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"Only in its absence do we fully realise its presence and place."

"The Real Pearl Bank" is an installation designed and curated by WY-TO for the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism 2021. It presents the story of a significant modernist building in Singapore and the void its demolition has created in the city – the erasure of memory by the vanishing of the built landscape.

All we are left with are its digital memories.

The Disappearance of Modern History in Southeast Asia

The Case of
Pearl Bank Apartments
in Singapore

CHAPTER 01
INCEPTION

A Vertical Village

Pearl Bank Apartments was a vision of contemporary living which appealed to the growing middle-class and was a precedent for subsequent ultra-high-rise developments in Singapore.

Seeing the need to intensify land use without compromising on standards of living, Pearl Bank was conceived as a vertical village which embraced all 288 homes into a single vertical-cum-horizontal community, earning the title of being the tallest and densest apartment block of its time in Southeast Asia.

Built in

1976

1st

high-rise residential in Singapore

113m

tall

38

floors

288

units

© ARCHURBAN, Chua Min Chi, S.W. Lim

Architecture
of the 1970s in Singapore

Modern history buildings or brutalist architecture are characterised by their unornamented and monolithic form, born in the period of the 1950s to 1980s.

This movement was widespread in Southeast Asia, as well as the rest of the world, which adopted new and advance building techniques using concrete, steel frames and glass walls.

The early years.

In the 1960s after World War II, Singapore was a newly independent state.

The country was faced with the challenge of providing better living conditions, as well as figuring out what would constitute the Singaporean identity.

The pioneer generation's tenacity, far-sightedness and spirit of innovation were crucial in the constantly evolving landscape of Singapore over the last 60 years.

© National Archives of Singapore
© National Archives of Singapore

Pearl Bank Apartments was a modern history building designed vernacularly out of this context, which would shape the architecture scene in early Singapore.

© ARCHURBAN

Designed by one of Singapore's pioneer architects, Tan Cheng Siong, Pearl Bank was envisioned to be an oasis in the city, surrounded by lush greenery

© Asian Building & Construction

STILL STANDING

Part of 15 SHORTS : Still Standing

Uncover a young man’s dreams behind the building of a historic Singapore landmark, Pearl Bank Apartments

Written and Directed by
TAN WEI TING

Produced by
KIRSTEN TAN
TAN SI EN

In Association with
A GIRL & A GUN
MOMO FILM CO
AMOK

Main Cast
DARREN GUO
ALLAN WONG
TAY KONG HUI

Special Thanks
TAN CHENG SIONG

Watch the Full Film
CHAPTER 02
CONSTRUCTION

Slip Form Concrete

a relatively new construction technique in the 60s which allowed the shear walls to be built rapidly, averaging 1 storey every 2 days.

In fact in terms of speed, the floor slabs had a hard time catching up!

Horse Shoe Form

a distinctive 'broken cylinder' form driven by efficiency and functionality

Wall-to-Floor Ratio

compared to a slab block, the cylindrical shape had a smaller wall-to-floor ratio, meaning greater economy in terms of building materials

Megastructure

an unprecedented 38-storey tower block that faced many technological and financial challenges and opposition.

Eventually this came to shape the visual character of downtown Singapore

Extreme Urban Intensification

2,000 people in 288 units, whilst providing a high-quality living environment aimed to appeal to the growing middle-class of the time

"The Tallest Apartment Block in Southeast Asia"

Building Materials & Equipment Southeast Asia Magazine (April 1976 issue)

An Unprecedented
Megastructure.

"Pearl Bank was revolutionary for its time and represented a brand new era of architecture for Singapore"
© ARCHURBAN and Darren Soh
CHAPTER 03
LIFE

High-Density
Living

Conceived as a vertical village, Pearl Bank was designed with an emphasis on connection, convenience and community spirit.

Vernacular
Living

In designing for the tropics, day-lighting and natural ventilation are of utmost importance for environmental sustainability. In Pearl Bank these strategies were manifested in its orientation, form and even interior organisation.

The block was west-facing to mitigate the afternoon sun, and frame the views towards the city.

The C-shaped cylinder promoted better cross ventilation and circulation on a building scale.

Community
Living

Kitchens were intentionally designed to face one another and be connected through a common corridor, to create a sense of inclusivity and community orientedness.

Inspired by the villages back alleys, the inner cylindrical formation became
a continuous communal space where residents could easily see and reach out to their fellow neighbours.

