Adaptation of the Past to the Modern World and Maintaining Its Essence

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“Spatial structures which aided memory were continuously under threat, and would ultimately be destroyed by the forces of progress.” (Chee, 2018) This becomes especially true when remembering the past and what it used to look like can happen with just a tap on the screen, a click of a button. With the advent of recording technology, preservation and adaptation of the past no longer can be superficial. Ideas of conservation and adaptation of a space is now more than ever, about capturing the “essence” of the past and conveying it to the present and future generations. The “essence” of the past can be difficult to pin down, but this essay, through analyzing the different use of newly-adopted forms, technology and conservation strategies in the entertainment spaces of Southeast Asian cities, that are subject to multicultural influences, will argue the significance of an intact program in accommodating the dynamic nature of tradition in the adaptation of the past to the modern world and its role in maintaining the “essence” of the space it once was.

Adaptation as a Discursive Position

With plans for heritage and conservation dating back decades, the idea of heritage and conservation in Singapore has been one that is contentious. The discursive position of adaptation entails the understanding of the fine line between adaptation and accentuation, in which we stand the risk of oversimplifying the past and using the buildings as a way to “freeze-frame” history, where we deny the dynamic nature of culture or only emphasis on certain elements that results in hyper-tradition in the attempt to make our past relevant to the present and future.

This essay will study the series of adaptations of the Majestic Theatre in Singapore and the Hoi An Traditional Performance Art House in the Ancient Town of Hoi An, as they, more so than other civic or administrative buildings, are required to be dynamic as the people who occupy it due to their function. When events or festivals are held in these spaces, they also act as a celebration of the space and the history of the space. Each venue would have its own story to tell (Chan, 2017), be it through its form, materiality or ornamentations. Therefore, the physicality of these places still remains just as significant in its portrayal of its essence.

Adaptation in the Process of Construction as to Reflect the Hybridisation of Cultures

The physical form informs us of the process of construction and the important influences in the region during its conception. As the two case studies are located in multi-cultural regions, one subject to colonial influences and the other to East Asian influences due to its status as a trading port, the buildings adapt to include these influences. In the case of Majestic Theatre, the colonial influences resulted in the adoption of an Art Deco style. Designed by Swan & Maclaren, the Majestic Theatre was akin to a white box with strong horizontal lines, angular arches and cornices.

Perhaps the most prominent feature of the Majestic Theatre is its façade, in which you can see the hybridisation of multiple influences. The façade design comprises of rich Chinese iconography such as opera scenes, and shiny multicolored mosaics fashioned into flying dragons but makes use of Belgium manufacture tiles. Back in the 1920s, colonial influences brought about the use of tiles. Its ease in maintenance in the tropical climate and compatibility to a multitude of forms due to flexibility of its application made it a popular material and was sought after by those who could afford it. These tilings were used to create architectural motifs that would not serve just aesthetic but also communicative purposes. These motifs, instead of being replicas of those that were seen overseas, were applied to the local context and were used to provide the Singapore public with visual cues about the theatre’s purpose as a Chinese opera theatre and Eu Tong Sen’s social status with its use of iconography.

Meanwhile, in the case of the Hoi An Traditional Performance Art House, the Chinese and Japanese influences experienced during its heyday as a trading port is reflected in the roof forms of buildings of the ancient town. The roofs of the buildings in Hoi An included rafters similar to the ones featured in Japanese architecture and Chinese architecture but were adapted to allow for proper angle of pitch to prevent rain from getting in through the gaps. It is also likely that the high pitch was adopted as the merchants of Hoi An adopted the same signs of prosperity and status symbol learnt from the Japanese merchants that frequented the port, therefore the particular pitch referred to as “udatsu” became a point of attention when it came to conservation programmes in Hoi An Ancient Town. In the case studies above, both instances of construction reveal the influence of -outside parties- during a certain point of time in history and do so in different ways, one through means of ornamentation and façade and the other with the use of roof form. And although in both cases these ideas did not originate from the locals, the ideas were reinterpreted to the needs of the locals, be it through being a means to communicate their own identities and activities or to achieve their own goals.

