Times Forum page expressing his disappointment with the service.
A Singapore River Cruise employee had quoted him $15 for a one-way ride from Fullerton to Robertson Quay last month. It was reduced to $3 when Mr Ng, 40, questioned the amount.
He also said he waited 50 minutes for a boat, and urged the authorities to “arrest the worsening standards” of the service.
The service contract stipulates that off-peak waiting time should not be more than 20 minutes.
In about six months, a new, wider pedestrian bridge running alongside the Esplanade Bridge will be open to the public. The bridge will form part of the Jubilee Walk trail, which is among the SG50 commemorative activities next year.
Structural work on the bridge was completed early this morning. The last segment of the bridge, which links Merlion Park and Marina Promenade in front of the Esplanade, was installed just past midnight — a symbolic timing chosen to coincide with the Republic’s 49th birthday. With structural work complete, architectural fittings will now begin, such as the installation of tiles, railings and lighting.
The bridge is expected to be publicly accessible by next April, but will only be officially opened as part of the SG50 celebrations next November. The Jubilee Walk will cover historical locations in the Civic District and the Marina Bay area.
The curved 220m bridge connects the Esplanade Bridge at its middle, and will enhance the 3.5km waterfront loop that the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) had planned and built to connect visitors to attractions around Marina Bay.
The URA said yesterday that the pedestrian bridge is designed to provide barrier-free access so that everyone can enjoy the new direct connection. The bridge has also been kept intentionally simple and elegant in its design to complement and blend with that of the existing adjacent Esplanade Bridge, it added.
Straits Times Mar 21 2014
The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) launched a tender on Thursday for consultant teams to study how outdoor dining areas along the quay can be made more appealing.
According to a media briefing on Wednesday, proposed changes include replacing existing canopies and partitions with structures such as retractable roofs that do not block views of the river.
Signs and menu boards that block the public walkway may be removed, while overhead wires could be moved underground.
“Boat Quay has seen low visitorship over the years due to negative public reviews and its lacklustre appearance,” said Mr Wilson Tan, chairman of Singapore River One, which manages Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay.
Singapore Tourism Board figures show that the share of tourists visiting the Singapore River has dropped from 18 per cent to 15 per cent from 2009 to 2012.
Views of the river were clear when Boat Quay’s outdoor dining areas were introduced in the 1990s. However, after 2002, tent structures were allowed and these blocked the view of the river as well as that of shophouses on the opposite bank.
These days, huge menu boards and canopies of different colours and logos line the promenade, giving it an inconsistent and disorganised feel. Shops have also long been plagued by complaints of touting and overcharging.
Singapore River One has been consulting stakeholders about the proposed revamp, said Mr Tan. They include 36 landlords and 41 businesses along the waterfront.
Construction work will go ahead only if most stakeholders agree to the consultant team’s proposal, he added.
But some tenants worry that revenue would be hit when outdoor areas close for renovations.
Dallas Restaurant and Bar’s owner Jason Pope, 49, said: “It will impact us financially to a certain extent.”
Other than tidying up the promenade, longer-term plans include bringing in a different tenant mix from the current food and beverage outlets.
“We’re looking at speciality shops such as high-end tailors, barber shops and niche consulting businesses for the upper storeys of the shophouses,” said Mr Tan.
His group formed a Boat Quay sub-committee this month to provide feedback and ideas on how to improve business. There are also plans for checks to keep the area tidy.
URA’s tender for consultants closes on April 3.
News of the planned revamp was welcomed on Thursday by property marketing executive Damon Giam, 26, who “hardly” dines at Boat Quay though he works nearby.
He said: “It would be nice if I could have a quiet dinner right by the riverside. Right now, that whole place is quite rowdy.”
THE recently released Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Master Plan 2013 highlights Marina Bay as the new financial and residential district in the urban city centre.
Currently, the Marina Bay Financial Centre (MBFC), which saw its second phase completed earlier this year, is the only development on the new Marina Bay site. Consisting of five buildings – two residential and three commercial, MBFC was designed as a landmark development, artistically merging the older part of the business district with future developments by Marina Bay.
Developed as a joint venture (JV) by Cheung Kong (Holdings), Hongkong Land and Keppel Land, MBFC was envisioned by the developers to provide a dynamic urban environment that would create a strong profile on the Singapore skyline.
To achieve this vision, international architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF), the lead designers behind MBFC, incorporated the idea of a crystalline language using sloping surfaces and slanted tops to give a sense of layering and depth.
KPF architects Robert Whitlock and Bruce Fisher explained that while the design team started out with a more dramatic concept for the buildings, the concepts had to be reconciled with both the height limits of the area and the fundamentally commercial nature of the development.
“The tops of the buildings in the original design were conceived with steep angles and poetic expressions,” explained Mr Whitlock, design principal at KPF, during an interview with BT at the firm’s New York head office.
“From an architectural point of view, there was a lot of pressure to balance the architectural expression, in terms of an iconic set of buildings, with numerous client requirements, particularly efficiencies, that tempered building forms,” said Bruce Fisher, director, KPF.
Owing to the massive scale of the MBFC projects, which spans a four hectare site – synonymous in scale to London’s Canary Wharf, the KPF team worked closely with two local architectural firms – DCA for Phase 1 and A61 for Phase 2 – to ensure the project kept to its tight deadline and met all the requirements.
