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    Default Old district a hive of activity

    Sep 14, 2008 Sunday

    Old district a hive of activity

    The Bras Basah-Bugis hub didn't happen by chance; it was painstaking planning

    By Tan Dawn Wei

    For its new campus, Lasalle deliberately chose an architectural design that allowed the public to mill around and engage in the school's activities. Elderly residents of the area, traders from Sim Lim Square and businessmen from Little India have become regular visitors to the school, walking through its concourse, often stopping to see what's on show. In June, when it held its degree graduation show, close to 200 people visited every day for more than a week. -- ST FILE PHOTO

    It didn't seem that long ago that Bugis Street was home to a colourful assortment of street hawkers, showy transvestites and gawking Western tourists instead of the pasar malam maze it is today.

    Or that mechanics were using a 19th-century chapel at the junction of Middle Road and Waterloo Street as a workshop before it was spruced up nicely and became an art gallery, Sculpture Square.

    Lecture halls, libraries and classrooms now sit on what was once a much-loved green lung - Bras Basah Park - in the heart of town at the Singapore Management University (SMU).

    Over the past two decades, Bras Basah and Bugis have seen a transformation that has delivered buzz and vibrancy, but also heartache and controversy.

    While not everyone will agree with how the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) - the main agency behind the lengthy facelift - has cleaned up the area, there is recognition that the metamorphosis didn't happen by chance; it involved painstaking planning.

    That recognition got a boost in July this year, when the URA won an Award for Excellence for Asia Pacific from a US-based non-profit education and research organisation, Urban Land Institute.

    Entries were judged on their financial viability, the resourceful use of land, design, relevance to contemporary issues, and sensitivity to the community and environment.

    Previous winners included Roppongi Hills in Tokyo and Shanghai's Xintiandi.

    In 2006, URA also won the overall award from the same institute for its conservation programme.

    The planners are naturally proud of what they've done for the area; they have even given it a hip moniker: Bras Basah.Bugis.

    Today, crumbling bungalows and shophouses have been turned into housing for arts groups, shops and restaurants; old schools have been adapted for museums; and new educational institutions have moved into the neighbourhood, injecting some 12,000 students who have brought a youthful verve to this part of town.

    How it became an arts, entertainment and learning hub goes back to 1991, when a URA concept plan which outlines broad strategies for the next 40 to 50 years mapped out this vision for Bras Basah and Bugis.

    There were only a handful of arts facilities in the area then. URA also found that provisions of these facilities in Singapore were much lower than in other developed countries, and demand for them was increasing.

    It knew too it didn't want to grow another cultural district somewhere else, out of the blue.

    'We know that the hardware should be clustered. You don't get energy and synergy if you have a museum here, a museum there,' said Ms Fun Siew Leng, the agency's director of urban planning and design.

    It got to work, restoring terrace houses and bungalows along Waterloo Street over five years at a cost of $7 million, and handing them to the National Arts Council (NAC), which rented them out at 10 per cent of the market rate to arts groups.

    It also made the area pedestrian-friendly, converting a section of Waterloo Street into a no-car zone, and improved connectivity with four - soon to be five - MRT stations serving the area.

    Then it set about wooing educational institutions, offering prime land to SMU, Lasalle College of the Arts, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) and School of the Arts (Sota).

    Had things taken a different turn, SMU would have ended up in Marina South. When it made the decision to be a city university some 10 years ago, URA found it two sites on that reclaimed land.

    'The reason we didn't take that on was that Marina South would take 50 years to be fully developed and while we're going to be the only cluster of activity in the midst of nothing, that's not going to fly,' said Professor Tan Chin Tiong, the school's deputy president.

    The finance and management-focused university grabbed the chance to be in the city, which benefits its students, given its close proximity to the business district.

    And the authorities were only too happy to have them there, so that the young energy would rejuvenate the city.

    What's more, the area also held memories as a school cluster - St Joseph's Institution (SJI), Raffles Institution, Raffles Girls' School, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) were all there before.

    URA carved out 5ha for SMU, which Ms Fun called 'a bold decision'.

    'This was prime real estate.'

    It went further by asking the Housing Board to convert a few blocks of Singapore Improvement Trust walk-up flats at Prinsep Street into student hostels, because it wanted students to have the experience of living in the city.

    When Lasalle's student population grew too big for its suburban campus at Goodman Road in the east, it was offered a piece of land in Rochor.

    Moving into the city from what provost and chief academic officer Venka Purushothaman describes as 'an artist colony' was a huge step.

    'It was a paradigm shift for us philosophically. Previously, people made it a point to go to the old campus. We organised activities that really fostered a particular type of community spirit. Now being a city campus, we're challenged by the potential out there. There's so much around us,' he said.

    For its new campus, it deliberately chose an architectural design that allowed the public to mill around and engage in the school's activities.

    Elderly residents of the area, traders from Sim Lim Square and businessmen from Little India have become regular visitors to the school, walking through its concourse, often stopping to see what's on show.

    In June, when it held its degree graduation show, close to 200 people visited every day for more than a week.

    'They've all of a sudden been given the opportunity to grapple with contemporary art. I'd say we've gotten closer to our vision of art for the public,' said MrPurushothaman.

    Commercial schools also bought into URA's vision very quickly - there are now 105 of them in the neighbourhood.

    One of the dream tools in executing URA's grand plan for the area has been the Government Land Sales programme.

