Heritage by the water's edge

SINGAPORE - The historic waterfront is traditionally a popular site to usher in the New Year, and for the upcoming celebration, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) also wants Singaporeans to cherish its rich heritage.

It has launched a poster tracing the development of the waterfront since the 1800s, when Singapore served as a trading post. It is the second poster the URA has produced for public use and education. The first, on heritage schools, was released last year.

The poster on the waterfront, which encompasses the area around the mouth of the Singapore River, can be downloaded on the URA's website and will be distributed to schools electronically.

Mrs Teh Lai Yip, the URA's senior director of conservation, highlighted several little known historical spots listed in the poster.

For instance, the granite seawall of Telok Ayer Basin located next to the Customs Harbour Branch Building was where ships used to dock.

Built in the 19th century, the seawall serves to remind Singaporeans about the pioneers who helped build the country as a trading hub, said Mrs Teh. The only surviving seawall at the waterfront from that period had to be repaired and re-piled in the 1980s and 1990s because of soil erosion.

"It's all about provoking and promoting conversation. The aim is to steer the conversation to encourage Singaporeans to treasure and appreciate what we have in our midst," said Mrs Teh.

Another structure that is often overlooked is a granite memorial stone mounted on a pyramid-shaped brick pedestal.

The stone was previously located along Collyer Quay and was moved in 2010 to the grounds of The Fullerton Hotel.

Laid by the late President Yusof Ishak in 1970, it bears inscriptions in the four official languages commemorating the early immigrants who sailed to Singapore.

But of all the landmarks at the waterfront, one stands out for its architectural innovation in its day: the 18-storey Asia Insurance Building. The Art Deco-style building located at the corner of Collyer Quay and Finlayson Green was once South-east Asia's tallest in the 1950s.

In 2007, the building was gazetted for conservation and converted into high-end serviced apartments. The award-winning restoration effort has retained many of the original design features such as the travertine stone cladding, antiquated window frames and ornamental staircase railings.

Heritage experts and buffs have identified other structures at the waterfront that are worthy of preservation. These include the balustrade railing at Queen Elizabeth Walk - a promenade located along the Esplanade. According to the URA's draft masterplan unveiled last month, a portion of the 1960s cement barricades may make way for stepped plazas and an urban beach, allowing people to get closer to the water.

This proposal has, however, received lukewarm response from heritage experts. Architect Chang Yong Ter of Chang Architects said there are already steps leading to the water along the river and it is "not necessary to replicate the same experience".

Other proposed changes to make the waterfront more pedestrian-friendly and enhance public spaces in the nearby Civic District have been better received.

At Empress Place, for instance, one aim is to transplant trees, where feasible, to better showcase the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall. A series of nodes and smaller spaces within the Esplanade Park will also be created.

Naval architect and heritage buff Jerome Lim, 49, hopes the changes will rejuvenate the vicinity and bring back the crowds.

"There were many attractions then (decades ago) to draw Singaporeans. The sea breeze was one, as were the colourful and lively harbour views and the affordable eating places."

Conservation architect Lim Huck Chin said the promotional campaign for the waterfront was timely, as public awareness of the site's rich heritage has diminished over time.

"It's important that emphasis is given to the social significance of the waterfront in enhancing our collective memory. The human dimension must not be forgotten: It was by sea that most of our forefathers and visitors arrived," said Mr Lim.


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