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CONSERVATION CONVERSATIONS Pearl Bank Apartments

by Geraldine Quek, Kevin Josiah Neo and Teri Lim


ISBN 978-981-09-7016-1 (pbk.) ISBN 978-981-09-7018-5 (digital bk.) Published in Singapore in 2015 by Kevin Josiah Neo. Copyright Š 2015 Geraldine Quek C. T., Neo J. H. Kevin Josiah, Lim Y. L. Teri All rights reserved. No parts of this publication may be reproduced, stored in any retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, or otherwise without prior written permission of the copyright owners. All opinions expressed in the book are of the authors and do not reflect those of the Singapore University of Technology and Design and the Architecture and Sustainable Design Pillar. All images provided are by courtesy of the authors unless otherwise stated. This publication was made possible under an Architectural Mentorship Grant from Mr. Tan Cheng Siong and Archurban Architects Planners. Cover: A juxtaposition of the exterior and interior facades of Pearl Bank Apartments. Back cover: An introspective view of Pearl Bank Apartments from the service stairs. Photography by Geraldine Quek C. T. Printed in Singapore.


Before we begin... This publication attempts to seek out varying perspectives and challenges regarding the issue of conservation of modernist architecture in Singapore from the past, the present and the future. As you read on, do keep an open mind and feel free to formulate your own viewpoint. You ready? Let us start.


WHAT HAPPENED THEN 8 10 16

What was Singapore like back then? The merit of modern architecture in Singapore Pioneering heights in the city

WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW 24 32 38 48 52 54 56 58

An experiential journey Conservation and redevelopment The complexity of conservation and public value Heritage impact and assessment Reasons for conservation Modernity and conservation Modernism and the dilemma of proximity Representing a nation

WHAT HAPPENS IF... 62 Voluntary conservation? 63 Conserved as-is? 64 Demolition? 65 Adaptive re-use?


It is pertinent to understand the historical context and events that created the backdrop for the case for conserving Pearl Bank Apartments. It was a different time then, when the first modernist buildings in Singapore were based on visions of the future city. What exactly lies behind the architectural design of Pearl Bank Apartments? Let us find out.

Opposite: Floor tiles found at the common corridors in Pearl Bank Apartments

WHAT HAPPENED THEN


What was Singapore like back then? A short discourse reminding ourselves of the historical context of the 1960s and 70s.

National Day Parade, 1968 (Wikimedia)

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Singapore faced a tumultuous future in the 1960’s. It experienced the attainment of self-government from the British, and subsequently independence from the Federation of Malaysia. Isolated, how would it survive, much less thrive? The immediate need was not just to physically provide for the needs of citizens, but to build a community of people that would endure the challenges ahead. The pioneer generation’s tenacity, foresight and passion were key to the fast changing landscape of Singapore in a short span of 50 years. Young Singapore underwent rapid urbanisation, experiencing progress on the housing front. Achievements were also made in areas such as

transportation, finance, infrastructure, military power, bilateral relations and education. All these were made with a great measure of efficiency. In 1967, two years from independence, the first batch of civilians were drafted into the army. Countless campaigns that aimed to build cohesiveness and single-mindedness in a society of immigrants, also shaped Singaporeans’ social memory. Developments in architecture and infrastructure contributed greatly to defining Singapore as a modern country as well as a progressive people. In addition to the basic facilities and services that were needed to be introduced to build up a modern society, an architecture that inspired


Progress could be seen in many areas of the newly forged Singaporean society during this exciting time. One of the most prominent achievements that continues to have an intimate effect on each Singaporean’s personal and collective life experience is that of our housing architecture. People from every walk of life were making changes to the way they lived. Families were moving from kampongs and shophouses to highrise flats, resulting in significant shifts in the urbanscape. In what way should the people of a newly independent country live? What principles would

the architecture of this country be built upon? How do we give the people better living conditions that will shape the future generations to come? Pearl Bank Apartments was built in the midst of such dialogues, and came about as a result of trying to find the ideal housing dream for Singapore. Designed by Tan Cheng Siong of Archurban Architects & Planners, it was a new vision of contemporary living and a precedent for subsequent high-density urban developments in Singapore. It sought to challenge and shape the architecture scene of early Singapore, and succeeded in doing so. ---

Kampong and Toa Payoh Flats in 1968 (Singapour)

confidence for the future, in the people of young Singapore was crucial. The first National Stadium, National Library and Changi Airport were completed, placing Singapore on the world map as a learned, civilised people with potential that the world could recognise and tap on. By 1988, Singapore was home to the world’s second busiest port and Changi Airport was praised as the best in the world.

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The merit of modern architecture in Singapore Can the conservation of modern buildings, such as the Pearl Bank Apartments be justified purely based on architectural merit? By Geraldine Quek

When the Pearl Bank Apartments was built in 1976, it was the tallest residential building in Singapore at 38 storeys, “reaching about the same altitude above sea-level as Singapore’s highest peak, Bukit Timah Hill”. (PBA, 1976) Pushing boundaries to have the highest density for a residential development, the design was conceived with the motivation to achieve a successful bid for the land parcel on public tender in accordance to the then guidelines of Urban Renewal in Singapore. With such high density in a single block, it was essential that the design resolves issues such as providing daylight, ventilation and views for every apartment. For the most efficient spatial

layout, a cylindrical block was chosen over a point block or a slab block for its typology. The 270º sector block has a 30 metre inner void that has a gap orientated to the west, reducing the daily sunset glare on the outer rim of the cylindrical block, where the living rooms and bedrooms are located. Today, Pearl Bank Apartments still stands as the highest-density single residential block in Singapore. Unique to its typology are the splitlevels in each apartment, which were commonly found in semi-detached houses during that time. This resulted in making the benefits available to middle income owners, with 2-3 floor levels in a

Top: Visual permeability between split levels

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Pearl Bank Apartments in its construction phase (www.pearlbankapartments.com)

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(Archurban Singapore) Sectional perspective of a 3 bedroom apartment

(Archurban Singapore)

Perspective render of living space in a 3 bedroom apartment


Sectional perspective of one of the 8 penthouses (Archurban Singapore)

Typical floor plan, 8 apartments on each storey

(Archurban Singapore)


single apartment. This provided privacy for the inhabitants while maintaining the view overlooking the cityscape. A window ledge discourages people from looking straight down from that altitude, encouraging people to look towards the city in the horizon instead. An ‘interlocking split’ system within the cylindrical block allows for maximum daylighting, views and ventilation within each apartment.

Opposite: Interior facade of Pearl Bank Apartments, July 2015 Right: Study diagram showing the interlocking split design

The dry areas (bedrooms and living rooms) are located along the outer rim, while the wet areas (kitchen and yards) are located within the inner rim, with the services and access staircases. With 8 apartments on each storey, apartments of 2, 3 and 4 bedrooms configurations are arranged and stacked in a way that repeats every 3 storeys. 8 penthouses are located at the top floor, complete with roof terraces. There are a total of 296 units in the single block. In today’s standards, the units are extremely spacious, with 130 sqm, 176 sqm, and 213 sqm respectively for the 2, 3 and 4 bedroom apartment configurations.

Penthouses are of 306.6 sqm each, with a 92.9 sqm roof terrace. Such spacious apartments are now a rarity in Singapore. Pearl Bank was constructed using a slipform concrete construction technique with reinforced concrete, which was relatively new in the 1970s. The vertical elements such as the 22.9 cm (9”) thick party walls were slip-formed while the split floors and staircases were cast insitu. “In fact, during the construction stage, the vertical elements went up so fast that the horizontal elements, notably the in-situ split floors and staircases, experienced a hard time trying to catch up.” Other than fire escape staircases that run straight down the building, 2-storey staircases protrudes out on the interior facade, leading the back door to the common corridor a storey above; Designed to comply with building regulations, it was also meant for domestic servants. ---

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Pioneering heights in the city A conversation with the original architect of Pearl Bank Apartments, Tan Cheng Siong.

