Sunday, July 22, 2012

Don't close the book on Bras Basah Complex

Straits Times: Sun, Jul 22
Lately, I have been going back to Bras Basah Complex.

After I left junior college more than 20 years ago, there had hardly been any reason to do so.

Then last year, I attended an exhibition of Chinese ink paintings by Singapore artists like Chua Ek Kay and Lim Tze Peng at an art gallery there.

Barely a month later, I was back to check out a new store selling turntables and used vinyl records.

Since then, I have made quite a number of trips back to my old schoolboy haunt to visit other shops, some of which seemed to have barely changed through the decades.

In a fit of retro madness, I laminated my dogs' training school graduation certificates at the shop on the ground floor that still specialises in Chinese books and CDs.

When a close friend started a course in jewellery design and had to buy colour pencils, I immediately suggested that we go to Art Friend, still on the third floor.

Riding the skinny escalators up and down, and still getting slightly confused after all these years by the T-shaped layout of the place, so many memories came flooding back.

The spectacles shop on the ground floor is there, and so is the gift shop from which I bought my first scientific calculator.

I wondered what had happened to the other big art materials shop called Sagacity. My friends and I used to have stupid debates over whether the name was Anglo- Saxon, meaning 'wisdom', or 'Saga City', which was more Japanese-sounding.

I thought immediately of the building when I attended a briefing on Singapore's conservation policy at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) recently.

We were told that the country embraced the conservation of its built heritage relatively late in the game, but once it got started, URA hasn't looked back.

To date, it has gazetted more than 7,000 buildings large and small for conservation. Once this happens, the structure and facade of a building cannot be significantly altered.

At one point, the officer doing the briefing said that the objective was to ensure that we don't lose sight of the 'old Singapore' even as we continue to forge a 'new Singapore'.

But I couldn't help but also notice that most of the 7,000 buildings that had been conserved were buildings from before Singapore's independence: public buildings and shophouses built in colonial days.

So I later asked, where does URA draw the line between old and new Singapore?

The answer I got was '30 years'. In other words, a building or a house qualifies to be protected by conservation guidelines once it is 30 years old.

But the URA officers also told me the agency has not yet begun to seriously look at younger buildings to consider if they should be gazetted for conservation.

At some point, I mentioned Bras Basah Complex and asked if it might be a good candidate.

We were huddled in a little informal group discussion by then and I could see a few people's eyes light up at the name.

This is despite the fact that, on the face of it, the case for conservation of Bras Basah Complex isn't strong.

Historically, the building had only a bit part in the development of Singapore as a nation.

Built in the early 1980s, it housed book merchants in the area, some of whom had to relocate from the row of shophouses that used to line Bras Basah Road.

Architecturally, it was - and still is - not much to look at.

It was done in the typical HDB 'podium block' style of the time, with blocks of flats above it, but that seems about all there is to say about it.

In fact, when a book chronicling Singapore's built heritage called Singapore 1:1 came out a few years ago, Bras Basah Complex did not even feature in it.

Yet the building lives in the collective memory of thousands of Singaporeans - especially those who grew up attending the many schools that surrounded the place like St Joseph's Institution, Catholic High and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus.

Those former students, like me, would probably be in their forties or fifties now. On one trip to the complex, I ran into an old college classmate who was there with her kids buying school supplies. How poignant was that, I thought.

But can collective memory alone save a building from eventual demolition? And should it?

I suppose that was at the heart of the debate over whether the old National Library, another building with little historical or aesthetic value, should have been saved.

The URA officers I spoke to seemed sympathetic to these arguments, and agreed that these are issues that the nation will have to confront as it moves into a more mature phase of development.

At the risk of totally jumping the gun, here is a suggestion.

Let's go ahead and save Bras Basah Complex.

Even better, let's turn it into what many Singaporeans remember it best for: a haven for books.

We all know that the book-selling trade is getting tougher and tougher. High rents at shopping malls and falling margins have caused bookstores here to go out of business.

Bras Basah Complex could be repurposed so that book selling can come back in a big way, and be protected for generations to come.

Passionate young entrepreneurs, like the people behind Books Actually, could mingle with their counterparts from another generation, like Knowledge Book Centre or Basheer Books.

The lovely open air plazas on the ground floor could be turned into cafes where book lovers can savour their new purchases.

And it would be wonderful to stumble into little niche stores in the more obscure corners of the complex, catering to comic lovers, design aficionados and music fans. Used bookstores, like the much- loved Sunny Bookstore, might even be able to make a comeback.

I know that this seems like a pipe dream given today's realities. Someone with very deep pockets would need to buy up all the shops en bloc and run it on a non-profit basis if rents were to be kept low.

Yet, the Government turns places like Gillman Village into a hub for international art galleries using precisely the types of incentives and grants that could be applied here.

In that particular case, an economic development objective is at play. Can a social objective of cultivating a love for books and knowledge, already highlighted by quite a few Members of Parliament, receive the same sort of government attention?

With the value of property, especially in prime areas, going up, maybe it is only a matter of time before Bras Basah Complex makes way for something that better reflects the dollars-and-cents opportunity cost of its continued existence.

Perhaps all the non-financial arguments in the world - not just for Bras Basah but for many other buildings like it - will be futile and still fall by the wayside.

But this doesn't mean that we cannot spell them out early.

Martin Koh | 86666 944 | R020968Z
Sherry Tang | 9844 4400 | R020241C
Senior Sales Director
DTZ Debenham Tie Leung (SEA) Pte Ltd (L3006301G) | | | |

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