© Building Material and Equipment

Once the 113 meter skyscraper was built, there was a tremendous amount of interest and curiosity from people who had never stood as such heights before

© ARCHURBAN

Panoramic Views for each and every apartment, yet with a greater sense of privacy

© ARCHURBAN

Flexible and multi-generational, accommodating a great variety of living arrangments and lifestyles

Split-level
Configuration

The innovative interlocking, split-level configuration allowed for better ventilation and a flexibility in expanding units. Not only maximising the number of apartments but allowing for a variety of two, three and four bedroom split-level maisonettes.

Apartment
Types

A glimpse of
life at Pearl Bank

© ARCHURBAN, Claire Goh and Liang Qilin
CHAPTER 04
FIGHT
FOR
LIFE

A Premature Death.

"These buildings often have a shared ownership of common facilities. And because many owners think that selling their units collectively is a better financial plan, the buildings have largely fallen into disrepair because no one wants to pay for short-term upkeep"
© Darren Soh
© Marisse Caine
As many owners started to subdivide their large units for renting out to tenants, the sense of community and collective will to enhance the building was slowly eroded over the years.
© The Lion Raw
"While Brutalist buildings may not be as 'conventionally' pretty as shophouses or colonial buildings, they are better expressions of the Singaporean identity because they embody a true vernacular architecture"
© Lianhe Wanbao

BYE BYE BRUTALISM

Pearl Bank Apartments
Bye Bye Brutalism

In BYE BYE BRUTALISM | Pearl Bank Apartments, Coconuts TV investigates the history, architecture and communities of Singapore's iconic Pearl Bank Apartments – one of the finest examples of the Brutalist architecture in Asia.

Produced by
COCONUTS TV

Watch the Full Documentary

Singapore's 99-Year Leasehold

A double edged sword unique to Singapore.
99-year leases were implemented due to the limited land area Singapore has.

Instead of freehold land, after 99 years the land goes back to the state, which the government can then redevelop.

While this has brought many benefits in urban planning and redevelopment, it has also caused much political, policy and legal difficulties that hinder conservation efforts.

Pearl Bank Regeneration Plan

In 2012, a proposition was made by the Architect, Tan Cheng Siong and the owners for the ‘voluntary conservation’ of Pearl Bank, also known as the ‘Pearl Bank Regeneration Plan’.

This unprecedented move proposed the addition of a new block of apartments on top of the existing four-storey carpark, as well as additional and improved facilities to refurbish the current block.

© ARCHURBAN
DEATH
CHAPTER 05

Pearl Bank Apartments went through a lot of battles in its lifetime. But losing its last battle, the building went through a top-to-bottom demolition, encased in a coffin of scaffolding

In Singapore, 80% owner consensus is needed before a building can be put up for enbloc sale.

Where 100% owner consensus is needed for voluntary conservation.

BEFORE IT ALL GOES

Before It All Goes: Architecture from Singapore's
Early Independence Years

What of our heritage, memories and connections do we lose as much of Singapore’s architecture from the early independence years is now getting demolished and redeveloped?

Directed and Produced by
DARREN SOH

Watch the Full Documentary
CHAPTER 06
VOID

The loss of a significant post-independence modern history building

The loss of Pearl Bank Apartments represents a continued erosion of memory, the loss of a sense of place and community.

But beyond that, it is also a loss of a piece of Singapore's creative history that will never again be experienced by future generations.

And it is merely one of many modern buildings in Singapore under threat.

42 Significant Modernist Buildings in Singapore

YISHUN 10

63-66 YUNG KANG ROAD

TOA PAYOH TOWN CENTRE

TAN BOON LIAT BUILDING

TAMPINES NORTH COMMUNITY CLUB

JURONG HILL LOOKOUT TOWER

SELETAR RESERVOIR LOOKOUT TOWER

PARK ROAD DEVELOPMENT

SHENTON HOUSE

COLONNADE CONDOMINIUM

THE CONCOURSE

DARUL AMAN MOSQUE

THE ARCADIA

CHEE TONG TEMPLE

CHURC OF ST. BERNADETTE

SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST CHURCH

THE NATIONAL LIBRARY AT STAMFORD ROAD

OCBC CENTRE

FUTURA

UNIT 8

ALFRED WONG’S HOUSE (and Shanghainese Builders)

VICTOR CHEW’S HOUSE

ANG MO KIO SWIMMING COMPLEX

HDB PLAYGROUNDS

CIRCULAR POINT BLOCK (259 ANG MO KIO AVE 2.)