Old photo of Pearl Bank Apartments (Archurban)

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Teri: We don’t really have to follow the questions but we will be talking along these lines. There are three different parts. Firstly, we hoping to ask you about what your vision was for Pearl Bank when you designed it in the 60s, then we will go on to talk more about conserving such modern architecture and also the voluntary conservation that is being proposed now. We are aware that Archurban won the URA site tender (for Pearl Bank Apartments) even though the client put up the lowest land price. Geraldine: The 1960’s was a long time ago (laughter). And right now, Pearl Bank is still considered a beacon of Singapore’s super high-rise, high density housing. In fact, it is still the densest

single-block in Singapore. What was the design concept you were looking at and using to design Pearl Bank? Mr Tan: The overarching need was to house people decently in the central area. For some reason I suppose, at that time the government had already started low-cost housing. But they were not new towns yet, like Bukit Ho Swee. In the central area, land was a bit expensive, and was not suitable for low-cost homes for the lower income. The government was concerned with renewing the city. It was to cater to the middle-income people in the downtown central area. Of course, People’s Park is one of those developments. It had a shopping centre. Our particular site, so it was not


Singaporeans who had the choice of terrace housing could live in more comfortable surroundings. So it was just an experiment! When this came up, my vision was to promote family living in the form of high-rise in the central area. Of course, in the earlier days… How do I put all of this together? I’ll try. (laughter) In the earlier days, we all lived in Chinatown. It was a very urban environment and we were in shophouses. So you did not really talk about nice homes and surroundings. We all just (had) simple places to put up. When we came from China, we just wanted to make a living. Nobody would really dare to say ‘raise families’

(as) in a Western concept of an affluent society. Of course there were some rich people living in Katong, Bukit Timah, but in town, like in Amoy Street, there were just shophouses. The poorer people stayed there. The challenge was to build for the middle-income a comfortable place to raise families and children. That was the driving force behind it.

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Teri: We were talking about these different factors in the context of Singapore that drove your design for Pearl Bank Apartments. We also want to know what were the lasting traits of Pearl Bank apartments that you considered really important and essential to highdensity urban living. So when you designed the apartments, what were the traits that really contributed to its high density? Mr Tan: So I said, I was concerned with raising families. They were probably educated, (these were) young mothers and young children. So we had a childcare there, and some shops

From original 1972 showflat brochure (Archurban)

suitable for commercial use, because it is on a hill. So no shopping podium was included. (It was) pure housing. It presented the challenge whether the people with families would like to live so close, or rather, would the central area be suitable for modern Singaporeans to live in the center of the city.


around. We also had a community floor to encourage meeting together. In Chinatown Singapore, there was never a place where people could congregate, except the street. Of course the covered walkway is not a place to congregate, it was more of a shelter from rain.

Opposite: View of Pearl Bank Apartments from street level, 2015

It occurred to me that a new typology is required. The old typology was shophouses and walk-up apartments. We still have them. Are you familiar with them? Four stories high, left and right units. That was the case in the city. The apartments were made for a form of family living. It had properly designed kitchens and bathrooms and so on, although it was still very rudimentary. The other thing was that I thought was necessary to design for was that the needs of an educated population would be more complex than in the old days. Especially if people were to raise families and live and work in the city. Education and learning were very nominal. There were not enough children to have schools. You have got to have enough students and let the system develop. Those were interesting scarcity days. Somehow the idea of raising families, having a good home, having good education places and having all that in town, (helped in directing me to) what I wanted to pursue in the design. To raise families. A design suitable for raising families. In a newly independent Singapore, the population was automatically prepared to have homes and to have families. Although it was difficult, but it is a Chinese cultural thing, and the Indian and Malay cultures are the same. Once you have children, you have many! In those days, some working class would have many children. The richer and higher mobility group would have

several wives, and each would have a few (children). So there were a lot of children somehow. That’s how it came about. It just grew. Geraldine: So you foresaw that there was going to be a need for high-density housing in Singapore because of more families and the exponential increase in the need for housing? So instead of a medium density block, you decided to build high density? Or was it a guideline you had to follow? What was the motivation behind the high density? Mr Tan: Well, I think there were several factors. Land is very expensive in the city area, and they come in small parcels. You can see that plots can be assembled, but (they are) normally not too big. You see in places like Beach Road, Golden Mile Complex, and like People’s Park, there are no very big plots. Therefore, the need for high density is for sure. Plot ratio was quite high. But not as high as Pearl Bank. Pearl Bank is unique as it is the first one that is so high. I think that it still remains the highest. This is because of Pearl’s Hill. Planners like to say, “With this piece of land (Pearl’s Hill), you could keep this as a park. Alternatively, if this same open area were residential, there would have been many homes. But since it is going to be kept as a park, the population that would have stayed on that land could be cumulated into one small plot.” That was the rationale of the planners. I think that is the main reason why it went so high. The density was high. At that time, there was no plot ratio, only density. And that allowed you to do certain things. But, it never dictated that it should be high. I was the one who thought that it had better go high. (laughter)

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It has many architectural considerations for a better environment to live in. The height went up. I suppose I took a brave step. We nearly lost it because when the developer saw it, they had not seen anything like that. To them it looked very shapely (laughter) but it was going to be costly.

Numbers make sense, of course. There were 288 homes including the shop units. Imagine if these 290 units were in 10 stories, there would be 29 units per floor! If you go down low to 18 stories, which is structurally more economical to build, it would have been close to 20 units per floor. That would have been spatially uninhabitable (laughter).

In my mind, I wanted to propose a good place to live in, in the city and in the park. I saw high value in its location, views and all sorts of good features. But the developers were scared. “It is no good man! Now that it is going to cost me so much, my land price has to be reduced.” I said, “If your land price is reduced, you will have no chance, Singapore is money-faced.” They replied with, “Sorry, we calculated it already.” There was heavy calculation to ensure profit. It is only fair that people don’t invest in architecture. People invest in profit, for profit. We took a risk. He took a risk. To be fair to him, he saw the architectural value.

That’s why after analysing it, we took the brave step to create a new height. Furthermore, it went higher because some of the units were not on single floors. They were on two floors, or one and a half floors, because of the split level arrangement.

Common corridors and internal staircases of PBA

It has a high plot ratio, therefore if you make it very low (height), the number of units per floor would be very high. It would be unwise if you turn it into a cube, because you would miss out on the views! The fantastic panoramic views and also opportunity to catch the breeze and so on. That was a brave step to take.


Geraldine: So even though it was the lowest land price tender, URA still saw value in the design and chose it, right? Mr Tan: The then head of URA, the architect planner, he’s still around, he was in charge of these sales. He was in charge of evaluating the submissions. At the time we submitted design plus price, unlike nowadays when it is just price. There were these two evaluations. The highest price was three or four block towers, that was no good. There was a lot of overlooking, and the views get blocked. They had very standard square arrangements, with no facilities. There was nothing spatially exciting about living there. Somehow, at that time, I was already quite concerned with providing facilities to homes. It caught the committee’s eyes, who were also looking for good solutions. To be correct, we must give credit to Singapore’s leaders who were concerned about wanting to create a good Singapore. We need a good city to be able to attract three things – the money (investments), the talent (people who like the place and bring their families) and the locals themselves (so the locals don’t migrate).

Mr Tan Cheng Siong, Principal of Archurban

At the time, Singapore was very insecure, politically, economically, so at

one stage people wanted to run away. People thought, “What is Singapore? I had better go back to China, India, Malaysia.” Singapore did not have its own indigenous people. We were all migrants. Therefore, they too had to be convinced, that Singapore is a good place to build a family, make a living, and like their forefathers, to accumulate wealth and prosperity. Those were the very complex issues going through the minds of good architects, like myself. Not many though! (laughter) were concerned about these issues. If you want to have a country, you must have a good place to be proud of. For some reason at the end of the day, human beings are still very tied to the space and the place. That is why architecture has very high value. Whether we fight, struggle and are prepared to live very meagerly in the beginning, but in the end the sense of place is very vital as a motivating power for its population. So I was right in the 1960’s. Go for it! Don’t do cute things, do proper things! That was the driving force and vision that said we need quality and we have to have excellence in order to compete and survive. ---

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The current situation of Pearl Bank Apartments is complex; A campaign to get 100% of the strata-titled owners to agree with the implementation of the voluntary conservation scheme is in progress. This is where it starts to get complicated. Varied opinions and standpoints are evident and we wanted to get up close and personal with them. Let us see what they have to say.

