Saving Singapore’s Golden Mile Complex

Singapore’s complicated mix of land nationalisation, mass public housing, and finance capitalism come together in the Golden Mile Complex – a 1970s megastructure which has just been saved from demolition.

Singapore's Golden Mile Complex was recently saved from demolition. (Credit: Darren Soh / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Since Brexit, there has been much talk about replicating Singapore’s model for the UK. Yet the widely-held perception of Singapore as a highly laissez-faire economy with a small government isn’t the whole story. Despite having a very open economy, the state plays an important role in guiding economic policies and development strategies along two ends of the political spectrum.

Nowhere is the level of state intervention more evident than in the built environment. The Singapore government owns around 90 per cent of available land in the city state, through the Land Acquisition Act, which gave the government extensive powers to rapidly acquire land without much resistance. Such an apparently brutal infringement of the rights of individual property owners was justified by Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister, on the basis of national development for the greater public good. Owning virtually all the available land on the island within the first two decades after independence, the state was able to embark on a series of long-term development strategies.

Land use is guided through five-year national urban masterplans tied to economic industry development, while land itself is leased to private developers for a tenure of 20, 30, 60, or 99 years. By limiting the lease period, this enables the state to experiment with ideas of urban living and new industry sectors through both public and private real estate development. Such calibrated experimentations between the state and the free market are best captured through the design and planning policies for the Golden Mile Complex, one of the early modernist buildings built in post-independence Singapore.

Completed in 1973, the Golden Mile Complex was designed as a linear megastructure, compacting residential, office, and retail spaces within a single 16-storey building. Influenced by the dominant architectural discourse of Brutalism and Metabolism in the 1960s and 1970s, the architects of the Complex — William Lim, Tay Kheng Soon and Gan Eng Oon — were interested in creating an ‘Asian City of Tomorrow’. To make an environment that could intensify public life within a tropical climate, they designed a terraced building form that drew natural light and ventilation deep into the building interior, allowing inhabitants to walk comfortably and interact within interior streets and atriums.

The Complex was one of a handful of megastructure projects that were executed globally, while most existed only as theoretical projects in architecture journals. It is therefore not surprising that Fumihiko Maki, from the Japanese Metabolist movement, famously commented: ‘we theorised, and you people are getting it built.’ Maki’s statement revealed the translation of Golden Mile Complex’s utopian design within the practical realities of everyday life. Supporting these realities were a set of interventionist state policies and regulations.

Singapore in the 1970s was filled with hawkers, small-scale traders, and business owners. Responding to their functional requirements, the Complex’s configuration of small commercial shop lots and offices provided affordable spaces for small businesses. This was made possible through the Land Titles (Strata) Act 1968, providing the legal framework for individual unit owners to obtain a share of the land.

As one of the pilot sites of Government Land Sales — the sale of land to private developers — the state provided incentives for purchase, requiring only 20% down payments with the remaining 80% to be repaid interest-free over a 10-year period. Hence, the developer was able to rely on a large pool of individual owners to finance the project. Such favourable terms were granted due to the Complex being part of an important urban renewal plan for a new mile-long commercial belt along Beach Road leading to the city centre — hence the name Golden Mile.

The Golden Mile Tower and the Golden Mile Complex stand along the Nicoll Highway in front of other residential buildings in Singapore. Credit: Darren Soh / Bloomberg via Getty Images.

The Strata model represented a social contract between individual shop owners and the developer, while the government incentives for land sales ensured the financial sustainability of the development. The Golden Mile Complex, therefore, was an early form of ‘stakeholder capitalism’, where the interests of small business owners, private developers, and the government’s planning objectives were all met.

However, despite initial successes in the 1970s and 1980s, the Strata model would eventually lead Golden Mile Complex on a path of gradual decline. Falling into disrepair together with random balcony extensions, the building was described by one politician as a ‘vertical slum’ and a ‘market failure’ due to the lack of collective maintenance of the building by individual owners. With an ageing infrastructure quickly losing appeal and value, the solution was to embark on an en-bloc redevelopment, where individual Strata owners would put up a collective sale of the building to a new developer that would demolish and rebuild.

At its peak in 2018, a total of S$10.3 billion of collective sale in Singapore was transacted. This poses questions about how we treat our old building stock, and whether there is an alternative way that could ensure its longevity. The endless process of demolition and rebuilding is both environmentally and financially unsustainable, and is continuously driving up real estate prices. Ironically, in the case of the Golden Mile Complex, ironically the collective sale fell through twice due to the high price tag, buying time for the Urban Redevelopment Authority to embark on a conservation study of the building; the study eventually led to the proposal to confer conservation status.

Prospective developers would be able to extend the expiring lease, develop up to an additional 30 per cent increase in existing floor area — the equivalent of a 30-storey tower — while conserving the existing terraced architectural features. The dispensation of such incentives is historic, as it signals the willingness of the state to subsidise the costs of conservation by granting an additional developable area.

Whichever direction it eventually takes, the radical spirit of experimentation is captured in the Golden Mile Complex. Architecturally, its compact mixed-use typology has been incorporated into the design of integrated community hubs all around Singapore, and exported overseas through government-linked design consultancy and development firms. Politically, the Golden Mile Complex demonstrates the willingness and ability of the state to intervene and calibrate the market towards its financial and social objectives.

But without dampening that initial excitement, it is important to take a step back and look at the implications of revitalising the Golden Mile Complex on the existing building’s inhabitants, and question what exactly it is we are trying to conserve and preserve. In order to offset the high development costs it is likely the Complex will be turned into upscale condominiums, boutique hotels, and commercial malls. The likely outcome of this would be the displacement of the existing shop owners and immigrant community. While the Complex’s distinct architecture features would be preserved, the original humanistic spirit of the building would be lost.