Sun, Jul 24, 2016 - Page 7 News List

Old Singaporean station signals a heritage revival

Can community-focused projects such as the redevelopment of abandoned Tanjong Pagar station enliven the city-state?

By Ling Low  /  The Guardian, SINGAPORE

It is a public holiday in Singapore and drizzling rain has given way to sticky, hot weather, but this has not dissuaded visitors at Tanjong Pagar station. In the mid-morning sun, families and couples walk along the railway tracks. Young children are particularly eager to totter over the old steel slats. Almost everyone is taking photographs — whether with a selfie stick or digital single-lens reflex cameras.

Jenny Goh, a 57-year-old mother and entrepreneur, is among the early visitors.

“If you don’t take photos then when it’s gone, it’s really gone,” Goh said.

She has brought her grown-up daughter with her to see the station from which, as a child, she used to take the train to Malaysia to see her relatives. When the service stopped running in 2011, Goh was among the crowds who witnessed the final train pulling out of the station. Malaysia’s Sultan of Johor was behind the wheel.

As Singapore looks back on its first 50 years of independence, heritage is increasingly part of the national conversation — and with its art deco and neoclassical architecture, Tanjong Pagar station is one of the city-state’s most distinctive buildings.

However, the station is also at the center of a debate about the extent to which Singaporeans should be involved in future planning decisions in the traditionally “top-down” city-state.

Plans are under way to redevelop the station as a multifunctional community space. The original architecture is to be retained, but facilities such as an auditorium and art gallery (plus a state-of-the-art, underground MRT station) are to be added. Furthermore, the 24km stretch of former railway line is envisaged to become a linear park: already dubbed the “Railway Corridor,” the park would be almost 10 times longer than New York’s High Line.

Even before the plans for redevelopment were announced, Singaporeans were already making use of the old railway line in an unusually informal way. After the majority of the tracks had been returned to Malaysia, a long swathe of wilderness was left behind. Joggers, cyclists and nature enthusiasts started to explore; artists came to perform.

For Singaporeans, this exploration was a novelty in a city-state where most green spaces are manicured and public space is highly regulated.

“We don’t have a lot of green spaces and this is one of the few that’s not a polished, designed park. This is as ‘rural’ as you can get in central Singapore,” said Stella Gwee (魏愛玲), cofounder of placemaking consultancy firm Shophouse & Co.

“The Railway Corridor had lots of noise on the ground,” said her colleague Adib Jalal. “There was a lot of ground-up interest, with groups like the Nature Society and the Heritage Society involved. Just by the fact that the railway line passes through so many neighborhoods, each one feels it has a little piece of ownership.”

However, Goh has more mixed feelings.

“You have to sacrifice some things for the future,” Goh said, pragmatically.

She plans to pay more visits to the station before the end of this year. After December, the station is to be closed for construction and it does not plan to open again until 2025.

Singapore has long been known for its efficient urban planning and regulation of public space. It is not a nation where you see graffiti: a few years ago, a 26-year-old artist was sentenced to community service after she was caught stenciling roads and pasting stickers in public.

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