Opposite: Interior facade of Pearl Bank Apartments, 2015

WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW


An experiential journey A visit to the apartments that left us enlightened and intrigued. By Teri Lim

Common corridor in Pearl Bank Aparmtnents

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Thinking back on the visit, we could piece together various fragmented memories of the time there. As we ran through the happenings of the day in our heads, conversations and situations began to merge and form links, enriching the various experiences of the visit. We would now like to recount the parts of the building we went to and what we learned through chatting and observation, sharing with you the story of what happened when the three of us visited the mysterious, private and beautiful Pearl Bank Apartments.

classmates and our instructor, and we only spent about 10 minutes visiting an apartment and had to promptly leave. Thus, in great anticipation to get to know this building better, we confidently approached the counter that had a security guard and a formally dressed man behind it.

As we ascended the steep slope and stepped out of the car, we were excited. The last time we visited the Pearl Bank apartments was with a group of

“You can’t get into the building unless you sign in. That is because we have had people, unfortunately, come in and jump.”

“Hello.” We chimed. They looked at us blankly. Then, they nonchalantly pushed forward a clipboard. We signed our names and indicated the apartment we were visiting.


As we walked towards the lift, I heard one of them say, “Ah, Ed Poole’s house.” Pearl Bank Apartments does not have a typical lift lobby. We approached one of the lifts nearest to the main entrance and noticed that there were many other lifts along the length of the curve of the building. Some of them looked newer than others, so we boarded one of the newer looking lifts and agreed to try one of the older ones when we were leaving. After the slow journey up to the top floor, the lift door opened. I was surprised to be greeted by a sensation of falling forward, and tried to regain my balance by pushing my feet more firmly on the ground.

The view that greeted us when we stepped out of the lift.

“People thought birds would fly in and eat food off your table. They didn’t know how the plumbing would work, and they thought the pipes would break when you flushed your toilet! At that time, the tallest building in Singapore was, I think, 9 stories high. And all of a

sudden, he was building something 50 stories high! A lot of people were scared of that. Even now, we have a lot of reactions. A lot of people have vertigo. We had a client who literally put a cap on his head because he was so terrified of the height.” The view was awe-inspiring. The towering repeated modules that make up the apartment building’s facade was set against a backdrop of Singapore’s Downtown from high above, and there was a pleasant breeze as we walked down the corridor to find the right apartment. We entered in through the kitchen and were welcomed into the living room by Mr Poole. Taking a seat down at the dining table next to the balcony, Mr Poole looked at ease, and maybe just a little excited to speak to us about his beloved home. We had a list of questions printed out, but our conversation took us down various different paths of discussion that were dotted with firsthand anecdotes.

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A view towards the communal facilities below

Mr Poole’s penthouse unit


We spoke about the architectural typology of the apartments… “This is quite amazing actually. A lot of students come by because of the way they interlock these apartments. This was before the days of computerisation. It’s like a freaking Rubik’s cube! Underneath this cement floor here is the attic floor of apartment 35-02. But then, on the other side of the door there, is the bedroom of 35-01. It’s really strange how they intersect. Some of the apartments you go up to the living room from the kitchen, and some of the floors you go down to the living room. The type of apartment changes with what floor you are on. It’s really quite complicated. That’s what is the most amazing thing about this building.” … and what it meant to conserve a modern building like this. “Pearl Bank represents Singapore’s transition from colonial past to modern future. This building was stuck right at that time. It’s the same for Golden Mile and People’s Park… In that sense, there were debates when Pearl Bank was trying to go en-bloc. Architects were standing up and articles were written in the newspaper… If you don’t conserve something from the 70’s, then when people look at Singapore, there’s only going to be the colonial stuff and all new modern things – nothing in between. It’s not very representative of the growth of the country. Because it was the tallest building in all of SEA when it was put up, this building is very iconic, so it should be conserved for the general public.” “Why didn’t they keep the Shanghai plaster?” We asked. He began walking towards the balcony,

gesturing us to follow him. “Here, where the building was struck by lightning, is a classic example of what happens when a building gets old… Stuff like this starts to happen, like the cracking. They have to put cement over it and then you have to paint it to give it an even surface. Look, somebody had a wooden trellis up here, and when you remove it there are holes that need to be patched.” As campaign leader of the ‘No Enbloc’ Facebook group, he was also very eager to share about the status of the building’s voluntary conservation. “We are in the process now where the government has said yes, but they put a condition. A piece of yellow paper – a consent form – went to everybody. (They need to) tick the box ‘Yes’. We need 100% of the owners. The management petitioned back and said, it’s ridiculous. It only takes 80% to tear a building down, but 100% to save it? It doesn’t make any sense. It will be a laughing stock in the press worldwide. The government hasn’t replied back yet, but they have to lower it.” “So they are making up the rules as they go?” We asked. “Yeah, because this has never been done before.” On top of that, we got to hear an insider’s experience of witnessing the beginnings of a new conservation model in Singapore. “We opened up some bottles of wine. Mr Tan just went crazy. “Oh let’s do something like this.” (He sketched) the ball from the middle turned into a tower and we were all laughing… That

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Mr Tan Cheng Siong’s sketch

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must have been the moment when he realised that something can be done, (even though it was) in jest, maybe. Because when he came back two or three years later, he came up with this idea to tear the carpark down and ask the government for that extra space until the 28th floor. It will have a pool there to connect to the existing level. The government said yes.” “What do you think about getting the original architect to design the new block?” We asked. “Obviously Mr Tan has the passion to do it, and him designing it makes the whole thing more credible. It works in our favour. I would suppose that it adds weight to the point.” After chatting for quite a long while, we began to take a tour around the apartment. Moving around the apartment itself also evoked the same acrophobia that walking along the corridor did, with staircases and staircase landings opening up to large

volumes that span 2 stories. On top of being a beautiful place to live, the apartment had an interesting history. “(There was) the original owner, I don’t know who it was, then it was the guy who bought it after that. He basically told an agent, ‘Get money for it.’ So all the apartments were divided up, and there were 40 people living here. The living room has a wall down the middle and it was all cut into bedrooms.” “Was it allowed?” we asked in astonishment. “No it’s totally illegal.” “What was the condition like?” we probed. “Well, it was all in the original condition except that it was partitioned. It was divided into as many places as we could, and it was all students, so I remember there were some Cambodian girls, and some Thai guys, they had access to the kitchen. The whole back of


the kitchen, the whole wall, was covered with beer bottles. They left everything behind. It’s like the agent just told them to leave. They left everything behind.” There were many parts of the apartment that had been completely changed, largely because the apartment was damaged by the illegal subletting. Part of the apartment was also converted into an architecture office. However, walking through the rooms and hearing Mr Poole share about what used to be where, one could imagine, in their mind’s eye, a place of the yesteryears. After the visit ended and we bid Mr Poole goodbye, we headed for the void deck on the 28th floor.

Existing communal deck on the 28th storey

“Did you guys know that this building actually has the first concept of the void deck? So when the architect did that, on the floor plans, there is a couple of toilets, a big open community room, there’s supposed to be a gym, a library, and there’s actually on the plan a ladies’

sewing room (laughter). But the thing that’s funny is that when somebody wants to use the floor, the management doesn’t let anyone use it. It’s used for our AGM meetings, so maybe twice a year. They open it up during maybe Chinese New Year, or National Day of course, so that everybody can watch the fireworks. But if somebody wants to have a birthday party and you can’t fit people in your flat, they don’t let it out. They don’t let people have it.” “So it’s hardly used?” I said. “It’s very hardly used. And that is a decision by the management, which I find is really, really odd. We have this fantastic asset – 16000 sq ft of empty space – and they hardly ever use it.” We were intrigued as to what this void deck might have been like when the building first started. We also began to notice more details about the building – remnants of vintage equipment and tiling, and signs of wear and tear. As I

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“You know, it doesn’t feel like it’s all that dense… It’s kind of neat because we have the corridor going around. You do run into people and there is chit chat on the ledges. You see people downstairs. Kids run around, playing in the afternoon, sometimes making a lot of racket! It’s basically kind of like HDBs, because you have the common corridor, versus a lot of condos now where they purposely get rid of that feature, which basically isolates you completely… It is

your community that polices you, not necessarily the police.” We were indeed being watched, but by something much more unexpected. The first two people we met upon entering the apartments were about to also become the last ones we would interact with before leaving. “Excuse me, what are you doing here?” The formally dressed man asked firmly in a foreign accent. They saw us taking photos of the building from their live surveillance camera footage. “We are here to make a visit. We just came from Ed Poole’s apartment.” “You are here as a visitor. We are the management. You are only allowed to go up, and then leave. You are not allowed to take photographs. Even Ed Poole cannot take pictures!” He said loudly, pointing upwards, referring to the apartment we just came from.