Adaptation in the Process of Renovation and Maintenance Allows for the Potential for the Hybridisation of Past and Modern Space

The acts of renovation and maintenance can be a form hybridisation of past and modern space. As buildings deteriorate and fall out of fashion, they need to be renovated and maintained to keep up with the times. This can come in the form of making use of new building techniques or building materials. In the case of the Majestic Theatre, the theatre had to undergo a series of changes, from a Chinese opera theatre, cinema, shopping centre and lastly a betting centre. The attempt to readapt the space for different uses come with a change in its physicality. Closed in 1998 and re-opened in 2003 as a three-storey shopping mall after an $8 million renovation, the façade of the theatre was maintained, but the interior of the theatre was drastically altered in which the Chinese ornamentation and motifs were removed to accommodate the numerous faceless shops, removing many of its distinctive interior architectural period features. This also included the removal of the tiered cinema seating and a 1930 bar on the ground floor.

Meanwhile, the Hoi An Traditional Art Performance Theatre is maintained with the use of modern material such as concrete. Whilst the form of these buildings remain intact, it can be argued that these measures did not take into account the materiality of these buildings and only act to preserve the visual appearance of these buildings. Instead of maintaining the damaged tiles, the tiling is plastered over, making them easier to manage in the renovation process and gives it a newer appearance.

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Whilst the buildings might look similar to what they were before, the spatial experience and nuance that comes with the materiality of the building are lost. The materiality of the building can convey the element of time and can come in the form of weathering and the subtle changes that are a result of human use. These physical elements that can be seen, touched and engaged as part of the space to tell a story of how the building was once used are now lost. These means of maintenance can be argued to be a form of “freeze-framing” the past in which we maintain the appearance and image of the past in the preservation of these buildings but do not communicate the complexities such as the context and the history of the building to the present and future generations. The act of “freeze-framing” becomes a means to an end to portray an image that is expected by a tourist who comes to Singapore seeking the exotic sights, sounds and smells of the far east. Therefore, the significance of the renovation and maintenance process in the communication of the building is one that is great, the resulting product of hybridisation of the past and present need to be sensitive to the nuances of the past yet remain innovative and relevant for the future.

The Added Significance of an Intact and Evolving Program in Preservation of the Past and Accommodation of the Dynamics of Tradition

On top of possibilities of the narratives of the past being maintained by the physical features of the building, the way in which the building is used can play a role in the buildings conversation between history and the present. Goad says that “Working through the limits of heritage can reveal new ideas based deep within the psyche of the historic Asian city.” Beyond the preservation of a building’s physical traits as a means to communicate history, we can look into the program of the space as a means to communicate and even immerse the present and future generations in history. New ideas that arise from the limitations of heritage ensure that programs are relevant to today’s age yet make use of the connotations of the building to enhance the experience of the building today. Likewise, as said by Abel, “Architecture provides vivid evidence of this coexistence in time of different cultural realms. There as on lies in the enduring physical and spatial nature of architecture itself and of the settlement patterns of which it is composed, which not only frequently outlast the original culture which produced them, but also provide tangible meeting points between new and old cultures and the lifestyles which go with them.”, we can expand upon how we can ensure that these buildings that we choose to conserve act as a tangible meeting point between new and old cultures by preservation of the functions of entertainment spaces. In organizing activities in these buildings, there is potential to enrich the experience of those who visit with the added element of nostalgia.

The Difference in the Nature of Preservation of Programmes in Accordance with the Significance and Style of Building

Take the use of Majestic Theatre as a cinema for example. Majestic Theatre was used for Singapore Internation Film Festival from the 1980s to the theatre's closure during 1998. Despite its run-down state relative to the newer cinemas that have been built after it, people still frequented the theatre during festival days. Despite the city’s fastidiousness and obsession with cleanliness at that point of time, its visitors hardly complained about the state of the buildings or the rats that would scamper around. Argued that experiencing the festival at the Majestic Theatre in mid-1990 evoked an affective sense of a lost past not just of a place but also of time, the adaptation of Majestic Theatre’s space as a cinema from a chines opera theatre was one that is successful in bridging the new and old cultures.

