Of places and spaces

CRANES — not those of nature, but the industrial mammoths — are taking over this island.

On my daily travels on the MRT from Redhill to Boon Lay, as I watched new buildings grow, it struck me that these cranes were not just constructing but also de-constructing the space that used to be. What if I don’t recognise Singapore anymore one day?

I still remember my grandmother’s rants about how a space used to be something else. It is one of those things that you associate with ageing — you know you are old when you start talking like that. Yet, recently, I found myself talking just like that with my friends one day as we returned to Junction 8, a shopping mall at Bishan  that was our favourite after-school joint recently.

And, I’m only 23.

Junction 8 today has a new extension wing, more shops, a renovated food court and so much more. It felt surreal when I first stepped into it — familiar and alien all at the same time. I knew the place but not the space. My map of it no longer made sense.

Increasingly a lot of Singapore evokes similar sentiments. If there is anything symbolic of the agent of such a revolution, it has got to be those cranes that have overtaken Singapore’s skyline. Quiet, efficient at times and even graceful to watch, they seem virtually unstoppable.

Some say that their presence has griped the Singapore cityscape because its planners see it simply as a tabula rasa, a clean slate for it to construct its pragmatic ideals. Nothing will be spared from the crane—it is only a matter of time.

As Singapore greys, I think it becomes even more important that the burgeoning elderly community have spaces they can still remember. What use is it for the elderly to have money to retire or a job to survive if they exist in a space they cannot “navigate”?

The deputy chairman of the Preservation of Monuments Board in 1978, Professor Seow Eu Jin, once wrote that, “The purpose of preservation is to sustain life and to link the past with the present and with the future.” Thus, retaining these spaces shows a clear signal that we don’t just look towards the young, the new and the future but want to include the elderly too. Their memories of Singapore matter too.

Much of what has been preserved largely only reflects the desire to keep our memories of the colonial legacy and our religious identities. What seem missing are post-independence spaces for instance the old National Library or the Hilltop Apartments.

Yet, it is important for the people and not just the government who have to show a better understanding and appreciation of the space we’re living in. Must we always seek a spanking new development? Is the monetary value of a space worth more than the memories of a place?

Architect Timothy Seow, who designed many Singapore spaces in its formative years after independence felt that a lot of architecture projects designed then reflected a “Singapore built by Singaporeans” as many of them were undertaken by local architects.

However, many of them have been lost in the battle against the crane. Could these spaces not be essential to the Singapore story? Were these spaces taken away because they were tainted with post-independence stories of turbulence, poverty and upheavals that need eradicating?

That a space lacks popularity with Singaporeans does not make it less valuable to us. One instance of this is the Golden Mile Complex in Bras Brasah, a project of local architect William Lim. It was an experiment in mixed-used development, the idea of working, playing and living in one big space that had failed to take root. Shunned by locals, it has become a little Thailand, adding cultural flavour to a landscape increasingly dotted with corporate buildings and entertainment structures.

My worry lies with the rapid pace of change of the spaces I grew up in. Will I feel alienated to places I call home, and a city that is renewing faster than I age?

When I live past 85, I cannot be sure that I will remember this place or even what it used to be. But maybe, I’ll remember the cranes.

The Nanyang Chronicle, 29th Oct 2007

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