One of the older lifts in the building

took a photo of the older lifts, I wonder what it might be like for us to ride on one. We walked around with our cameras, keeping in mind that Mr Poole had reminded us to be discreet about taking photos due to the fact that we were in private property. In order not to intrude into the private lives of the residents, we tried hard not to capture residents in our pictures, and definitely not the interior of their homes. However, the inward facing corridors made it feel like we were constantly being watched by someone.


The security guard gestured to the nearest lift. “Please leave now.� We apologised quickly and the security guard escorted us out of the building.

A sight at the 28th storey communal deck

And so there you have it. Our visit was abruptly cut short. It was a rewarding time of finally spending some quality time with the apartments and one of its most prominent residents. The building carried with it a weight of history, having been built at a crucial time of the country’s development, and also carried a weight of fame as one of the tallest and densest buildings in Singapore at the time. In terms of its conservation, we realised that we were all dealing with an unprecedented move. No other residential building in Singapore has ever been voluntarily conserved, and there is no example to rely on to answer the difficult questions. How does one conserve a modern-style block of apartments, each privately owned, and still make it economically viable for developers to take on the challenge? It

makes one wonder what exactly about Pearl Bank Apartments makes it worth such effort and risk taken. However, we were disappointed with having our explorations disrupted. The two men from the management we had a negative encounter with also left a sour taste in our mouths. There was a lot more to see and capture, like the garden, carparks and school in the podium block. Once the voluntary conservation goes through and work begins on the building, things are going to be different. Oh, and we never got to try the older elevators. ---

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Conservation and re-development The implications and opportunities arising from strata-title ownership in Pearl Bank Apartments.

Strata-title is a form of ownership devised for multi-level apartment blocks, referring to apartments being on different levels. The property is jointly owned and comprises multiple units, common areas and common facilities. The strata title system provides a framework for ownership and guidelines to manage developments with multiple users and owners. The owners form an executive committee and work with the building’s management to successfully control, manage, maintain and administer the property and to create an appropriate community environment. The Land Titles (Strata) Act in Singapore is an act to facilitate this subdivision of land into strata, collective sale of property and the disposition of titles. Pearl Bank Apartments uses the strata title system, which was a common system employed in many private condominiums at that time. However, such a system poses problems when considering conservation, and might be the reason why many condominiums

of Singapore’s modern era eventually go through en bloc and demolition. As the property is jointly owned by many people, there is a need to take into account the viewpoints of many, from the long time resident who loves his apartment and location and is too old to consider moving, to the young, enterprising businessman who would like to sell his apartment for a profit. So, why is it that Pearl Bank Apartments has been bestowed the rare opportunity to become Singapore’s first voluntarily conserved condominium, amongst its other firsts? How did a system that usually causes the destruction of buildings instead become a driving force for a new method of conservation? In our interview with Mr Tan, we delved into the topic of designing the voluntary conservation project, and the principles he uses in the conservation and redevelopment of Pearl Bank Apartments. How does conservation and redevelopment coexist for a residential, post-independence building? What kind

Opposite: Rendering of the voluntary conservation scheme by Archurban

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Photo of Mr Tan Cheng Siong (Archurban)

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of new mindsets and technology needs to be used to accomplish it? Let’s hear from the man himself. --Teri: How did you feel going back to this project, Pearl Bank Apartments, which was one of the first defining projects of your career? Mr Tan: I fell in love again! It was so good in the beginning, and because it was sold out to people who couldn’t understand it, they abused the building very badly. I gave up and authorities couldn’t do a thing. I wrote letters to them earlier (regarding the conservation), and they said that they cannot come top-down. It is very important because it’s a different kind of building. If it were a temple, they would be able to because nobody lives in it. But these people live there, and if these people disagree, then the government cannot do it. So, my conversations with them gave me the idea that, “Hey, that’s

true you know! How do I motivate people to love their place and love their building more? How? How? How?” We (Singaporeans) are educated to find property value, so the best thing to do is to sell it off to make a profit. And at the time, en bloc gave the highest profit. So, it has become that kind of culture. Luckily for Pearl Bank, three times it tried for en bloc, but didn’t succeed. (The developers) also gave up. And the residents see this thing falling apart with leaking pipes, because things happen in forty years. Construction that time was not so high-tech. They came to me and said, “Can you help us put up the pipes? You know you have designed this building such that the pipes run this way and that way. (laughter) So they wanted that kind of help and straight away I said, “Do more. Do more than just mending here and there! Can we do something different? Can we do something that will change the way people look at the place they live in?” And I think I’m so pleased that the council is a more educated one


now. Unlike the earlier days when they just wanted to en bloc - get a quick buck and get out. Then URA supported us, saying, “If you can get them to agree, then no problem.” The ministry also supported us, and they gave us a go ahead and gave us incentives. They gave us more floor area to built, so that’s an incentive. Unfortunately, one of the officers was so traditional-minded. We just got the letter from her saying, “No, no, no, everybody must agree.” I said “Why? Enbloc requires 80%, and when we conserve it, you want 100%? I said why?” I say some of the people are too old to understand or agree. The share value will change. Every unit has a share value that, because different units have different sizes, you’ll become responsible proportionately for the up-keeping of the common area.

Rendering of the proposed 28th storey communal rooftop (Archurban)

Kevin: But that can be recalculated! Mr Tan: That’s the point you see? But

this officer doesn’t see it! The moment you add people in, you shake the whole thing, and then the old share value would suffer. Looking at it, theoretically she has a point. But when we looked into it, we realized that the original people would not suffer. In fact they stand to gain! Think about that. We have to fight so many battles! (Mr Tan left for a short while and came back into the room with a letter.) See we had to write a long letter to reply to them (URA) you see. It’s very current, you know. That is why when you wrote in and asked if we may discuss Pearl Bank, I said ok, why not. But we must go beyond conservation alone – we must combine it with upgrading and redevelopment. A lot of things are involved, we have got to extend the lease. The building is getting old, so the lease is running out and the value has gone down, so you must have the money to extend the lease. (Reading from his reply to URA in the

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letter) “Your concern that the major alterations and additions may alter the share value of each subsidiary proprietor is noted by us. But we wish to emphasize that the original value of the existing subsidiary will remain the same, even after redevelopment.” So we had to explain that, hey, it’s nothing so serious! (He continues) “Whatever additional GFA awarded will acquire its own share value separate and distinct from those owned by the existing people.” That is to say that their interest in this aspect will no way be affected or reduced. So I hope that she’ll accept this. City living, strata-housing is a big difference compared to landed property. Because landed property has hundreds of years of history, handed down to us from the west, we are very clear on landed property rights. But strata rights is a bit new to us, and Singapore is a forerunner in this direction and we will score another first if we can do conservation in conjunction with redevelopment and upgrading, instead of just tearing them down because of en bloc. Geraldine: Does the new block keep the same way of life that you envisioned back in the 60s, or is it a new way of life in present Singapore? Mr Tan: Well, the construction techniques will be different. In the future, we hope to see that alterations and amendments will be easier. Reconfiguration of the interior will be made easier with a new kind of construction technique and materials. The main feature is that this is actually not an apartment - it is a piece of land in the air. You own a parcel of land in the air and access it by walking, rather than by you

driving into your home. So the concept of changeability, of alteration, of evolving with time will be featured in there. Geraldine: So you’re actually designing for a kind of flexibility? Mr Tan: Ya, flexibility. It can be done! So that when the next conservation comes, it still can be done but the interior can be adjusted to achieve even higher value. That is something that this new redevelopment is pursuing. Maybe the next stage is that after keeping their block, a few owners can get together and do renovations of their apartments internally, bringing about another set of rejuvenation. So this building will grow, I hope, and change with time and with the people. It is a living shell, theoretically I mean. And it can be done, we will make it easy to do. Things can always be done, just only depending on what cost, and I’m trying to have it at a minimum cost. Right now, it is so costly to change anything and there is so much red tape. So new construction technology is what I’m trying to recommend. Then, a new Singapore will happen. ---


Renderings of the proposed 28th storey communal rooftop (Archurban)

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The complexity of conservation and public value Discussing the many facets of conserving modernist architecture in Singapore with Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Kelvin Ang.