PANDAN VALLEY CONDOMINIUM

PUBLIC UTILITIES BOARD

PEARL BANK APARTMENTS

PWD-DESIGNED SCHOOL WITH

HEXAGONAL CLASSROOMS

FORMER NATIONAL STADIUM

JURONG TOWN HALL

PEOPLE’S PARK COMPLEX

GOLDEN MILE COMPLEX

SINGAPORE CONFERENCE HALL AND TRADE UNION HOUSE

CHURCH OF THE BLESSED SACRAMENT

NATIONAL THEATRE

QUEENSTOWN MARKET

OLD AIRPORT ROAD ESTATE (DAKOTA CRESCENT)

ASIA INSURANCE BUILDING

PRE-WAR TIONG BAHRU FLATS

SINGAPORE CIVIL AERODROME

WELLINGTON HOUSE

SELETAR RESERVOIR LOOKOUT TOWER
© Darren Soh
VICTOR CHEW HOUSE INTERIOR
© Darren Soh
THE ARCADIA EXTERIOR
© Darren Soh
FORMER NATIONAL THEATRE
© National Museum of Singapore
PEOPLE'S PARK COMPLEX
© Darren Soh
NATIONAL STADIUM STRUCTURE
© Jeremy San
CHAPTER 07
AFTERLIFE

The case of Pearl Bank Apartments
in Singapore is not isolated,
neither merely a local issue.

Similar cases are happening in Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States.

If we can preserve, restore and readapt fragile and complex ancient and classical buildings, why can't our Modern Buildings be given the same chance of a Second Life?

There
are many alternatives
to the
so-called 'inevitable' demolition of modern history buildings

CONSERVATION

Retaining the inherent spirit of a building through conservation of its original form, style and/or materiality.

Asia
Insurance
Building

Designed in the Art Deco style by one of Singapore's pioneer architects, Ng Keng Siang. In 2006, it was bought over by the Ascott Group, and had its conservation works undertaken by RSP Architects.

© Darren Soh

Through a mix of restoration, upgrading, and reconfiguration works, the successful conservation of the Asia Insurance Building has allowed it to retain its character while reinstating it within a modern context.

Above: © Ng Lor Suan

PRESERVATION

To preserve and restore a building to the most significant time of its history, often used interchangeably with the term 'restoration'.

© Darren Soh

Jurong
Town Hall

Jurong Town Hall was the winning entry of an architectural design competition in 1968, and was to be a landmark symbolic of a new nation's industrialisation.

Granted conservation status in 2005, through careful research and investigation, Forum Architects enacted a sensitive and detailed process of restoration.

© Forum Architects

The restoration captures the original grandeur of the building, providing a fresh lease of life to its new tenants.

© Forum Architects

EXTENSION

Adding on to a building's existing structure to expand, prolong and complement it's use.

Khong Guan Building

Designed by Meta Architects, the original Kong Guan building which was gazetted in 2005, was redesigned to feature an 8-storey extension.

The extension is sensitive to the original scale and form of the building.

Setting back from the original structure and incorporating deep recesses to break up the volume, allowing it to enhance yet not overwhelm the overall building.

All images © Darren Soh

REPURPOSING

Reusing an existing structure as is, for a function other than what it was originally designed for.

© Lim Cheong Keat

Singapore Conference Hall

Formerly known as Conference Hall and Trade Union House, the Singapore Conference Hall was originally designed to be the first international conference and exhibition venue in Singapore during the 1960s and 70s,

© Lim Cheong Keat

It has since be refurbished and repurposed into a modern concert hall and has been a home to the Singapore Chinese Orchestra since 2001.

© Roots.sg

ADAPTIVE REUSE

Adapting an existing structure to better prolong its usage for a function that may be similar or different than what it was originally designed for.

National Design Centre

Designed by SCDA, the National Design Centre (NDC) development consists of three pre-war art deco blocks and one post-war modern block.

Interventions were inserted throughout the architecture to reconfigure the existing spaces to accommodate its new function and to address modern safety requirements.

Today, NDC welcomes a thriving host of visitors and plays a crucial role as part of the city's arts and cultural district

All images © Aaron Poccock

TRANSITIONAL URBAN DESIGN

Formalising the temporary use of a vacant or underused space to encourage its revitalisation or of its surrounding areas.

© Randy Arynato

Bukit Timah
Race Course

The Bukit Timah Race Course was a venue for thoroughbred horse racing. After the relocation of the Singapore Turf Club in 1999, the existing building was repurposed to house various amenities like a supermarket, eateries and enrichment centres.

© Nick Yeo

Revamped in 2012 as The Grandstand, today it is best known for pop-up market spaces like Parsarbella, hosting the largest community of traders and merchants in Singapore.

If we remain indifferent, what will be left of our history?

We hope that participating in the Seoul Biennale 2021 will trigger questions and debates among the Built environment community worldwide on this sensitive issue of Conservation, as the case of Pearl Bank Apartments in Singapore is not isolated, neither is it a merely local issue.

What can we do to change the perception that "new is always better"?

How can we begin to reform the pervasive culture of demolition?