From sleepy fishing village to gleaming metropolis in a brief span of 50 years: this is the compressed development history commonly associated with Singapore. As a city hyper-focused on the future, as demonstrated by the upcoming Punggol Digital District, it engages in continual urban revitalisation, its metanarrative promising some future apotheosis of that practice.
Set against this backdrop, several landmarks appear to have fallen outside the futurist frame. Completed in the early 1970s, Golden Mile Complex and People’s Park Complex are postindependence Brutalist landmarks consigned to be demolished for redevelopment, and committees have been formed for their sale. They have been alternately revered and reviled; while historically and architecturally significant, they have deteriorated over time, and being frequented by Singapore’s largely invisible, subaltern communities, they have suffered a degree of condemnation.
Built during an era when the fledging citystate was clamouring for her urban identity, the 16-storey Golden Mile Complex has undoubtedly shaped the downtown area’s urban fabric. Conceived by a trio of local architects — William SW Lim, Tay Kheng Soon and Gan Eng Oon of DP Architects — as a ‘self-contained city’, it was among the first buildings on the island to adopt a mixeduse typology, housing a plethora of offices, entertainment facilities, retail outlets and residential units. Informed by the post-war Japanese Metabolist movement, which sought to imitate nature by designing structures to form compatible yet flexible composites, they adroitly realised Pritzker laureate Fumihiko Maki’s theorisation of a megastructure.
With notes of galangal, lemongrass and barbecued meat, a vault-like row of shops and restaurants welcomes you into the atrium. Affectionately known as ‘Little Thailand’ after Thai construction workers began to gather here in the 1980s, the passageway stretches along the length of the building, exemplifying Maki’s vision of a ‘city corridor’ — a transitional focal point capable of generating urban expansion into its surroundings.
Golden Mile’s intricate stepped-terrace configuration, reminiscent of the rice paddies in Bali, is unmistakable from miles away and offers residents panoramic vistas of the glistening National Stadium and Kallang Basin. Inside, the reversed tiers enable natural light to pour into the building while each floor creates shade over the one below.
Despite its irrepressible form, the edifice’s decay is palpable: its swimming pool has been drained and left disused, and pipe leakage is commonplace. Its issues are largely attributed to its status as a strata-title leasehold property — there are hundreds of individual owners. At the beginning of its 99-year lease from the government, a sinking fund was created for building maintenance, but lack of proper procedures to sustain the cash flow led inevitably to disrepair. A collective sale committee for the complex has since been formed in hopes of securing interest from developers to undertake a new project on the site.
One such monument that has already suffered this fate is the Pearl Bank Apartments building, a horseshoe-shaped residence that stood as a template for luxury high-density living in the 1970s. In February 2018, CapitaLand Limited successfully acquired the estate through a private treaty cooperative sale, with the aim of ‘creating yet another architectural icon... by reinvigorating the area with a unique design’.
The death knell for People’s Park Complex also looms large. Located in the heart of Chinatown, it was not only the nation’s first multi-use building in the early 1970s, but the largest and tallest shopping-cum-residential complex. The development comprises two slab-like, orthogonal structures with a béton brut exterior: a retail and commercial podium at the ground level and a 25-storey residential tower above. The latter is a physical manifestation of the Corbusian ideal for communal living, visualised as ‘ streets in the air’ with its expansive recreation corridors.
Beyond the strong articulation of Brutalism, the masterminds from DP Architects also referenced Metabolism, incorporating Maki’s idea of the ‘city room’ at the building’s nexus. The formation of four adjoining and interlocking atria allows pedestrians to move freely from all angles and partake in various activities, while ensuring the spatial character. This was especially important to the architects since their creation had replaced the oncepopular People’s Market, which burnt down in 1966. Retaining this defining character — a night and day social confluence — was thus paramount. Over time, the locale became connected to nearby premises via overhead walkways and other conduits, reiterating the Metabolist concept of the ‘group form’ or sensory interconnections.
Their facades may have aged, but Golden Mile Complex and People’s Park Complex are not mere repositories for memories; they have been vital references for Singapore’s visual landscape and for her neighbours. Erasing them would be regression rather than progress, given that they were not only some of the first buildings designed by a local architectural practice, but were emblematic of a young nation’s ambitions for urban transformation — and of local talent that synthesised prevailing global architectural forms with the city’s needs. In light of the country’s breakneck urban renewal, assuming tabula rasa would mean a generation of Singaporeans forfeiting crucial indexes of their social history, possibly even forgetting the need for architecture indigenous to their own culture. Once lost in the metanarrative, it can never be found.