Subordinate Courts (now of conservation status)

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Q: The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) plays a vital role in the strategic planning of Singapore’s land use, which includes the issue of conservation. Would you like to elaborate on the scope of work pursued by the Conservation Management Department at URA? Kelvin: Conservation Management is a relatively new department set up about four years ago to expand the area of work with regards to the management of already protected buildings. On the other hand, we also aim to grow the amount of public awareness on the value of conserved buildings. That’s what we are doing in a very broad sense. The traditional area of conservation work,

which involves policy and studies is still being carried out by my colleagues who deal with Conservation Planning. At beginning of the process, you study, recommend, and gazette buildings, then subsequently they are restored and after restoration they have a life. So you hope that they are put to better use and made relevant to the community and they are not subject to what in the UK they call Heritage Crime (which is when buildings are defaced) In fact, there was a case of heritage crime just a few weeks ago. You have this big dilemma because a lot of people in Singapore believe conservation in Singapore should go


beyond the hardware to talk about life community and uses etcetera. We also agree that conservation encompasses the software. But at the same time, for heritage buildings, we start off with the basic understanding that there is a certain level of inherent value in the original material. Just because the original material has the possibility to be replaced, does not mean that we should let people deface and then replace. This is because the original is still more important than the replica. Hence, that is why we are still very focused on the hardware. If the building is restored, the features must be well maintained, they cannot be damaged overnight and then announced that we will give you back the same thing the following day. Its never quite the same because it’s a replica. So that’s our area of work. We focus a lot on the protection of buildings, including downstream (after being gazetted for conservation). Q: As we celebrate SG50, public discourse has been discussing a broader understanding of Singapore’s heritage to include the value of the Singapore’s modern post-­independence era. All things considered, what is URA’s take on this evolving scope with regards to the definition of heritage? Kelvin: Actually this debate on conserving more modern buildings had its first milestone reached in 2002-2004. It was when the concept plan and the master plan focus groups talked about where we should really be moving towards regarding conservation. So even a decade ago there was an agreement that because we are a post-colonial independent state, our conservation work must cover buildings that represent the transition to independence and the beginnings of modernity as a country.

This implies that the purpose of conservation in Singapore is no longer just for the reason of protecting certain architectural types for a “museum”, but rather that what you keep plays a function in the creation of a national narrative of historical development that requires you to keep things that show how society has changed and how it has manifested in the economy, architecture, construction and politics. So we agreed that it is important to keep more representative modern buildings, and we have done so in the past ten years. Modern in our sense, in Singapore, would be mean 1940s onwards. We also have buildings from the 1970s. But I guess the challenge of modern buildings would be that architects and architectural historians talk about modernity in a very different way from the public. And that the way people feel about conservation is very much driven by emotions, because conservation is a very emotional issue. I think it’s much more an emotional issue as compared to nature conservation. This presents a very unique challenge whereby you have to deal with the issue of taste and fashion. Examples such as the Jurong Town Hall (now a monument) or the Subordinate Courts (now a conserved building), are examples of high modern Singaporean Architecture. Its very hard for the general public to understand why they are kept in terms of architecture. And in terms of history, it’s a little bit too close to life experience. To them its not history yet because they live through it and see it everyday. So I think it’s a very big challenge, compared to something from the 1940s-1950s, which would be aesthetically very different. Therefore people can understand it from the perspective of nostalgic aesthetics like

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the “rose-tinted glass’ from the 1950s and 60s. The very same course of modernity can be seen in two very different ways, the understanding of taste and how far we are away from it in terms of history. We think that modern buildings are important. However we cannot keep everything, and for whatever we need to keep, we also need to educate people more as to why it should be kept. But this is quite a difficult task because they (modernist buildings) are quite hard to love. Q: Given the issues of taste for and the acceptance of modernist buildings, what kind of initiatives have been done or are going to be done to tackle these issues? Especially since these are rather recent architecture and its really hard to differentiate. A lot of knowledge transfer has to happen to improve public awareness. Kelvin: The default public voice is the Conservation Advisory Panel and is made out of laymen as much as architects. We have had many discussions with them, and they do have a better understanding as to why things should be kept. They have advised us that we need to do more story telling and on the other hand more discussion with the educational sector be it with teachers or students. And this is what we have started doing, I think we also support and have been doing a lot of the groundwork to support NGOs to talk about modernity. One arm of URA supported the Singapore Heritage Society to publish that book “Our Modern Past”, which is a very gorgeous book, I think the ambition for this book is to play the same role as the “Pastel Portraits” of thirty years

ago which made a difference on the impression of old colonial buildings. But I think that this is just one way of doing it. We are exploring how to go about public education because it is very challenging. I think modern architecture is challenging to celebrate because amongst other reasons there is very little of the element of the handmade in it. If there were more of the handmade in it, you might feel a little more for it, or say it is pretty. If you were to say this building was built by the first generation of Samsui women, it evokes a sense of ownership since it was built by our people. By then, it becomes very emotional. Q: You mentioned about the Conservation Advisory Panel, would you like to talk a bit about that? Kelvin: The panel was formed as a result of the debate over the old national library, because there were obviously very divergent ways of looking at a building in terms of potential heritage. To the architects, it was not a bad building, but it wasn’t really deserving of protection. However to the public, it was not really a matter of whether it was pretty or not. To them, that was their building. That made everyone realize that conservation is really about both the hard sciences and the emotion. You need to get the public involved to talk about the softer part of what should be kept, and why that should be kept. Hence this was meant to improve the dialogue and engagement and move conservation away from the realm of the technocrat. That being said, is conservation really a job that should be run by technocrats? Or not? It depends on what is the purpose you see. If building conservation is just meant to identity the best building in each area


as an exhibit for an urban museum then the public view is not important, because the public view is relatively uninformed. Regarding building conservation, most of the public sees it as fulfilling a role beyond architectural history so we had to change. Q: What are the differences in the process of assessment of preindependence architecture compared to modern architecture?

“Our Modern Past” featuring modern architectural gems in Singapore

Kelvin: Fundamentally there is no difference. Its just that now we look at this body of buildings with potential candidates. Previously we had just cut it off. (modern architecture) A lot of the buildings gazetted before 1989 were from before World War Two because they were of a long enough distance (in time) to be classified as the past of Singapore. Q: I would think that the management of the conservation process would be

different for both the modern and preindependence building. Are there are any differences in the way the policies regarding conservation requirements? Kelvin: The bulk of our buildings are the shophouses, so the principles as to what should be kept are quite set. However modern buildings is a new area for us, nonetheless the fundamentals are still quite sound. We must understand what we are conserving for, and therefore we would know what to protect. As our focus is “architectural conservation and protection”, a lot of what we require to be kept would be based on architecture. These include the original design intent, the original appearance, architectural features, and architectural features may well include building interiors. Most of these works were also one-off. (i.e. there is only one Jurong Town Hall) These were designed as gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) so we have to look at it in terms of picking out the key features of the whole building in terms of the

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architecture, the concept, the spatial qualities, and work backwards from there. These are the areas of significance and therefore any change should not degrade these areas. Therefore, we are quite aligned with the general trend of “evidence-based conservation” or “significance-based conservation”, where we must pin down what is significant on site and then work out what is necessary to keep. I think one difference we may encounter with modern buildings would perhaps be with materials. This is because modern buildings were built with more controversial or more innovative materials, that are now out of the market. So what do you do right? Whereas compared with bricks, plaster and tiles,which are quite timeless. If you have fibre glass, what do you do? This test case was the Change Alley revolving restaurant at Collyer Quay, if you look at the old pictures it was all bronze coloured glass and now its bluish glass. It was unavoidable because no one makes bronze glass and the bronze glass does not perform to current thermal standards. In this case, the form is much more important. Therefore, for every modern building, we have to take a very particular look beyond the overall principles. Q: You mentioned just now that you had to identify what is significant and URA is trying to balance between the architectural and the non-architectural elements. But what if the nonarchitectural becomes very prominent (if something really big happens here) but it’s a actually very mundane building. Because it affect how you think about a heritage structure. Kelvin: That’s when something gets handed over to the monuments board.

