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By breathing new life into the old, adaptive reuse keeps conserved buildings relevant.

Progress does not always have to mean that all things need to be shiny and new. A passion for the past, a bit of imagination and some careful reinvention has allowed some of Singapore's conservation buildings to take on new lives through adaptive re-use. Three projects show how it has been done.

Made wander-ful again Wanderlust Hotel (2 Dickson Road)

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What used to be an old school is now an award-winning hotel with very cool spaces. Built in the 1920s and conserved in 1989, the building located in Little India now houses the über-hip Wanderlust Hotel, the brainchild of adventurous Singaporean hotelier Loh Lik Peng. Wanderlust attracts savvy travellers with its 29 themed rooms that range from industrial glam to monochromatic chic. The hotel's French bistro, Cocotte, draws throngs of Singaporeans while others are content to just recline in antique barber chairs in the lobby and watch the world go by.

This four-storey Art Deco building caught his eye the moment he saw it, says Loh, who adds that he was most taken by its original features and the amount of natural light that is generously admitted into the lobby – a typical feature in buildings of that era.

Rather than be fazed by the restrictions he would face in making changes, he took it as a challenge, with the aim of preserving the old without compromising the new. In fact, much care went into retaining the building's architectural charm and complementary historical design elements, which included the timber staircase railings and green marble flooring. Wanderlust also retains the building's distinctive period façade and the European Art Nouveau-inspired tiles on the ground floor. He also held on to little hidden secrets, like a little room that is now behind the reception, which is adorned with original tiles.

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Forced to play with different spatial configurations and shapes when it came to the rooms, he roped in even more creative genius – Singapore's award-winning design agencies Asylum, PhunkStudio and fFurious, together with architect firm DP Architects. Each of the agencies was tasked with conceptualising the look for a particular floor. Asylum came up with "Industrial Glam" for the lobby, while PhunkStudio went with "Eccentricity" for Level 2, where neon dominates most surfaces. Level 3 is "Is it just Black and White" by DP Architects, featuring contrasting black-and-white painted spaces with origami and Pop-Art works, and on Level 4, Creature Comforts by fFurious is inspired by fantasy and features friendly monster motifs.

But for all this reinvention, vestiges of the past remain. It may not have the sheen of a brand new building for instance, but Loh explains that it is deliberate. "A little imperfection and signs of wear and tear are what make these projects special… and you need to make sure that you respect the history of the building," he insists. "With the proviso that people don't 'over-restore' things, I'm a great believer in conservation projects because you get details you don't get with new buildings".

This clever transformation of the old school building into a new and more viable hotel use has won the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA)'s Architectural Heritage Award in October 2011.

Grand dame gets all dressed up Ascott Raffles Place Singapore (2 Finlayson Green)

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The Art Deco-style former Asia Insurance Building was the natural choice for Ascott Raffles Place Singapore, a serviced apartment complex in the heart of the Central Business District. This venerable downtown fixture was once nicknamed "The Queen" for the crown that adorned its top, which was installed to mark the 1953 coronation of Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.

"We've created a unique experience. There's a lot of history written all over the building, and guests feel like the past surrounds them," says Wong Hooi Wai, Chief Development Officer of The Ascott Limited in 2009. Nestled within its luxurious modern confines are plaques commemorating the building's opening and a brass mail chute for guests to drop off postcards and letters.

Just as this grand dame was once a symbol of Singapore's blossoming position as a financial centre, The Ascott reflects Singapore today: it's a contemporary landmark that signifies progress while retaining its history. While designing the building 60 years ago, architect Dr Ng Keng Siang married modern movements with local influences.

According to Wong, restoring and re-inventing the Asia Insurance Building into The Ascott meant keeping many of its original features intact without compromising modern comforts. Every piece of marble on the building and its black granite five-foot-way has been polished. And while thick glass was installed to soundproof each unit, all the steel window structures with brass handles remain as they are. The interiors were designed to be evocative of the 1950s.

After exploring every square inch of the building, from the basement to ceiling, Wong and his team reached for the skies by installing a pool on the rooftop. This extensive undertaking won The Ascott URA's Architectural Heritage Award in 2009. 

A rule-breaking revival red dot Traffic (28 Maxwell Road)

A rule-breaking revival  red dot Traffic (28 Maxwell Road)

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.