Tag: Conservation

30 Years of Conservation: A Lifelong Commitment

Conservation is a lifelong commitment, says Dr Richard Helfer who still has a soft spot for his first conservation/restoration project – Raffles Hotel.

Walk past Raffles Hotel today and one is struck by its grand façade with a welcoming cast-iron portico that harks back to the early 20th century. But what completes this historic view along Beach Road are four vintage street lamps in front of the Grand Old Lady of Singapore.

“We specially brought them in from Charlottenburg, Berlin, as part of the conservation, restoration and redevelopment of Raffles Hotel and Arcade from 1989 to 1991,” says Dr Richard Helfer.

“We had these conceptual models (of the hotel) and we knew what the front would look like… yet we thought that something did not look right,” recalls Richard. He oversaw the project and Raffles Hotel for 14 years as Founding Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Raffles International Hotels & Resorts and Executive Director and Chairman of Raffles Hotel.

Typical modern street lights would not fit what he and his team expected to become “the most photographed view in Singapore”. Armed with an early photograph of the hotel showing the desired street lamps, Richard went hunting for lamps similar to those that once stood outside of the hotel at the turn of the century and located them in Berlin.

He had to convince the German city’s mayor to sell four of the lamps, which up to this time were restricted to his city and then seek approval from the Public Utilities Board in Singapore to make an exception.

The lamps were not required by the conservation guidelines for Raffles Hotel. However, Richard went through all the trouble because he was convinced that such details in the immediate streetscape were important in contributing to the aura and experience of Raffles Hotel.

“When you do proper conservation and restoration of a building, you need to have a clear vision,” he says. “Our goal was to create something that Singaporeans and visitors could experience as an important relevant component of the history of Singapore and a national icon for Singaporeans to be proud of.”

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30 Years of Conservation: Science of Restoration

To ensure historic buildings last, we need to pay closer attention to the science of restoration, suggests Dr Yeo Kang Shua, a conservation expert.

Exposing an old building’s brick walls has become trendy to show its historic value. But this could be doing more harm than good, says Dr Yeo Kang Shua.

Not all bricks are fired to withstand the elements openly, and the contemporary practice of applying an adhesive to create such designs often damages a building in the long run.

As adhesives are hard and the bricks are soft in comparison, such walls will typically cave in over time, says Kang Shua, the Associate Professor of architectural history, theory and criticism at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

Focus on materials

Such “purely aesthetic” practices may cause Singapore to lose its built historic fabric. Thus, Kang Shua has been advocating for a more scientific focus for restoration work. He first got interested in this topic while interning at RSP Architects Planners & Engineers, which was then restoring the Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery and the House of Tan Yeok Nee.

Since attaining his PhD in architecture history and theory at the National University of Singapore, Kang Shua has taken up a variety of roles as an academic, advocate and even practitioner — all with an eye on improving the profession’s understanding of the materials that make up Singapore’s historic buildings

“When we say restore back to original, at the end of the day, a temple looks like a temple, a church looks like a church, you do not change the motifs,” he says. “The question is how do you do it? How do you make sure there is no change? There is a lot of very grey areas.”

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30 Years of Conservation: Every Community has a Story

The key for the past to stay relevant for the present and future is letting communities shape their identities and heritage, says Li Yong, co-founder of civic and heritage group My Community.

When My Community opened a heritage community museum in Queenstown in early 2019, it received a surprisingly strong reaction from the residents. They wanted to know the purpose of Museum @ My Queenstown and some even questioned its relevance to the community.

This reaction was a reminder to never take the community for granted. “Instead of speaking
to the residents (about the museum), we just assumed that the community would embrace its premise and curation right away,” says Li Yong who founded My Community with his friend Jasper Tan, in 2010. My Community is a civic and heritage group that originally offered guided tours in Queenstown, one of Singapore’s oldest housing estates.

The community museum is the first of its kind located within the Queenstown neighbourhood. “We had already incorporated artefacts and photographs in the museum from the residents but they did not just want them to be displayed, they wanted to be an active part of the planning and curation process.” Since then,

My Community has roped in residents to work with its volunteers and artists to co-curate exhibitions and programmes for the museum.

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