They are based on a different parameter, which is basically history. And as to whether there is a case that falls between both, it could possibly happen, but we will cross the bridge when we get there. However we do recognize that architectural conservation is not the only tool to protecting identity, and architectural conservation is very much driven by architecture. But of course if the social value is of such great importance, but not of sufficient importance for national monuments status, I would not rule out the committee saying we should protect it anyway. Because we see architecture and social history as a package. But I think that the social history part is one that is much harder to protect. These are areas of work that are outside my department. Let’s take Jurong Town Hall for example, given that JTC moved out to the new headquarters, how do you retain the same significance of the town hall? In fact, it had never functioned as a town hall! Even though it had an auditorium, it was never a town hall for the Jurong people. It was just this corporate building. So perhaps we have to see what we can and cannot influence, but say when we can influence, for example, Jurong Town Hall would now be the innovation hub run by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. This is not a bad new use, as innovation and brain power is the next level of the industry. So in a way we can see it is a transformation of the role of the building, and its quite in keeping the spirit of what Jurong was meant to be. A brave new world of new economy.


Rendering of SCH (SG Arch Persepctives)

Jurong Town Hall (Photo by Horst Kiechle)

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Q: Continuing from the Jurong Town Hall and other modernist buildings that are not really accessible to the public, how then do you determine public value? Is it related to how accessible a building is? Kelvin: I think when choosing between candidates, the one with greater existing or greater potential public value would be higher on the list. You can’t have everything. So you are right, we are very conscious about that. Sometimes some things do not have much public value at the moment, but we see its architectural and social value as being quite high. Then the challenge would be, how do you create that public value to make people feel that connection? I think that the model would be Jurong Town Hall, that is much more public to people in society as compared to formerly being a corporate headquarters. It is quite tough for something like the subordinate courts, because it’s a symbol of state justice (hence the importance) and the public association with courts just tends to be centered around crime and scandal, so it’s a very tricky thing. And sometimes it doesn’t matter. But for something else whereby its not visible or etcetera, what do we do? The question would be this: If we can afford to keep it even if there is no public value at the moment, we should keep it. We would never know. I guess this is quite in line with museums and object conservation, just because people cannot see it and it is fragile doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep it. It has that inherent value. But this agreement of inherent value has to come from a lot of coming together and debating to agree on about how some things have an inherent value we can all agree to even if there is no or limited access.

And with modern buildings in particular, the challenge would be something we have not seen before in this region because the rate of modernization in the past 50 years has been so profound. There are so many modern buildings, and they are scattered everywhere. So what should you keep? Is it the hardware or the software? Someone did say, perhaps in the end, there was no need to keep the buildings in the historic Kreta Ayer. If we had built everything to markets, shops and houses, it would still be Chinatown, but in a modern building. So how should we decide when to keep all the hardware and software? I think every city would find its own way. Q: In June there was an article that the National Heritage Board would conduct a nationwide survey on heritage buildings to understand the heritage landscape and to help do long-term heritage planning. How would this greater understanding impact land-use planning from URA’s perspective. Is it something you would use as well? Kelvin: I think greater understanding would mean greater desire to participate in making decisions on what are the trade-offs, so minimally there would be that. Perhaps it may open new possibilities whereby people would say, “We really want more of this and less of that”. In the case of schools, they are very important socially and culturally, and people might feel a certain way about them. Within the school there is some stability in the physical environment, because you want to maintain the school community that goes across generations. If those voices are sufficiently strong they may influence how URA and MOE would rethink the upgrading of schools,


and how public funds are invested. I wouldn’t rule that out, but it is really hard to predict. I know we cannot turn back. But my greater concern is how should we move the public interest in heritage away from always focusing on the next battle. Instead of saying “Yes the next battle on what we should keep is important”, but also “What should we do with what is kept”. Equal amount of energy needs to be focused on this. Q: How might URA mitigate the retention of valuable architecture within the realm of private property? 


Man in Tiong Bahru Estate in the 1960s (The Straits Times)

I think right now, we do intervene in private properties. I mean, all conserved buildings are private buildings. It is just that with modern buildings, the scale is much more unimaginable. I think we are always open to people coming to us. But then the question would be, would there be public value? What is public value in intervention? Those are people’s homes. If they value it enough they would obviously be keeping it right? If they

don’t value it sufficiently, then what is the reason for the state to intervene? I guess it is different for an urban area like Chinatown or Tiong Bahru where the buildings are part of a general public space and is part of the city. Whereas the rest of the residential buildings are quite isolated, so the public value might not be as strong. So I think for us we would be more inclined to taking the point of view of determining based on whether the community values its building? If they think its worth keeping, come to us and we can look at it to see how we can make it work. But that has to be the starting point. That’s the difference between large modern residential buildings as compared to buildings that are part of the urbanscape at the everyday level. But then I suppose that you would have to ask “Why is it valuable?” since you began the question with “valuable architecture”. It should be the case whereby after looking at all these considerations through a framework,

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these buildings are valuable and therefore the state should work with the community or the community should be encouraged to keep the building. I think its not good to jump in and say “They are valuable, what can the state do?” But why? Cause the state tries to act to emphasize public good. In the case of these large modern buildings that are private, the public good is not clear. Q: What do you think are the impacts of adaptive reuse of modernist architecture? And what are the various considerations for such endeavours? Kelvin: This is a fundamental conflict. I suppose generally you would say that whether a building is heritage or not, users should ideally leverage on the inherent qualities of the building because it makes the most sense in terms of programming and function etc. Especially in the heritage building where there is some level of cultural concern. The use should have a certain resonance to the cultural value of the building. But the very strange thing about part of the modernist creed is this thing called “Form follows Function”, so many modern buildings were designed to fulfill a particular function. Once the function is obsolete, what happens then? Therefore there is this debate that modernism in architecture thinking and practice is fundamentally opposed to the idea of conservation. Cause the modernist architects never really thought in terms of conservation in the future. Or maybe they didn’t think the building would last. So if we want to intervene now, i would say that we would have to set aside the ideas of the modernist creed of “Form and Function” and treat it like any other heritage building. There was a certain

purpose and heritage and if uses have to change, they should change to make the function adapt to the form just like how we do it for non-modern buildings. And it would be informed by whether or not are there important parts of the building that we would have to sacrifice for this function to take place. I think one interesting case of “Form and Function” would be the transformation of the Singapore Conference Hall. On the same note, I do think that we have not looked into one aspect of intervention, be it pre-war or post war conservation, and it is regarding the issue of environmental footprint. I think that until the 80s a lot of the buildings were designed to be quite energy efficient. With the trends are about glazing and air conditioning happening now, its undoing all the efforts for natural ventilation. That is a part that we have not intervened sufficiently. Q: So looking forward, how does URA ensure a balance between conservation and progressiveness in Singapore given increasing density in Singapore? Kelvin: I do not see conservation as anti-progress. Conservation is part of progress but that depends on how you define progress. Many think that progress means constant building and rebuilding. That is one model but I do not think it is the only model. I think how we could have a balance would be to constantly review and debate in the public realm to see how we can leverage existing assets. If we don’t see nature conservation (and nature area takes up at least 20% of our land) as being anti-progress, I think that we should review why building conservation (which takes up less than 1% our entire land mass) is perceived


by some to be anti-progress. So there is some mind-shift that has to happen.

seen voicing for conservation in the community.

Q: Do you think it has happened already?

People should understand that conservation buildings are like a Patek Phillippe watch. You never really own it you just hold it for the future. That’s how everyone should see a conservation building, you are the trustee of the building for the future.

