See also: ST - Calls to preserve train station
Sep 30, 2010
Put train station on the right track
Tanjong Pagar railway station should be a 'living heritage' building that is open to all
In the land swop deal with Malaysia finalised last week, Singapore is giving its neighbour six land parcels in exchange for those now owned by Malaysian Railway.
The plot that has captured the most public interest is the site on which the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station stands.
Besides the fact that it is prime property, the railway station itself is a remarkable building with great historical significance and emotional resonance, especially for an older generation.
The grand Art Deco-influenced building, built in 1932, harks back to another age where rail was the primary means of travel to faraway lands. Thus, the station was built as a grand civic space that would leave an impact on any visitor leaving or arriving in Singapore.
Its imposing facade is adorned with four white marble figures by Italian sculptor Rudolfo Nolli, representing Agriculture, Industry, Commerce and Transport, then the engines of growth for the Malayan peninsula. Entering the main hall, the visitor is greeted by a high vaulted ceiling and colourful wall murals depicting romanticised scenes of Malayan economic activity such as shipping and rubber-tapping.
No wonder there are calls to turn the station into a museum that would preserve the atmosphere of a bygone age. Also high on the wish list is that the station remain a public space.
As IT firm manager Carolyn Seet, who is spearheading a petition to turn the station into a transportation museum, told The Sunday Times recently: 'The railway was for everyone - rich or poor... So we must keep it accessible and not so posh that only a select few can go there.'
It would be a pity if the station were taken over by a private entity which, although taking the burden of upkeep off the taxpayer, subsequently restricts the public's access to this piece of national heritage. For example, the historic Command House near Bukit Timah, built in the 1930s as a residence for British military leaders, was gazetted as a national monument in November last year. But public access is restricted as it is leased to Swiss bank UBS.
Even if this piece of national heritage is preserved and opened to the public, another question arises: How often will the public bother to actually go and see it?
Even the most enthusiastic Singapore-based museum visitor is unlikely to visit such venues more than a handful of times a year, especially if nothing fresh is offered in terms of exhibits or events.
Without careful programming, there is a danger of a museum becoming a mausoleum: a quiet space of dusty exhibits, the resting place of a past that feels distant and irrelevant to people today.
The challenge, then, is to bring the present to a place which, by definition, is about the remembrance of things past.
One way is to slip the heritage in with a serving of modern glitz. Major Singapore museums such as the National Museum of Singapore and the Asian Civilisations Museum have incorporated elegant F&B offerings into their premises, drawing patrons who might otherwise never consider stepping into a museum.
Arguably, the most heavily frequented heritage buildings in Singapore are the ones that have reinvented themselves as F&B and nightlife destinations, from the upscale restaurants at Chijmes to the downtown hawker centre Lau Pa Sat.
Not everyone is as fond of Lau Pa Sat's current form as I am. A forum letter published in this newspaper in April by prominent senior lawyer Joe Grimberg lamented how the late 19th-century structure has gone to seed: 'This wonderful old cast-iron building is in a miserable state - a clutter of stalls and murky tarpaulins - and not helped by the new elevated road nearby.'
Most of the harried office workers sweating while scarfing down their lunch probably aren't taking the time out to ponder the building's history, or even to admire its graceful arches and lace-like ironwork.
Yet, isn't it wonderful in a sense that Lau Pa Sat - which means 'the old market' - is still serving its purpose as a gathering place for the masses, more than a century after it was first constructed? This continuity is in some ways as precious as historical knowledge; the past does not have to be remembered, because it is still with us and is part of us.
Of course, not every old building should be turned into a food court or nightclub. But the key to getting people to appreciate their heritage is to draw them to it in an organic fashion, rather than by setting it aside as a hallowed space where people feel the need to tread softly.
One of the best examples I've seen of a 'living heritage' building is in New York City. Grand Central Terminal, built in the Beaux-Art style in 1913, was almost gutted in the 1960s to make way for a skyscraper, until a campaign - led by former American first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis - saved it, and it remains to this day a vibrant and vital hub at the heart of the city.
Grand Central has several advantages over Tanjong Pagar: It is still serves its original purpose as a railway station. It is also plugged into the city's subway system and serves as an interchange.
The terminal is also a destination in itself. The vast ceiling of its main concourse, depicting a blue-green night sky with golden constellations, is a favourite with tourists and native New Yorkers alike. The building has a shopping arcade, there is a food court in the basement for affordable dining as well as finer fare such as the famed Oyster Bar and swishy cocktail lounge The Campbell Apartment. And the building is home to an annex of the New York Transit Museum.
Some of these ideas could be transplanted to Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. A transportation museum is definitely a good idea. And to make things convenient for visitors, what better way than by incorporating the station into the MRT network, as suggested by Straits Times Forum letter writer Gerald Tay in July? As a bonus, the railway station is in fact already a popular food destination, serving up Malay and Indian favourites to workers from nearby offices as well as gourmands in the know.
Whatever lies in store for the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, I hope that its vast hall will welcome the hubbub of many, rather than the hushed whispers of a few. Even as we preserve the past, let's make sure it also has a place in the future.