Not just another brick in the wall

Not just another brick in the wall
Dr Yeo Kang Shua has received three Unesco Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation, which are seen as the Oscars of the architectural heritage scene. Fewer than 10 buildings here can boast of such a title.

While his peers are designing snazzy skyscrapers and modern homes, Dr Yeo Kang Shua, 39, prefers to work on projects that are a little less "sexy".

His love for architecture and historic buildings means his weekends are spent speaking to monument owners and poring through archive photos to find ways to piece dilapidated temples, mansions and monuments back together.

The Singapore University of Technology and Design assistant professor said: "As a person trained in architecture, you have the desire to see your own designs come to life. But it's not like that with historic buildings...

"You have to suppress this and try to use your training to interpret the original intention of the designer and to try to keep to the original spirit of the building."

His dedication to historic architecture has bagged him three Unesco Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. The Unesco awards are the Oscars of the architectural heritage scene. Fewer than 10 buildings here can boast of such a title.

He received a merit award for his recent restoration of the Yueh Hai Ching Temple in Phillip Street; an award for excellence for the restoration of Hong San See Temple in Mohamed Sultan Road in 2010; and a jury commendation for innovation involving an elementary school he helped design in Lijiang, China, in 2005.

His latest accolade is being awarded a professorship, on a three-year appointment, endowed by the Hokkien Huay Kuan last month.

Dr Yeo's approach to conservation has been noted in the field as being both "methodological and meticulous".

Rather than just bank on nostalgia, he looks at the "science" of heritage.

His projects include putting together a database of the colour profiles and paint types used by the designers of Singapore's historic buildings.

This requires him to make tiny incisions in the walls of temples, shophouses and residential buildings, and analyse the samples taken at the university's laboratory.

Dr Yeo has also started on a collaborative effort with his colleague, Assistant Professor Stylianos Dritsas, to study and fabricate the complex geometries and designs of sculptures and ornaments common in historic architecture.

He said: "We have lost many of our craftsmen and it's very difficult to attract the younger generation to pick up such craft. So it's important that we equip future architects with the know-how on repairing and restoring Singapore's architectural treasures."

At 18, Dr Yeo, who had been a science student all his life, started developing an interest in history and yearned to learn more about his Teochew roots. While most of his peers were busy preparing for the GCE A-level examinations, he would visit libraries, and spend most of his free time devouring books on ancient China, the Qing Dynasty and the Chinese diaspora in South-east Asia. He often went to bed with a historical tome by his side.

During his teenage years, he also developed an interest in photography and architecture and spent weekends with friends from Anderson Junior College's photography club exploring the historic districts of Kreta Ayer, Little India and the Singapore River.

"I was not the best of students then and got Bs in school. I didn't want to spend too much time on my studies," said Dr Yeo, who went on to study architecture at the National University of Singapore.

He was first exposed to the conservation and restoration scene as an intern at RSP Architects Planners & Engineers.

"I had little interest in the commercial projects such as condominiums and schools. What really got my interest were two conservation projects - the early 20th century Shuang Lin Monastery and the 1882 House of Tan Yeok Nee, which RSP had been charged to restore," he said.

Dr Yeo has made his mark on the scene over the span of his 15 year career.

In 2007, the then-chairman of the Preservation of Monuments Board Alfred Wong gave Dr Yeo - then 32 - the task of putting together a team to systematically inspect and document the national monuments under the board's charge.

Dr Yeo worked closely with monument owners to come up with technical solutions to maintain the old buildings.

Mr Wong said Dr Yeo was undoubtedly the right person for the job. "I was very impressed by his creative approach to the role of inspection. I'm not surprised that he has come this far."

Two months ago, Dr Yeo, who is married to independent researcher Wee Sheau Theng, 36, was appointed to the Urban Redevelopment Authority's Conservation Advisory Panel. He has been a jury member of the authority's Architecture Heritage Awards since last year.

Dr Yeo, who is also the honorary secretary of the Singapore Heritage Society, now plans to push for the establishment of an impact assessment framework to help protect at-risk sites. He believes the age-old debate between development and preservation will only get more pronounced.

Said Dr Yeo: "Nostalgia is often emotion-based, but being emotional doesn't always help. There's a need for rational evaluation that transcends such sentiment as we mature as a society."

This article was first published on Sep 8, 2014.
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