Kelvin: Not totally. It would be really interesting to say that for what we invest and sacrifice in terms of land for heritage buildings, the overall impact of what we get out of it is really disproportionate to the amount of landmass occupied by heritage buildings. Very simplistically, we talk about how people think this is important for Singapore, where people’s memories are located and the image of Singapore. Heritage buildings do become quite prominent and it takes up less than one percent of our landmass. But we do still see conservation as anti-progress as you have pointed out and we don’t see nature in the same way. So something has to change. Is Paris a non-progressive city? Is London a non-progressive city? I think they are progressive in their own ways and by and large almost their entire city is protected. So I think progressiveness is something we have to pursue in terms of how we think about the world and how we think about culture and society, rather than hanging it all on the bricks and mortar of the physical environment. Q: In conclusion, in your opinion looking forward to Singapore’s future, what progress does URA hope to achieve in the realm of the conservation of Singapore’s heritage? Kelvin: My dream is that different parts of society ranging from owners to developers and the general community find that conservation is so important to them that they will be motivated to do the right thing without the public sector having to play ‘bad cop’ or to be

Q: How can we get there? Kelvin: Education! And many other things can be also done through the community. ---

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Heritage impact and assessment Understanding the scope of heritage roles from the perspective of the National Heritage Board.

(ourbigexpatadventure.wordpress.com)

Original gates of the Bidadari Cemetery to be relocated

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Q: Do share with us the scope of work covered by the Impact Assessment and Mitigation Division (IAM) of National Heritage Board (NHB) IAM: The IAM division of the NHB was formed to conduct research and assessment of heritage sites and structures and work with stakeholders and public agencies to establish mitigation measures. As part of its work, research and documentation on Singapore’s heritage is conducted, and the findings are used to incorporate heritage considerations in their decisionmaking and early planning process. For example, NHB conducted research on the history of Bidadari and is working

with HDB to include heritage elements in the upcoming Bidadari Estate and to relocate the tombstones of notable Singapore pioneers in the Bidadari Memorial Garden to the future Bidadari Regional Park. Another ongoing initiative is the Heritage Survey. Q: As we celebrate SG 50, public discourse has been discussing a broader understanding of Singapore’s heritage to include the value of Singapore’s modern post-independence era. All things considered, what is NHB’s take on this evolving scope with regards to the definition of heritage? IAM: We are encouraged with the


greater public awareness and interest on different aspects of Singapore’s heritage, including our modern postindependence history. Broadly, NHB safeguards and promotes Singapore’s heritage for the purpose of education, nation-building and cultural understanding. We recognise the post-independence era as an important period in the course of our nation-building. As such, NHB has promoted it through various initiatives. These efforts include a section on Independent Singapore (1965 – 1975) in the Singapura: 700 years exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore (NMS). (http://nationalmuseum.sg/ exhibitions/exhibition-list/singapura700-years) The NMS’s current revamp of its permanent galleries will also feature more exhibits and storylines about our nation’s post 1965 history. In addition, NHB’s heritage trail booklets, such as Toa Payoh, Ang Mio Kio and Jurong, also contained information on the development of Singapore’s New Towns after independence. (http://www.nhb.gov. sg/NHBPortal/Places/Trails/Overview) NHB’s Preservation of Sites and Monuments (PSM) Division recently gazetted Jurong Town Hall as a National Monument in June 2015. The building, completed in 1974, was designed to be a landmark representing the success of Singapore’s industrialisation programme and is emblematic of the rapid growth and international success of local industries during the post-independence era. (http://www.nhb.gov.sg/places/sitesand-monuments/national-monuments/ jurong- town-hall) Q: URA categorizes the postindependence part of Singapore’s history as the Formative Period. Have there been any recent initiatives to

understand the sphere of Singapore’s post-independence heritage in the built environment? IAM: NHB is conducting the heritage survey for tangible heritage. This study will provide a broad understanding of Singapore’s built heritage, including post-independence heritage. The 20 month-long survey will include sites and structures of architectural, historical, cultural, social or educational significance, completed in or before 1980. In addition, NHB also commissioned research reports into different sites, structures and buildings. One of our research projects studied Pearls Centre in Chinatown which was completed in 1977. More information is available at (http://www.nhb.gov.sg/NHBPortal/ Resources/VirtualExhibitions&Tours/ Walking ThroughHeritage/PearlsCentre) Q: What is the process of impact assessment in relation to modernist buildings in Singapore? IAM: The research, documentation and assessment of modernist buildings are no different from other historic buildings of other time periods. We look at the history, architecture and sociocommunity value of the site. Q: What do you think are the impacts of adaptive reuse of modernist architecture marked for conservation on society? What are the various considerations for such endeavours? IAM: Adaptive reuse allows a historical building to be retained instead of tearing down it. It also meets the demand for usable space in land-constrained Singapore. Moreover, a sensitively restored building could create a positive

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However, the potential for adaptive reuse of buildings will need to take into account many different considerations, such as the heritage value of the site, the viability of the future uses, the constraints on future developments, the soundness of the restoration proposal, and many others. You may also wish to consult URA on this question from the perspective of conservation and urban planning. Q: URA categorizes the postindependence part of Singapore’s history as the Formative Period. Have there been any recent initiatives to understand the sphere of Singapore’s post-independence heritage in the built environment? IAM: NHB is conducting the heritage survey for tangible heritage. This study

will provide a broad understanding of Singapore’s built heritage, including post-independence heritage. The 20 month-long survey will include sites and structures of architectural, historical, cultural, social or educational significance, completed in or before 1980. In addition, NHB also commissioned research reports into different sites, structures and buildings. One of our research projects studied Pearls Centre in Chinatown which was completed in 1977. More information is available at (http://www.nhb.gov.sg/NHBPortal/ Resources/VirtualExhibitions&Tours/ Walking ThroughHeritage/PearlsCentre) Q: What is the process of impact assessment in relation to modernist buildings in Singapore? IAM: The research, documentation and assessment of modernist buildings are no different from other historic buildings of other time periods. We look

A virtual tour of Pearls Centre

impact on the surrounding urban precinct, increasing human traffic flow and bringing more people to enjoy our built heritage.


at the history, architecture and sociocommunity value of the site. Q: Pertaining to the documentation of historical and social value, modernist buildings of the 70s built in Singapore were very prominent in the global architectural scene. Is there anything that will be done to document heritage from an architectural point of view in the case of demolition of modernist buildings? IAM: The heritage survey conducted by NHB would cover this. Furthermore, the information collected would also be shared with agencies such as the Urban Redevelopment Authority. Significant buildings identified through the survey will be fed into each stage of land planning, including the 10-year Concept Plan or the 5-year Master Plan. NHB also commissions research projects to document different aspects of our tangible and intangible heritage. This includes significant modernist buildings, sites or urban areas based on their historical, architectural and social significance. Other forms of documentation that NHB has conducted include the use of technologies such as aerial videography or scanning technology to enhance our understanding and appreciation of built heritage from an architectural point of view. Q: In conclusion, looking forward to the next 50 years of Singapore’s future, what progress does NHB hope to achieve in the realm of the conservation of Singapore’s heritage? IAM: Quoting Prime Minister Lee’s speech at the launch of Singapore Heritage Festival 2013,

“Our heritage is a collection of individual memories, woven together into a national story. It is something that belongs to every Singaporean, and which each one of us can contribute to and help to preserve, individually and collectively.” Built heritage, such as conserved buildings, National Monuments and other historic buildings will help people build collective memories through different generations, foster greater appreciation of cultures and beliefs and play a role in understanding our country’s development. As such, NHB will continue to safeguard and promote our built heritage with efforts in researching tangible and intangible heritage and work closely with other public agencies to assess and develop sites with heritage value sensitively. ---

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Reasons for conservation A reflection on the issue of conservation and weighing its benefits. By Kevin Josiah Neo

The issue of conservation holds very different meanings for the layman compared to people in the architectural industry. Architects and architectural historians focus on the architectural qualities and merit to assess whether a building is worthy to be conserved. Comparatively, the layman focuses on the impact a place has had on their history and memories. Both claim ownership over architecture from very different perspectives. But what is the value of conserving a building? That was the main question that was constantly encountered during the course of our investigation. Buildings are designed and built, and after a duration of time, might fall into disrepair. There are only several ways a building might proceed from there: demolition, adaptive reuse, or conservation. Given the stark differences in approach towards choosing buildings to be gazetted, a consensus has to be

developed to discuss the inherent value of buildings in order to decide their value compared to a list of other buildings with the same fate. In this case, inherent value refers to the potential public good a building can offer. The conservation of architecture would be meaningless if they had no potential use in the future. Would conserving a building be meant just to serve its current community? Would it serve anyone else? Would conserving a building result in greater profitability in an economic sense? Or would conserving a building ensure that a physical form is preserved to illustrate the changes of society and the nation through history? These are questions that proponents of conservation have to decide in order to understand why a building is conserved.

