Design Anthology - - Architecto­nics / Modernism, Singapore - Text Joseph Koh Im­ages Hosanna Swee

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.

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