Aesthetic as Relief:
Tracing Lost Monuments of Singapore
Text and photography by Michael Lee Hong Hwee
WHAT QUALIFIES A DEMOLISHED BUILDING AS A MONUMENT WORTH REMEMBERING? REFLECTING ON THE WORKS OF BAUDELAIRE AND GRAYLING, AS WELL AS HIS PAST PROJECT CITY PLANNED: TRACING MONUMENT, MICHAEL LEE PUTS FORTH A CASE FOR THE ARCHIVAL OF A LOST SINGAPORE.
Recently, while strolling in the Depot Road neighbourhood where I once lived, I was struck by its extreme makeover: Only two of its ten original housing blocks (completed in the late seventies) remain standing; the rest (including my old block) have been replaced by thirteen brand new ones, complete with a retail mall and a fresh moniker: Depot Heights. Like amputees who still sense the presence of their missing arm or leg (a.k.a. “the phantom limb”), I went through in split seconds a gamut of emotions: relief, however short-lived, followed (again) by disbelief, realisation, injustice and grief. Mere minutes later, I burst out laughing and commenting to my stroll companion: “I doubt this old neighbourhood of mine could ever become the subject of any debate about heritage conservation as had buildings of ‘collective memory,’ like the National Library at Stamford Road.” During ambivalent moments like these, only a wry sense
of irony can offer the necessary relief.
In conservation debates,
two viewpoints dominate:
The utilitarian perspective rests on the premise that hanging mindlessly onto the past is wrong. When buildings – which have life spans as do all life forms – age and decay beyond repair, they should make way for the new, especially when construction of the new is a more economically viable option than restoration of the old. The opposing view, sometimes called the romantic or sentimentalist camp, regards the past as a rich resource for understanding the present and a basis for aspiration towards a secure and better future. Holders of this view believe that access to the past is possible through archival documents and, even better, through actual historic objects, including buildings. Thus they favour conservation – over redevelopment – of buildings with cultural heritage, architectural significance and social memory. Thinker A.C. Grayling suggests a mediated position that prevents scenarios of demanding every structure either to be saved, or to be severed. He cautions nonetheless that, as a rule of thumb, “it is better to err on the side of preserving, because if one makes a mistake in so doing, it is remediable, whereas post-facto regret is no remedy.”1
Though sensible and useful as a guide for conservation policy-making, Grayling’s take on architectural conversation omits the existence and contribution of a third perspective with regard to urban processes: the aesthetic position.
In his Salon of 1846, the French poet Charles Baudelaire regarded art’s vital function as an aesthetic record of imminent loss amidst urban development. The artists who are able to blend historical themes with literary references, and to occupy a mid-point between realism and abstraction, are, for Baudelaire, the finest agents of this “mnemotechny of the beautiful.”2 Referring to the Baudelairian concept, architectural historian Mark Crinson uncovers the aesthetic techniques of urban memorialisation in a number of contemporary artworks, including artist Nathan Coley’s I Don’t Have Another Land (2002). The work is a blackwashed architectural model of the previous Marks & Spencer’s building, which was damaged by the 1996 IRA bomb in Manchester and subsequently demolished. “Emptied of its commercial functions,” says Crinson, Coley’s model “becomes
a monument to the loss of local time.”3 Presence refers to absence.
My City Planned: Tracing Monument (2005-6) project was, in part, an oblique extension of Coley’s memorial model. It comprises twenty-one sets of scaled models referring to “lost” buildings – that is, demolished or collapsed architectural projects – in Singapore. Like Coley, I aspired to give form to select architectures of the past, which no longer have a physical existence and which, though not (all) of apparent historic significance, nonetheless strike a chord with a local community. But unlike his focus on specific factual events (in his case, the IRA bombing), my focus was in teasing out inherent ironies while crafting new ones.
Modern buildings in Singapore are the most susceptible to the modernising forces of change and erasure. Deemed neither sufficiently old (that is, not as “ornately historic” as their premodern precedents) nor excitingly new (not as technologically and materially updated as their contemporary counterparts), these buildings seem the most easily dispensed with in plans for urban renewal. I highlighted this irony by limiting my scope to modern architectures that were razed to the grounds in the post-war period between 1945 and 2006. Exhibited in a classical building, namely the Singapore Art Museum on Bras Basah Road, my installation enacted an architectural pietà: the representation of a figure from one generation (Virgin Mary, in the biblical context) accommodating (mourning over) a figure of the next (Jesus Christ newly brought down from the cross on which he was crucified).
The architectural model is, by and large, a forward-looking format of communication. Whether for an architect, designer, planner, developer or user, the model serves as a three-dimensional means to visualise a new spatial project to be completed in the future. At times the model commemorates buildings of special historic significance. By contrast, my models point backward but to buildings that were regarded of no use by the authorities and eventually forgotten in official records. With the limitation of details to a single architectural feature (e.g., the front porch and staircases leading to the entrance of National Library Stamford), my massing models engage a blend of abstraction and figuration for an assorted triggering of memory and imagination towards a Baudelairian “mnemotechny of the beautiful.”
Standing before miniatures, viewers feel physically larger, and psychologically more powerful, than they usually do and than the buildings referred. They are invited to reflect on issues of control and accountability with regard to space, whilst recalling their experiences (actual, vicarious and/or imagined) with each architectural project. The use of a 1:100 scale throughout provides a common framework for re-experiencing the referent buildings, which were from different periods and places in Singapore. As the collection of models grew in number over a seven-month period of their construction and setup along the museum corridor, (repeat) visitors witnessed an expanding necropolis, a city of “dead buildings” that progressively resurfaced from beneath the pavement, as the exhibition title went.4
The whiteness of the models has no relation to the colours on the original buildings, such as the red-bricked National Library. It also suggests a ghostly presence of the missing.5 The use of paper as material and the insistence on precision handcrafting further highlight the preciousness, ephemerality and futility of the enterprises – of building and model-making.
