In another delightful twist, the former Traffic Police headquarters at Maxwell Road, which once managed and dispensed regulations of the country's streets, is now red dot Traffic, an eclectic space where rules are meant to be broken.
The 1928 colonial structure built by a Public Works Department architect named F. Dorrington Ward now houses food and beverage outlets and the red dot design museum. The latter boasts the largest collection of international contemporary design exhibits in Asia, on display in a building originally built to serve as living quarters for married junior officers of the Metropolitan Police Force. Its compound was also once the site where driving tests were held.
Red dot Asia president Ken Koo was thrilled by the opportunity to set up in a building like that, adding: "Old buildings have their own charm. You can almost hear the walls telling you their stories as you walk through the place.
But it is not just stories those walls come with – taking over a conservation building comes with a long list of rules and regulations related to redesign. Several structures had to be left intact, including wall fixtures, and this forced a harder think in terms of what could be done.
"Embracing conservation forced us to be creative – in design and creativity, it is about breaking rules to achieve greater improvements," says red dot Asia president Ken Koo. "We were the first to paint a large conservation building that used to be a really serious law enforcement energy bright red, and that means breaking many conventions and even customs."
The designers also wanted to surprise with other changes and new insertions. That is why, in addition to the 'colour-shock', the design museum and the museum shop were created entirely out of the open courtyards in the compound, he explains. When a lift was constructed, Koo also decided to leave the lift core as a raw concrete structure, which was something not everyone agreed with. "The raw concrete structure allows for different design changes throughout the day due to the shadows the sun casts on the structure. The lift is beautiful in its own imperfect way. I could not have made a better decision," he says.
These days, red dot Traffic is a truly iconic Neo-Classical building right in the heart of Tanjong Pagar, and attracts curious visitors. A particular draw is the MAAD (Market of Artists And Designers), which it holds on one Friday night of each month. This celebration of creativity allows visitors to enjoy live music, live drawing sessions at the OIC (Organisation of Illustrators Council) 'Portrait After Dark' and grab beers and nachos from a makeshift bar right inside the museum. They can also expect to find unique, quirky and designer buys from the more than 70 creative booths put together by Singapore's design and artistic community.
There's no knowing what new uses can and will be dreamt up for other heritage icons. Wong perhaps puts it best when he says: "Conservation is constantly alive and evolving. What is a good modern building today could be a good historic building in fifty or a hundred years' time – as long as it is worthy and preserves the culture of the country at the time."
URA's Conservation Programme started in the early 1980s, with some 3,000 shophouses in the Historic Districts of Chinatown, Little India, Kampong Glam and Boat Quay conserved. Historical buildings have since been identified for conservation at a steady rate. In the last two decades, URA's Conservation Programme has retained over 7,000 heritage buildings in some 100 areas.