Saturday, 7 June 2008

Every Building Tells a (Hi)story

As battle lines continue to be drawn in estates that are undergoing the enbloc sale, owners pitch against owners to protect their homes. What it all boils down to, this notion of the enbloc sale, is this:

The value of space.

That space is valuable need not be repeated because it’s so obvious in Singapore’s context, and it has been drummed into our consciousness by years of national education. 'Valuable space' is the primary drive behind the government’s policy that gave birth to the enbloc sale. Urban renewal is another way of saying that space is a premium.

But here’s where policy meets reality, when things start to become problematic: What do we mean by “valuable”?

To policy makers, the value of space is the maximum living and/or commercial potential an area can provide. Profits and revenue (they’d argue) are secondary. ‘Sentimental attachment’ isn’t even in the consideration.

To the construction industry, the value of space is their bread and butter. Profits can only be achieved if they have something to build, and sell. Space potential depends purely on whether profits can be achieved or not, and how much. ‘Sentimental attachment’ is realised in aesthetic terms – whether a building is pleasing to the eye, or purely functional.

To the ‘specuvestor’ (to use Jessica Cheam’s term), those investor-speculators that buy units in private estates purely to sell at a profit, the value of space is their luxury. After all, in all likelihood they have their own homes (typically untouched by such enbloc sales), and investing in additional homes is a lucrative way of improving their bank accounts and lifestyles. Space potential is a investment risk assessment – no increase in plot ratio means an estate is less likely to go enbloc. ‘Sentimental attachment’ is non-existent.

To the resident home owner, the value of space is their histories and memories. It is unquantifiable, it cannot have a value placed on it in any simple manner. It is one’s identity and being in the world, one’s relation to the world. Today’s Saturday Special (“Landmarks at Risk”) brings home this point.

Each space has a story, and a history.

Whether it’s a home or a shop space or a building, that space is empty until someone associates it with memories. Without these memories or histories, these spaces do not provide any form of ‘anchor’ to any person. A young child going to the Civilian War Memorial in town will not understand or appreciate its significance unless it is explained to her in a history lesson. But an old man who went through the Japanese Occupation will see the memorial space as far more significant than a lesson in national education – it triggers memories of a dark time in Singapore.

The value of space is where battle lines are drawn, but it is the fact that the value of space is a (hi)story, which cannot be quantified, that will cause many who read the Saturday Special article with fond memories of those buildings mentioned.

It is the value of space as (hi)story that is making resident owners fight so desperately to keep their homes.

When will policy makers ever realise this value of space?

You can read the Saturday Special piece here, here, here and here (in 4 parts).

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