The creative process allowed me to play an encyclopedist, craftsman and poet. With no individual or organisation owning (or owning up to) a comprehensive list of information about demolished buildings in Singapore, I found myself trawling libraries and the internet, digging through school term-project reports, meeting up with old architects who were still alive, and making friends with staff at the archives. Each time I tracked down the plans and drawings of an expired architectural project, I jotted down five sets of data about it: Category, Name, Address, Architect and Dates. I particularly found the inclusion of the Start and End Dates to be a subtle but meaningful reminder of the impermanence of existence. Before embarking on this project, I used to have a morbid fear of curves. So it is not hard to imagine how nerve wrecking the task seemed when I started constructing the scaled down versions of the National Theatre’s curved roof and the winding ramp up the Odeon Cinema (c.1953-84) car park. I am glad to have pulled through and attained a deeper appreciation of the beauty in a number of Singapore’s modern monuments. Each time I encountered a production obstacle, I reminded myself that the problems and painstaking efforts I had to go through were incomparable to the sacrifices made in the construction of the original buildings. I gave each set of architectural models a title, with words or phrases – freely referencing media culture (e.g., Excuse Me, Are You the Next Top Model?) and pop psychology (Look, I am an Other?!) – that came to my mind when I stepped back to savour their forms.
I also did a little experiment: Staring hard into the model of the National Theatre, at a few audience seats in the middle, I could clearly see myself watching an engrossing performance with my loved ones, kachang puteh (roasted beans) in hands and all, and it took no time for my eyes to well up with tears. False Memory Syndrome had a fruitful field day in my body.6
That absent buildings could ironically be the most omnipresent is evident in post-911 debates, commemoration and cultural records of the Twin Towers (1970/71-2001). This ironic possibility is most relevant to the Singapore context not just where the rate of urban redevelopment is hardly matched by that of critical reflection and aesthetic transformation, but also where access to records of past buildings is deemed unnecessary. For instance, would anyone in a “right frame of mind” voluntarily recall the Hotel New World, which took thirty-three lives along with its collapse and whose period of physical existence (1971-86), though not of apparent architectural value, was no more than fifteen years? Consider also the case of the previous World Trade Centre on Telok Blangah Road, completed in 1978, expanded in 1992 and (mostly) demolished in 2002: Can it inspire awe as does its replacement, the Toyo Ito-designed VivoCity (2006-), Singapore’s largest retail mall? Or, would Bukit Gombak Community Centre (1980-2005) garner even one vote for heritage conservation? How many people shed a tear for the Art Deco-style Forfar House (Blk 39 Margaret Drive, 1956-96) as many did for National Theatre (1963-86) and National Library (1960-2004)? Why would it matter to most people that, for the first two years of my secondary school education, I attended Gan Eng Seng School (1951-1989) on Anson Road?
It is a human tendency to overly remember certain things at the expense of others. My models are silent protests not against the physical erasure of architectures from public space per se but against their untracked disappearance from history; they are physical testaments to a phantom city of architectures once planned, made, used and later erased from public memory. They address the question: What is a monument? Beyond intellectual reasoning and sentimental longing, a solace for feeling sad over disappeared or disappearing buildings may come from the creation of aesthetic records of them: art can ironically preserve architecture beyond its life span. It is from tracing the buildings’ form and history that one can begin understanding their beauty and foster a close relationship with them, and from there, derive a deep sense of consolation.
City Planned: Tracing Monuments (2005-6) was first exhibited in Beneath the Pavement: Discovering the City in 2006, and then in Building Conversations: Michael Lee and Nadia Bamadhaj in 2006-7. Both exhibitions were curated by Joselina Cruz at the Singapore Art Museum. The work will be exhibited along with ninety-nine others in Curating Lab::100 Remix curated by Ahmad Mashadi and Heman Chong and organised by NUS Museum at HT Contemporary Space, Gallery 3, as part of the “Singapore Art Show” in August 2009.
More information about the artwork
is available on:
1. A.C. Grayling, “Conservation,” Life, Sex and Ideas, London: Oxford, 2003, p. 80
2. Charles Baudelaire, “Salon of 1846,” in Lois Boe Hyslop, Baudelaire, Man Of His Time, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980, p. 14
3. Mark Crinson, “Mnemotechny of the Industrial City: Contemporary Art and Urban Memory,” (Ed.), Urban Memory: History and Amnesia in the Modern City, London: Routledge, 2005, p. 202
4. Joselina Cruz (Curator), Beneath the Pavement: Discovering the City, Singapore Art Museum, 2006
5. Also see Lim Kok Boon, “Provocative Ghost-less Shells” (boonscafe.wordpress.com, 2006)
6. I remember having taken family portraits at the crescent-shaped fountain in front of the National Theatre, but I have not watched a live performance in it.
Michael Lee Hong Hwee is a Singapore-born artist based in Singapore. He explores his concern with desire and space through different art forms, ranging from model, book, photography and video, to installation, text and exhibition. He has participated in the 3rd Guangzhou Triennial 2008, the 2005 World Exposition, and the 1997 International Film and Video Association Film Award & Restival (Winner, Experimental Category; Texas). He was the curator of Daniel Libeskind’s first solo exhibiion in Asia (Between, Beside, Beyond: Reflections & Key Works, 1989 – 2014) at the Singapore Art Museum in 2007, and the recipient of the Young Artist Award (Visual Arts, 2005), conferred by the National Arts Council, Singapore.
First Published in Singapore Architect #250. Republished with permission of Michael Lee Hong Hwee
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