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  Straits Times 6 Sep 07
Saving the Butterfly House: Fledgling conservation or just winging it?

A historic bungalow in Katong hit the headlines earlier this year when conservationists called for it to be preserved intact. Ida Bachtiar, a former journalist and member of the Conservation Advisory Panel, reflects on the competing demands faced by urban planners in saving 23 Amber Road.

THERE is a house on Amber Road that people say has butterfly wings. And it is the last one of its kind.

Not surprisingly then, 23 Amber Road is at the centre of a conflict between conservation and commerce.

The story began in 2005, when 23 Amber Road was in a group of buildings the URA thought merited conservation. A proposal to conserve them was presented to the Conservation Advisory Panel (CAP), an independent panel made up of people from all walks of life. I was on the panel.

That was the first time some of the CAP members had seen the house. I remember the passionate presentation by the URA architects and how enchanted we were with aerial photos of the house as it was in the 1960s, fronting the beach, on the very edge of the sea.

And when the architects called the crescent-shaped structure 'butterfly wings', the idea of a windswept Butterfly House caught our imagination.

The reality, however, is not so romantic. The ageing, disused Butterfly House has long lost its beachfront vista and sits hidden behind vacant State land after reclamation shifted the sea some distance away. From Amber Road, only the back porch can be seen, and at that street level, you cannot tell that the house has wings.

Still, we voted to conserve it, even though it was not a national landmark. After all, the Butterfly House is the only residence in Singapore with curved wings, designed by Regent Alfred John Bidwell, the architect who also designed Raffles Hotel, Goodwood Park and Victoria Memorial Hall.

I must admit, though, that the default setting for many of us on the CAP is 'Yes' to most conservation proposals because we want to conserve as much as possible. Singapore's first swimming pool? 'Yes!' The church that looks like a biblical tent? 'Yes!' Entire stretches of Joo Chiat shophouses? 'Yes! Yes! Yes!'

It is easy for CAP to say 'Yes!' because the cost of conservation does not affect our pockets. It affects the owners.

And this is the heart of the story. Unlike bungalows with large gardens, the Butterfly House takes up almost all the land within its gates. There is no space to fit in anything else, not even columns to lift a building above the house, which means conservation would cause a complete loss of development potential to the owner.

So, last year, when developers AG Capital lodged an option to buy and develop the site, the URA decided not to impose such a high cost on the owner and gave permission for total redevelopment.

That decision became a rallying call for the people who love the building. More than 30 letters to the government, and newspaper articles, protested against the demolition of the Butterfly House.

In response, URA planners approached AG Capital to discuss alternative options. AG Capital wanted maximum returns on its $8 million purchase of the site, but was open to exploring alternatives to total redevelopment if the URA would help.

So both parties spent weeks in meetings, simulating outcomes and turning over every rock to find a workable solution, including making a case to various other authorities for the waiver of rules pertaining to things such as width of driveways, building setbacks, construction access through state land, and fire safety.

But the wall-to-wall span of the butterfly wings made it impossible for the site to hold a fully conserved house as well as the apartment block it was bought for. Still, after the outcry, it was clear the house was an important identity marker on Amber Road. So perhaps an exceptional case of partial conservation would enable a meaningful part of the house to stay.

But which part? If the signature wings were kept, the back porch that is visible to the street would be lost. The wings would still be hidden from view, as they had been for the past 40 years. If conservation is about retaining a sense of place, then the familiar porch and boundary walls, rather than the wings, should stay. This way the house would retain a recognisable street presence.

This hybrid solution appeared after half a year of extra effort by AG Capital and the URA. The proposed conservation plan was made available for public viewing and 34 members of the public wrote in.

After reviewing all the facts, the Ministry of National Development made a final decision to accept the partial conservation.

But is a Butterfly House still a Butterfly House without its wings? Can you remove the most beautiful part of something and still expect people to like it? For those who love the Butterfly House for its architecture, the remaining wingless fragment is devoid of meaning. If you cannot keep all of it, they ask, what is the point of this Franken-something?

But for those who love the building for its familiarity, the porch and boundary walls will remain what they see when leaving the Chinese Swimming Club or driving along Amber Road.

And for those who love the house for the story it tells - of a time when the sea was 'just there', when colonial architects built stately structures, when Katong was filled with bungalows, not apartment blocks - the grafting of the old on the new will add a twist to its long-running saga, a symbol of Singapore's transformation into a global city.

Of course, ideally, the Butterfly House should be kept in full because conservation is about keeping entire structures intact. But then, ideally, the owners of such buildings would also choose to protect rather than profit, and the State would have full public backing to use taxpayers' money to buy over such treasures.

And, like in some developed countries, Singapore would ideally have the 'white knight' developers, the foundations and trusts, a sophisticated conservation culture able to raise private funds to save endangered buildings.

Perhaps in time, through education and experience, conservation in Singapore will be all that. But until then, conservation needs solutions that can deal with the current reality.

In awarding Singapore the prestigious Global Awards for Excellence 2006, the Urban Land Institute noted: 'In a rapidly modernising country, Singapore has established a model conservation programme to preserve its rich heritage of vernacular buildings and colourful neighbourhoods. Using a collaborative approach involving government organisations, the public and developers, the island republic's Urban Redevelopment Authority has achieved a balance between free-market economics and cultural conservation.'

This balancing act has enabled Singapore to have sustainable tracts of vibrant heritage areas such as Boat Quay, Little India, Kampong Glam, Chinatown, Balestier, Jalan Besar, Tanjong Katong, Joo Chiat.

The commitment to that balance has kept the URA responsive to different needs. It would have been easier to just ignore the public calls to conserve, or simply impose the responsibility on the owner of the plot of land, or arbitrarily spend taxpayers' funds, but the URA had looked, instead, for more reasonable means to meet conflicting demands on 23 Amber Road.

The wingless version of the Butterfly House may not be perfect but its continued presence will tell a vivid story of survival through times of change, and how a group of people - activists, writers, city planners, developers - succeeded against the odds to save a familiar piece of Amber Road from vanishing without a trace.

The writer covered conservation extensively as a Straits Times journalist from 1989 to 1995. She now runs Naga Films.

Related articles on Singapore: general environmental issues
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