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Are trees poorly positioned?

- Yes, they hide buildings, says Heritage Society president
- No, they give buildings unique tropical look, says architect

By Ng Tze Yong
March 13, 2007
The New Paper

GREEN is Singapore's favourite colour.
Singapore is the Green City, the Garden City, the City in the Garden.

But, as our photos show, this garden may be looking just a tad overgrown.

Be a tourist for a day.

You might find your patience - and photographic skills - put to the test.

Several of our iconic buildings are obscured behind a 'green curtain' of trees. And it's almost impossible to take an unobstructed picture of them.

Sometimes, it's almost comical to watch tourists squat and tip-toe as they hunt for that postcard-perfect view.

During his Budget Speech last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong set out his vision of a 'City in a Garden'.

And Singapore will be spending $700 million building more parks, park connectors, rooftop gardens and even vertical and high-rise greenery. That's many more trees coming our way.

Is it time to start planning more carefully where and what we plant?

Dr Kevin Tan, the president of the Singapore Heritage Society, feels there is 'a certain insensitivity about the way some trees are planted, especially those in front of landmarks'.

He said: 'If you plant trees on road dividers, that's fine. But why plant big trees in front of historic landmarks?

'The Urban Redevelopment Authority, Preservation of Monuments Board and the National Parks Board should work more closely together.'

Mr Tim Auger, an editor, agrees.

When he was working on Singapore: The Encyclopedia, Mr Auger found it tough to photograph Singapore's landmarks.

'If you cannot photograph a building properly, it's hard to think about promoting it as an icon,' he said.

Besides, wouldn't it be ironic if tourists who come here to see the 'City in a Garden' can't see the City because of the Garden?

So why are we hiding historic buildings behind trees after spending so much money to conserve them?


The Singapore Tourism Board said it has not received any complaints about this, while the URA said it has had some feedback from the public about the issue.

Some say there is a case to be made for keeping the greenery.

Mr Simon Longman, director of streetscape at NParks, said trees have 'aesthetic value' and also provide much needed shade.

He added that Singapore is held up as a model for being a Garden City, adding: 'We should not be too hasty in abandoning our approach.'

The URA conserves historic buildings because they 'imbue a city with a sense of history and social memory'. But can they do that from behind their 'green curtain'?

Dr Yeo Kang Shua, a heritage lover who is also a trained architect, said it's a fine line to draw.

'We can't just look at the buildings or just the trees alone,' he said. 'We need to look at the whole environment.'

He pointed out that there used to be a carpark in front of Victoria Memorial Hall. 'You could see the building completely. But the carpark was an eyesore,' he said.

Today, there's a garden. But the trees obscure the view.

So is it better to have the carpark or the garden?

'The camera is fixed. Humans are mobile,' Dr Yeo said. 'We can move around to enjoy the building from different angles.'

Many of the pictures you see on the previous page are actually old postcards.

Were the buildings photographed from those angles because that was the best way to show the building?

'Some buildings are meant to be monumental and enjoyed from far,' Dr Yeo said.

An example: City Hall.

'Other buildings are more intimate. They invite people to explore its spaces up close,' he said.

Like the Armenian Church. Its trees provide shade for its quaint garden located in the heart of the city.

'If you put these buildings on a pedestal, you make them look unapproachable,' said Dr Yeo.

This issue goes beyond historical landmarks.

Last year, a Straits Times columnist suggested cutting down trees in Orchard Road because they overshadowed the buildings. Nature-lovers promptly wrote in to protest.

But Orchard Road is a big street. For individual buildings, removing just one or two trees will do the trick.

Ultimately, it's an unusual tussle because it's between romantics - romantics who love old buildings versus romantics who love trees.

Which should we value more? The green or the old?


It's not a win-lose situation.

Planted with care, tropical trees complement our landmarks, many of which were built in the colonial style.

Said Dr Yeo: 'Without these tropical trees, our churches will look just like churches in England.'

Heritage guide Geraldene Lowe-Ismail loves the trees.

She said: 'The shade allows tourists to linger and admire the building, but it's no good if they can't see the building.'

Dr Tan suggests trimming or transplanting the trees.

'We don't even need to chop them down. Buildings are our heritage. They are part of people's memories,' he said.

'But trees are, too.'

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