    'We're very lucky the state owns a lot of land. We can then sell land based on what uses we want for it,' said Ms Fun.

    About 90 per cent of Singapore's land is in government hands.

    Ms Fun admitted to being the object of envy by foreign counterparts who have plans but no land.

    One of the first sites sold under the scheme was Bugis Junction in 1989, which had to follow government guidelines to retain some heritage flavour by incorporating shophouses into the mall.

    When the URA put a plot across from Bugis Junction up for tender in 2005, it used what it calls a 'two-envelope' system for the first time: picking out developers whose concepts gelled with its vision, then awarding it to the highest bidder.

    The new entertainment centre that is being built on it, Iluma, has devoted 60 per cent of its space to theme restaurants, a multiplex and other entertainment businesses.

    Another development, South Beach, was also picked based on the two-envelope system last year. Besides two towers, it will restore the military buildings of the old Beach Road Camp.

    The authorities understand that a vibrant city needs the arts and a lively culture to be exciting.

    The strategy seems to have worked: Attendance at performances and activities organised by the 14 arts group tenants in the area trebled from 50,000 in 1996 to 150,000 in 2006.

    Visitors to the National Museum also went up from 250,000 to more than 700,000 after its refurbishment in 2006.

    Businesses have responded, with cafes, restaurants and shops springing up from Bugis Village to Selegie, many targeting young people.

    Still, not everyone has brought out their pom-poms over what planners and developers have done to the place.

    Ask any heritage or architectural buff and they will say there have been as many misses as there have been hits along the way.

    The demolition of the old Cathay Building, Raffles Girls' School and of course the much-loved National Library has given many people heartache.

    Chijmes, too, was mired in controversy when the authorities turned CHIJ's chapel and school building into commercial space for restaurants, bars and party facilities. Some old girls were most unhappy about it.

    Mr Dinesh Naidu, who is writing a book on Singapore's modern architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s, observed that the authorities seem to have stopped at Chijmes.

    'Some of these were silent lessons that were learnt. Tao Nan School and SJI were put to more appropriate uses,' he said.

    Tao Nan School at Armenian Street was converted into the Asian Civilisations Museum and now the Peranakan Museum, while SJI houses the Singapore Art Museum.

    The latest addition has been the former Catholic High Primary School, which has become 8Q sam, an extended contemporary art wing of the art museum since last month.

    When large, modern buildings for SMU, Nafa and the National Library mushroomed, they too drew flak for their size, scale and conventional designs, which some felt sat badly with their architecturally rich neighbours and the area's heritage.

    But what do you do when the island is small and sometimes the only way is up?

    Even then, URA said it has made it a point to keep buildings in the foothills of Fort Canning Park low - not more than five storeys - to maintain a view to and from the historical hill.

    Ms Fun admits the tearing down of the National Library at Stamford Road in 2004 could possibly have been the planning authority's worst public relations nightmare to date for the area.

    'We didn't expect reaction to be so strong,' she said, adding that it was clear that the red-bricked landmark had to make way for the Fort Canning tunnel.

    That decision prompted great debate, which made it into Parliament.

    'It would be worse if people were indifferent.'

    Still, stakeholders have nothing but praise for the way the area has turned out.

    Schools say there is greater synergy among them and the community: SMU's dance, music and drama classes use adjunct faculty made up of arts practitioners in the neighbourhood; Lasalle students have utilised performance spaces at the Drama Centre in the National Library and Waterloo Street, while the museums have become classrooms.

    SMU's Prof Tan says the school may even tap on the expertise of its neighbours by collaborating on offering arts and entertainment management programmes.

    The area ticks because of a crucial design guideline too: making buildings open and accessible.

    'It has got a bit of urban block layout and good pedestrian connections. There are ample covered linkways to encourage people to walk. That's where porosity is important - pedestrians can see through and walk through buildings,' said Mr Wong Mun Summ, founding director of award-winning architecture firm Woha Designs.

    The firm is behind many buildings in the area, including Odeon Towers, Sota, Iluma and Bras Basah MRT Station.

    But more can be done to create activities on the street level, he said.

    'There are efforts being made in SMU to have more kiosks and activities on ground level. It would be good to have more student activities there. While the basement is a good way of connecting various buildings on campus, it has taken away visible activities on the ground level.'

    Also on his wish list: more streets, like Waterloo and Queen streets, pedestrianised.

    The area could do with more pockets of parks that young people could use for outdoor art, sports, even flea markets, said Mr Naidu.

    'For student areas to really work, there needs to be cheap space,' he said.

    And don't make the area too thematised.

    'It's a good thing it's not overtly produced for tourists and the neighbourhood is layered with buildings of different periods,' he said.

    NAC's deputy director for resource development, Mr Russell Lim, thinks there are good opportunities for public-private partnerships in the area of the arts.

    The council has already brokered a deal between Paradiz Centre and The Little Arts Academy - an initiative of The Business Times Budding Artists Fund providing arts education to children between five and 12 - to house its school in the complex from November.

    'Arts groups will have a home and commercial landlords get some benefits by having more visitors,' said Mr Lim.

    With most of the infrastructure and players in place after nearly two decades, the job next is to get the 'software' going, said Ms Fun.

    'We're groping a bit. I'm trained as an architect,' she conceded.

    'But we're open. The next part is, how do you infuse the area with more life and vitality?'

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