How Old is Old Enough for Conservation?

 

 

First published on publichouse.sg in November 2011, about the then impending demise of Old School on Mount Sophia.

 

Sitting on the top of the genteel Mount Sophia is arts haven Old School. A polestar in the city’s thriving Central Arts District since 2007, it comprises six beautiful whitewashed buildings that span a range of architectural styles, from Art Deco to ’80s-modern, a microcosm of urban architectural development in Singapore. In these buildings are independent picture house Sinema, leading photography gallery 2902, local music bar Timbre as well as a host of arts and design related studios, offices and agencies. 

 

No. 11 Mount Sophia was Methodist Girls’ School from 1925 to 1992. During those decades, it schooled generations of girls, produced an illustrious alumni that counts amongst it president scholars, captains of industry, sporting stars and music prodigies, not to mention Mrs Kwa Geok Choo, the late wife of Lee Kwan Yew. More importantly, it captured the hearts and souls of the many girls and women that passed through its doors, for whom Mount Sophia is a reservoir of memories and meaning, both public and personal.

 

So it is naturally with some sadness and anxiety that former MGS girls and Old School management face the impending demolition of most of 11 Mount Sophia when its lease runs out in June 2012. Only one of the six buildings—Olsen Building, the oldest—is gazetted for conservation. The rest of 11 Mount Sophia will likely be torn down to make way for a residential development, which, given the neighbourhood, will probably be a condominium.

 

In the face of this, two impassioned ex-MGS ladies, Carol Tham and Lim Li Hsien, were spurred to start Save Old School, a campaign directed at staving off the destruction of 11 Mount Sophia and assigning the site a purpose that is in keeping with its beauty and heritage. Backing them strongly is Old School management, led by Mabel Tay.

 

URA points out that 11 Mount Sophia has in fact been zoned for residential development since at least the 2003 Master Plan, and that there was never any intention to conserve the site. URA’s Master Plans are available for public viewing through their website and at their building on Maxwell Road.

 

Then why did URA and SLA stipulate guidelines that are tantamount to the conservation of four buildings if 11 Mount Sophia was never meant for conservation—is the question to ask. Those guidelines “clearly imply that URA originally felt that the buildings were worthy of conservation,” says Tay. As a show of Old School’s management sincerity in wanting 11 Mount Sophia conserved, Tay went so far as to say that they will be happy just to see the buildings remain and be used congruently, even if someone other than Old School were to manage them.

 

One issue this quandary throws up is the level of engagement between civil society and government. “There’s not enough discussion with the government,” chimes in Tham. “People who care about heritage and conservation don’t know the constraints the government face or what went into their decision. If dialogue was more open it might be easier to come to a compromise or solution or understanding.”

 

As these determined ladies continue their relentless campaign, Save Old School is garnering more momentum, publicity and support. But will it succeed in changing URA’s plans and decisions? It’s an uphill battle and Save Old School know that. But they are nevertheless going to give the campaign all they’ve got and will aim to save as much of 11 Mount Sophia as they can. As Tham put it, “The larger purpose of SOS is to try and open up a dialogue.”

 

Well, in the likely event that most of the buildings at 11 Mount Sophia get torn down, hopefully the trees will at least remain to keep Olsen Building company if it becomes part of a new condominium.

 

 

 

This was not a battle these ladies expected to have to fight. When Old School took out their lease on 11 Mount Sophia in 2007, they were given a set of ‘addition and alteration’ guidelines, drawn up by the Urban Redevelopment Authority and issued by landlord the Singapore Land Authority, which spells out very clearly that the original architecture of site’s buildings be retained—just stopping short of saying they should be ‘conserved.’

 

Covering four of the six buildings that make up 11 Mount Sophia, the guidelines state that ‘the character and key architectural elements and features of the buildings are to be retained.’ These include the ‘original building profile and height; the original roof profiles, pitches and height; original façade and exterior elements; and decorative features and key internal architectural elements such as doors, windows, transnoms (beams) and vents, columns, beams, railings and decorative motifs.’ “The tender package also had drawings which are akin to conservation guideline drawings,” explains Tay. 

 

One area in which the term ‘conservation’ was actually used was in relation to the trees in 11 Mount Sophia. Te tender document says that ‘the said premises is within the gazetted Tree Conservation Area,’ and that Old School was required to conserve all trees ‘with a girth size of 1-metre or more, measured 0.5-metres from the ground,’ and ensure that ‘all trees affected by the proposed development … are protected.’

 

“The guidelines were very, very strict,” says Tay, showing a copy of the original document. “We couldn’t change the windows or chop down the trees. And we had to get URA’s approval before commencing any work. Which is why we went to great lengths to preserve the integrity of the buildings, most of which were falling apart, and the site.”

 

Therefore it was with some surprise that Tay and Save Old School learned that only one building—Olsen Building—will be conserved, and that it was gazetted in only August this year. “Only one building? Gazetted this year?” says Tay. “Given the strict guidelines, we were under the impression that the whole of 11 Mount Sophia was up for conservation.” These guidelines are dated 2004.