Despite a change in the entertainment program, the subsequent program benefitted from the past of the Majestic Theatre and was able to enrich the experience of a more relevant program. With the right program that bears similarity to what the space used to be catered for, there is potential for an intimate relationship to be built up in these spaces that make a mundane everyday occurrence such as watching a movie, more meaningful. Fast-forward to a few years later, the Majestic Theatre is now used as a betting center, this change was met with numerous backlash, one of them being the Former sectary of the Kityang Huay Kuan Teochew opera society David Tay, 64, lamenting, “This keeps happening. People care more about money these days than culture”. The theatre being used a betting centre upset many due to the ideas associated with betting and its irrelevance to the history of what the Majestic Theatre used to be. The preservation of the Majestic Theatre today is summed up by the words of Mr Ang Chin Guan, a Chinese art enthusiast “The outside looks good, but inside—it’s a moral deterioration ” where nothing more than the appearance of the past has been maintained.

In contrast, the Hoi An Traditional Performance Art House remains largely intact and even continues to showcase a range of traditional folk dance and music and does so multiple times a day every day. Because of the UNESCO world heritage guidelines that ensures that Hoi An Ancient City and its buildings remain as an exceptionally well-preserved example of a small-scale trading port that was active in the 15th to 19th centuries, emphasising the elements that reflected their interaction with the rest of Southeast Asian and East Asia and the characteristics that were unique to its culture like the types of performance specific to its people. However, because of its guidelines, the functions of entertainment spaces such as Hoi An Traditional Performance Art House as not been able to evolve to the needs of the locals and its repetitive structure and content can be attributed to the economic potential it has as a part of of the Ancient City’s appeal to the tourists. Because of this requirement, it is difficult for the building to reveal new ideas that surround the historic city or be a meeting point of new and old cultures as the guidelines do not make room for innovation or even evolution of these programmes to keep up with present times.

In the case of the Ancient Town of Hoi An, it seems as though the act of “freeze-framing” of the past does not just apply to the physical appearance of the buildings but even the activities and experience that the building has to offer to those who visit. Comparing the guidelines of UNESCO with the guidelines set for the Majestic Theatre, it can be said because of Majestic Theatre being part of the greater Kreta Ayer historical district but not within its “core” heritage area and that is a modern building that does not directly nor visually communicate the identity of Singapore, the determined use of the building was more lax and the list of trades deemed to intrude on its “cultural ambience” remained short. Whilst the Ancient Town of Hoi An remained a more direct and visual means of communicating the history and identity of its locals due to its traditional elements, leading to a more stringent means of dictating the programming of historic spaces.

The Difference in the Nature of Preservation of Programmes in Accordance with the Significance and Style of Building

In fact, the key difference between the two case studies is that one is a result of the influence of modern architecture and the other, foreign vernacular architecture. The way we perceive and in turn treat these buildings vary with our perception of the value we place on modernism and vernacular architecture in our heritage. As there were efforts to portray Singapore’s “exotic east or colonial heritage” to meet the expectation of tourists, urban conservation efforts in the past did not include modern buildings. It was believed that “The only way that gives our city a distinct personality is our historic past through the selective conservation of old district and buildings” and that we cannot grow too reliant on modern architecture that is viewed to be restained by the economics of efficient construction and only telling of the pervasiveness of the international style.

With modernism’s lack of ornamentation, modernist buildings become an interesting study as despite their simple forms, are still able to communicate the progress of Singapore during her nation-building period. In fact, modernism gives us a glimpse into Singapore’s time as a thriving colonial migrant city, in which we had a rich and varied urban culture being well connected to the world through various means such as trade, travel and media. Recreation and entertainment were catered to everyone and came in forms of being homegrown and imported, for the well to do and for the masses, it offered a glimpse into a distinctively different Singapore that we know today.

As compared to the visual impact of preserving the façade of a vernacular building that has a more drastic difference as compared to the buildings we have today.

Whilst neither of these cases are desirable, lessons can be taken from the two case studies to ensure that a historic space is able to act as a meeting point between the old and the new. Striking a balance between the programmatic strategies of the two case studies, programs of a historic space should benefit with the past of the building such that the present experience is enriched by the past and that the programs, much like the buildings should not be a “freeze-frame” of the past but evolve with the culture and needs of its people.

Therefore, the issue of adaptation is revealed to be one that is complex, as there are many layers as to how a building is able to adapt to its contexts. For a building to remain relevant, it needs to adapt to the foreign influences of the time of its construction as to communicate its time, continue to evolve in the present day that it remains relevant in the present day and that this issue of relevancy extends to the use of the building that could greatly determine the success of evoking an affective sense of the past time.

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