Tag: urbanism

Saving Pearl Bank Apartments

Architectural conservation or real estate investment? An essay on the fate of a 1970s style icon that has seen better times.

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A 27-storey “green tower” of residences may one day rise up at the edge of Singapore’s historic Chinatown. It will boast the Outram Park MRT station at its doorstep and Pearl’s Hill City Park as its backyard. There will even be an infinity pool and a rooftop garden. But none of these will rival the most attractive aspect of this new development if it ever comes to pass: securing the future of the iconic Pearl Bank apartments and literally giving it a fresh lease of life.

This is architect Tan Cheng Siong’s unorthodox proposal to rescue what was once Singapore’s tallest block of apartments. Having witnessed the 38-storey building he designed over 40 years ago undergo three unsuccessful en-bloc attempts in the last decade, and faced with a 99-year land lease that is almost halfway used up, Tan and a group of residents have taken the unprecedented step of voluntarily applying to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) for Pearl Bank to be conserved. Not only is this the first time a multi-strata private development has made such a request — almost all the 7,200 buildings given conservation status in Singapore thus far have been proposed by the government — Tan’s conservation plan would entail demolishing part of Pearl Bank’s existing five-storey car park to build a new block of 150 apartments.

In an interview in his office at Maxwell House, Tan made clear his views on conservation: as a result of a rising population and the pressure on land resources, high-rise living has become firmly entrenched as part of the societal, environmental and architectural fabric of Singapore. If people have come to accept this fact, why don’t they learn to conserve their ageing high-rise buildings instead of tearing them down?

While Tan understands the pragmatism of maximising land values in land-scarce Singapore, his idealism is tempered by the practical business of living. While Pearl Bank is a vital piece of Singapore’s architectural history, it is also home to the people who live there, many whom are retirees with dwindling incomes. As a result of high maintenance costs and shrinking sinking funds, the apartment building has deteriorated over the years — plagued by broken-down lift shafts, leaking sewage pipes, peeling paint and even rat infestations.

Given its failed en-bloc sales attempts, Tan came up with a radical idea to secure Pearl Bank’s future: seek conservation status for the property and then unlock part of its value by allowing a developer to construct a new block of apartments next to the original tower. The money from the sale of the new flats would then pay for the refurbishment of the ageing building as well as top up what is left of its 99-year lease.

The result would be a modern appendage on his modernist marvel – a concrete materialisation of how architecture, property and conservation intersect in Singapore. “We thought this conservation [proposal] would be a binding force because it would bring them an extension of lease, [and] … a new building,” he says.

Read the rest of the essay in BiblioAsia (Vol 12, Issue 3) Oct-Dec 2016

Singapore: Gateway to China’s Urbanism?

The new China Cultural Centre on Queen Street | THE STRAITS TIMES

Clad in grey and white tiles, arising 11-storeys above the ground, the China Cultural Centre towers over Queen Street in Singapore. Like a fortress, the boxy development thrusts itself out between an eccentric-looking hotel and the generic blue-and-white striped public housing podium block, maximising every inch of its sovereignty as the bulwark of Chinese culture in a foreign land. Established by the People’s Republic of China to promote and facilitate cultural exchange with Singapore, this centre is part of a network the rising superpower has established around the world as part of its global charm offence.

The Great Wall Apartments, a Chinese style residential compound in Nairobi, Kenya. | GO WEST PROJECT

If China-backed infrastructure is changing the face of cities in developing regions such as Africa, then cultural acupuncture is its other weapon of choice, particularly for developed cities such as Paris, Seoul and Berlin. The China Cultural Centre in Singapore, which officially opened last year to mark 25 years of diplomatic relations with the host country, offers an alternative to existing “Chinese” developments in a city that is pre-dominantly Chinese. While existing Singapore-developed spaces like the Chinese Garden (1975), Chinatown Historic District (conserved in 1989), the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall (1994) and the Chinese Heritage Centre (1995) have used the narrative of the “overseas Chinese” to shape the identity of the Singaporean Chinese, the China Cultural Centre and the Confucius Institute in one-north offers a contemporary face to who the Chinese are today.

Liu Thai Ker | RSP ARCHITECTS

The new cultural centre is also a concrete manifestation of how China is increasingly linked to Singapore as its “urban solutions” provider. The Singapore centre marks the first time it is designed by a citizen from the host country: Liu Thai Ker. Lauded as the architect of modern Singapore, the former chief of the city’s public housing, and later, urban planning, has built up close ties with the Chinese since he briefed its late premier Deng Xiao Peng on the urbanisation of Singapore over three decades ago. Since then, Liu has been the go-to for advisor for several Chinese cities including being invited to chair the jury for the master plan of the 2008 Beijing Olympics Park. 

Liu has been joined by a host of other Singaporean architecture and urban planning firms in developing the new face of China, particularly since the Singapore government kickstarted the Suzhou Industrial Park in 1994. Despite early setbacks, including the government setting up a competing park next door, Singapore has pressed on in exporting its urban development expertise with the creation of the Singapore Cooperation Enterprise in 2006 by the Ministry of Trade and Industry as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This has found some success in Indian and African cities, but Chinese cities remain one of Singapore’s biggest clients. Besides government to government projects such as the Eco-city in Tianjin (2007) and an upcoming initiative in Chongqing, there are also commercial developments—Nanjing Eco Hi-Tech Island (2009), Guangzhou Knowledge City (2010), Jilin Food Zone (2012), Sichuan Hi-Tech Innovation Park (2012)—involving a network of Singapore companies. These include developers like Keppel Land, Sembcorp, and the recently merged Ascendas-Singbridge which sees Temasek and JTC Corp working together to compete for what they estimate to be S$4 trillion global urban planning market. Through the government and these developers, Singapore architects and urban planners such as CPG Consultants, DP Architects, RSP Architects (where Liu is Senior Director), Surbana Jurong, and SCP Consultants have successfully entered China to shape the future of its cities.

What Raffles City Chongqing will look like when ready in 2018. | CAPITALAND
What Raffles City Chongqing will look like when ready in 2018. | CAPITALAND

This growing development raises intriguing questions. Will China come to resemble an upsized version of Singapore in the coming decades? There are already a proliferation of shopping malls by Singapore developer CapitaLand, including an upcoming Raffles City Chongqing in which starchitect Moshe Safdie seems to have designed a larger version of his iconic Marina Bay Sands for Singapore. Conversely, how will Singapore be shaped from its close urban relationship with China? The China Cultural Centre could be a harbinger of how Singapore develops as more of its architects operate in the megacities of China: where this colossal foreign relations centre now stands was once a two-storey community centre that fit much more snugly into the neighbourhood.

Building the Singapores of Africa

Illustration of Kigali City Masterplan | SURBANA
Illustration of Kigali City Masterplan | SURBANA

The Singapore urban planning model is being exported to several cities across Africa by Surbana, a now-corporatised division of the Housing & Development Board, the builder of the city’s state housing. Read about Surbana’s plans for the region in a This is Africa report.