Opposite: Keong Saik Road, Singapore

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Modernity and conservation The implications of the modernist creed and the intent of conservation. By Kevin Josiah Neo

Louis Sullivan coined the modernist principle that “Form ever follows function�. This principle meant that the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose. It also implies that modern buildings were designed and built to serve an initial purpose. All key features and spatial experiences were purposefully intended to optimise the character and efficiency of the architecture. What happens when a function changes? Does the form become irrelevant? Would the building have to change as well? In the current state of Pearl Bank Apartments, users have modified and adjusted their facades and units to serve their individual functions. However, these might conflict with the architecture of the building, sealing off natural ventilation and adding new elements to the organised, brutalist facade. What happens when the building is gazetted for conservation status? Should the building be restored to its original built

state? What about improvements that need to be made in terms of repair and replacement of old and outdated facilities? This is the fundamental paradox between modernism and conservation. The conservation of a building like Pearl Bank Apartments would mean we might have to maintain the integrity of its original intent and the key features that uphold these designs. New functions might be introduced to the building, but yet it has to adapt to the conserved architecture and place. Would this be the best way of utilising the building to serve users? Could the potential public good be increased through modification of the building to suit new uses? But if it were so, are we still respecting the original building and the history it retains? Perhaps we have to consider that the conservation of modernist architecture may very well have a different expression from the conservation of non-modernist architecture.

Opposite: Facade of Pearl Bank Apartments

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Modernism and the dilemma of proximity A short write-up on modern architecture in Singapore and the implications of time. By Kevin Josiah Neo

The presence of modernism in Singapore was brought about by the establishment of international trade and exchange. This introduced new architectural typologies fused with various elements, materials and technology of vernacular origin. This amalgamation manifested in the the architectural forms of shophouses and religious buildings in Singapore, and could be called “past modernity”. “Modern” architectural styles inserted by colonial architects into the local Singaporean context during the 1920s and 1930s, aimed to address new lifestyles and local environmental constraints. This architecture could be called “recent-past modernity”. “Recent modernism” occurred in Singapore during the 1960s and 1970s and is closely related to the post independence era of the nation. The modernist style applied, was an attempt to break with colonial legacy in search of a national architectural identity. These cover the introduction of architecture ranging from the Housing Development

Board (HDB) estate, to the development of buildings like the Peoples’ Park Complex and Pearl Bank Apartments. Hence, the advent of modern architecture is still considered recent past for many Singaporeans. In fact, many still think of a majority of modern buildings as part of current daily life. To value modern architecture of recent history as heritage structure is not the most intuitive action. Therefore public sentiment to the idea of gazetting modern architecture in Singapore for conservation would require some getting used to. This difficulty is further exacerbated by the constant renewal of the Singapore urban fabric through re-development, evoking the idea that progressiveness and conservation do not coincide. A tectonic shift in mindset has to occur to educate the public on the essence of recent heritage and the value of conservation of modern architecture to preserve national identity.


A modernist shophouse on Keong Saik Road

Pearl Bank Apartments with Duxton Pinnacle in the background

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Representing a nation Architecture and national identity. By Kevin Josiah Neo

“Architecture is a state of your civilization... reflecting the culture and governance of the country”, mentioned Mr. Theodore Chan of CIAP, former President of the Singapore Institute of Architects. What happens if our urbanity is constantly being refreshed? Would we still remember or retain the traits of our recent past? Would we be able to remember who we are? Our national identity? Architecture can aid the creation of a national narrative to demonstrate the changes and development of Singapore’s society through the past 50 years. It perserves the cumulative progress in a physical sense, while reinforcing the intangibles of our society. As emphasized by Theodore, “Compared to land, we are definitely short of old and antiquated historical buildings.” Therefore, as we look towards conservation as a means of safeguarding

our heritage, we must understand the inherent value of each architecture we retain. To quote Norman Foster, “Architecture is an expression of values”. Hence we should understand what values we leave behind to represent our nation. Could you imagine a Singapore without the typical HDB block?

Opposite: A view of Telok Ayer from Pearl Bank Apartments

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Keeping in mind the arguments discussed in the previous sections, we decided to take a step back, and imagine some of the possible fates of Pearl Bank Apartments in the near future. It all becomes very real when we realise that each option is very much within reach. What do you think?

Opposite: Graphic of Pearl Bank Apartments by Teo Yu Siang

WHAT HAPPENS IF...


Voluntary conservation?

The voluntary conservation initiative goes through, and conservation status is granted with an additional Gross Floor Area (GFA) grant to build an additional residential block. Current residents will continue to comfortably enjoy their residences in Pearl Bank Apartments (PBA) with better conditions and facilities. Hopefully, the communal deck can finally be utilized for its intended function and more. However, how much public good does this offer? Other than being just a monumental landmark in the area, more public value could be created. Perhaps this could be done by restoring selected apartment units to its original design and, to be opened to the public as a permanent exhibition showflat?


Conserved as-is?

Could we conserve PBA as it is, in its original architectural form, without an additional block? There would be no profit gains to offset extensive repair works made to the mechanical and electrical services in the building. As the building ages and deteriorates, superficial repair works do not suffice and living in a state of never-ending repair is not ideal for the residents in the long run. That being said, to what extent should it be restored? The exterior facade used to be grey Shanghai plaster before it was painted yellow and orange. Additionally, interior fittings and modifications have been tailored to the individual residents’ fancies, but would this be a chance to restore a few units back to its original state?


Demolition?

We know that en-bloc has not been successful for PBA on multiple occasions, but what if it had been successful? Perhaps maybe in the future? In the event that PBA faces demolition, could the building be preserved by record and documentation? With advanced technology, would we be able to virtually scan and record the entire building and make it accessible online? Would this record be comprehensive enough for historical reference?


Adaptive re-use?

The wild idea of changing the entire use of PBA; What if PBA becomes a office building, hotel or service apartments? What happens if the use of the entire building changes from its intended purpose? As Mr Tan had mentioned, the design intent was to create homes suitable for raising families. What kind of changes would occur if private permanent homes become places of transient occupancy such as a hotel or serviced apartments? Will the modernist “Form follows function� creed be ironically irrelevant then?


Special thanks to Our professor, Dr Yeo Kang Shua, SUTD, for his wisdom and guidance in this project.

Mr Tan Cheng Siong, Archurban Architects & Planners Mr Ed Poole, Poole Associates Mr Theodore Chan, CIAP Architects Mr Kelvin Ang, Conservation Management, Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Mr Yeo Kirk Siang, Impact Assessment and Mitigation Division, National Heritage Board (NHB) Mr Ian Tan, Impact Assessment and Mitigation Division, National Heritage Board (NHB)

Opposite: Interior stairs of Mr Poole’s penthouse apartment

We would also like to express our gratitude to the following interviewees who have contributed significantly to this project:


Singapore University of Technology and Design Architecture and Sustainable Design 20.305 Conservation Theories & Approaches of Built Heritage / Summer 2015

ISBN 978-981-09-7016-1

Profile for Conservation Conversations SG

Conservation Conversations - Pearl Bank Apartments  

This publication attempts to seek out varying perspectives and challenges regarding the issue of conservation of modernist architecture in S...

Conservation Conversations - Pearl Bank Apartments  

This publication attempts to seek out varying perspectives and challenges regarding the issue of conservation of modernist architecture in S...

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