“Our role for the project was to advise on local authority guidelines and how to achieve the design intent while complying with the stringent requirements. We were more involved in the layout of the residential units based on the developer’s complex unit mix, working closely with KPF to fit the units within the building form and external envelope,” explained Khoo Poh Bin, director, DCA.
The A61 team, on the other hand, worked more closely on the commercial towers given their past expertise on such projects, including working on One Raffles Quay with KPF.
Although the tasks were distributed, the team essentially worked as one to ensure coherence and continuity in fulfilling the developers’ vision. As Mr Khoo noted: “The 12-hour time difference meant work continued without interruption 24/7. We would finish our part in Singapore and update KPF in New York for them to carry on and vice versa, which proved to be an ideal arrangement for the developer.”
According to Mr Whitlock, the developers had very exacting guidelines on how they envisioned the buildings to look and perform with full glass façades and no curved elements in the form.
“The JV’s brief was based entirely on the perceived needs of the financial services community, with a requirement for very efficient floor plates and unlimited views. The horizontal sunshades gave us a way to provide some variation and environmental performance to the facades while delivering floor to ceiling glass, edge to edge,” said Mr Whitlock.
Furthermore, given that MBFC was primarily a commercial venture, there was no need for it to be as dramatically configured, per se, added Mr Fisher.
“The MBFC is really the incredible work horse of Singapore and perhaps, because of that, a little less expressive than say the casino or the Esplanade,” Mr Fisher said.
The URA, too, had a list of requirements. For one, they required that the buildings’ glass exterior meet a minimum glazing level and not have a green tint.
“One Raffles Quay and the NTUC building, which create a sort of gateway to Marina Bay, were clad in green glass and the URA requested a different expression for the MBFC project so that there would be more visual diversity to the area,” commented Mr Whitlock.
Additionally, URA’s guidelines stipulated that there be a street wall, at least 19 metres in height, surrounding most of the site, to create continuity between adjacent development sites. “At heart, this is an urban planning gesture that helps to provide a sense of defined space,” explained Mr Fisher.
However, based on the design of the site, the architects felt that a solid wall would not fill the space adequately, and hence offered alternative solutions.
The design team proposed that the site have 19-metre canopies, instead of a wall, to allow for an open, less restrictive, appearance. “With the canopies, we ended up with a structure that defines the street edge but is very porous,” said Mr Fisher.
“The wall requirement was not working for the architecture, so we had to present alternatives. The URA gave us guidelines, but as with most zoning guidelines, the authorities cannot always predict exactly how guidelines will translate into the final build-out,” he continued. “It is really up to the architects to take this abstract concept and challenge it, to achieve the best results for all parties.”
In consideration of the different requirements – both from the developers and the URA, the architects eventually altered the designs to showcase a lesser degree of dramatic expression to allow for more efficient and dense buildings that complemented the surrounding architecture.
In addition, as Mr Whitlock explained: “The MBFC buildings needed to be more than what you see in the old city where you have a lot of distinct buildings coming together to represent an urban identity, just by virtue of proximity and density.”
“We were trying to find a common architectural language that is appropriate for both commercial and residential uses to allow the architecture of each building to be a little bit subordinate to the collective identity.”
Although the architects faced challenges in trying to deliver a design that met demands of both the developers and the URA, the MBFC site was an area they were extremely familiar with.
Back in 2001, KPF was independently commissioned by Mapletree Investments to conduct studies on the type of programmes and density that should be put on the Marina Bay site.
This was because the master plan that had been in place for a decade needed revision, based on a new understanding within the URA on how the landfill site might be developed to meet today’s needs.
“We did a study for them to look at the application of a mixed-use model that would bring multiple uses to the site and make the most of its adjacency to both Marina Bay and the traditional banking centre,” explained Mr Whitlock.
According to KPF, Mapletree used the study to carry out their own research internally before releasing tender conditions to bidders in 2003, for the Marina Bay white site.
The development guidelines eventually released to interested bidders took KPF’s preliminary studies to an entirely new level.
“There is a huge leap from deciding that you want to develop a site to establishing a framework that will set up the proper moves for later development,” said Mr Whitlock.
Balancing all needs
While KPF’s underlying concepts of connectivity to the traditional city centre, provision of public open space and introduction of the mixed use model were implemented in Mapletree’s revised plans, the main difference was the requirement for a higher density area and for the site to be fully integrated with all of the city’s other systems and infrastructure.
With the new guidelines they received, KPF spent a great deal of time contemplating the layout of the buildings to allow for architectural expression, without compromising on the practical and utilitarian needs of the site. “A traditional master plan development might have placed the buildings as squares on a chessboard where everything lines up. We chose however to subtly rotate the towers to maximize views in all the buildings and relieve the feeling of density on the site,” Mr Whitlock said.
However, despite the stringent guidelines and myriad requirements, the architects felt that such a process enables better architecture.
As Mr Whitlock noted: “When you work on a project like this, you start to have a different understanding of architecture. Typically, an architect is trying to design a building that is built on a site. They want it to be beautiful and expressive of both the owner’s and architect’s aspirations. With any luck, it tries to find some clues with the local context so it does not feel like it has been dropped from a spaceship.
“But when you have to design a whole city within a city in a way where it has some richness, some subtlety, and an endless play between the built environment and public spaces, all of which must relate to the rest of the city – it takes things to an entirely different level.”