Aerial view of the environs of Shenton Way and the Telok Ayer Basin, circa 1965, with the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House Building in the centre and the Singapore Polytechnic at the back (near the top right hand corner). Source: Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat.
I turned up for an organized tour of the former Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House yesterday. The tour was organized as a part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the building by its current tenant, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. However, no one else turned up. Apparently I was the only one who signed up for the tour and the tour guide forgot (or could not be bothered) about it. The lack of interest is perhaps understandable. Although the building is the first post-colonial building to be gazetted as a national monument in 2010. The original building by Malayan Architects Co-partnership (with Lim Chong Keat, Chen Voon Fee and William Lim as the architects) has been renovated and “upgraded” with such insensitivity and disrespect to the original structural and spatial integrity that the current building is really a rather bad piece of architecture. Who else other than an antiquated architectural historian would bother to sign up for a tour of a lobotomized building?
The original naturally-ventilated atrium of the Singapore Conference Hall. Source: Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat.
The same atrium today, air-conditioned and enclosed, with the original spatial fluidity and structural integrity compromised. Source: NHB.
Perhaps it was a good thing that the tour guide did not turn up. Since I was already in the vicinity, I took the opportunity to visit the old Singapore Polytechnic building across the street from the Singapore Conference Hall. The old Singapore Polytechnic building is currently the Bestway Building but maybe not for much longer. When I was at the building, many offices in the building were vacated and a few sub-tenants appeared to be in the process of moving out. Designed by the architects from the architectural firm Swan and Maclaren in the language of mid-twentieth century modern tropical architecture, the building has the usual climatic design features of brise soleil, ventilation bricks and one-room-thick planning. Although clothed in a modernist gown, the building is really of a rather conservative design. Conservative in the sense that it is rather conventional and not innovative in formal quality nor spatial configuration.
The front elevation of the former Singapore Polytechnic Building (today’s Bestway building) Source: Author’s photograph.
The elevation of the rear block of the former Singapore Polytechnic Building (today’s Bestway building) showing alternating ventilating brick walls. Source: Author’s photograph.
Anyway, the first architecture school of Singapore was housed in this mediocre modernist building. When the first few cohorts of students at the Polytechnic were studying at this building, the former Singapore Conference Hall was under construction nearby. In contrast to the mediocre Singapore Polytechnic building by expatriate colonial PWD architects, the new building by three local architects, who were returnees from top UK and US architecture schools, was innovative at many levels. At a time of decolonization and independence fervour, this striking contrast served as a demonstration to the local architectural students at the Polytechnic that, to rephrase a provocation by Lim Chong Keat, that “the Malayan architect [was] contributing to his country a genuine aesthetic environment… that no highly tropicalised non-Malayan [i.e. expatriate, could] rival.” The fact that one of the architects of the Singapore Conference Hall, Lim Chong Keat, was a much admired teacher at the Singapore Polytechnic definitely helped to make the new building an object lesson of the new Malayan modern architecture for these pioneer cohorts of locally-trained architects.