PEARLBANK

PENTHOUSE 2002 

ISH Magazine Singapore

February, 2003

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Poole Penthouse at Pearlbank shoot location for ISH 3.6 Magazine feature. Shot in November 2002

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It is always refreshing to find a designer brave enough to offer something more than the safety of simple 'minimalist' lines in the interior. Minimal spaces, while having the potential to be highly poetic and beautiful, are often ill-considered and can leave the user feeling flat and, in short, bored! The work of locally based American interior architect Ed Poole (responsible for the interior design of the likes of the former House of Mao at Far East Square, China Jump and Ocho at Chijmes) routinely offers something to which the user can react - quirk that is capable of generating some kind of response, be it delight, objection, or simply a kick-start to the imagination.

 

 

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The renovations and interior design of Poole's own penthouse at Pearlbank apartment building in Outram loses none of the humor of his other works. Here, he has rigorously adopted the process of collecting to create an interior that leaves the imagination working overtime. The story of this space is one of the many stories relating to both the contained collection of objects and the building that contains them. The individual histories of Pearlbank and of the artifacts in Poole's collection intertwine, augmented by his personally recounted histories, to create a rich and constantly evolving tapestry. Poole has created a curiosity cabinet in which the events of modern life are played out.

The collector

Poole has been undertaking a slow and processional renovation of his apartment for the past two years. Despite accommodating both himself and his design office in the space, the renovation is not yet complete. Nor will it ever be. This tardiness is not, as you may expect, due to reasons typical for delays in construction, such as financial, material or labor shortages. The apartment will never be finished because it is constantly undergoing change. The interior is in a state of constant flux as furnishings and artifacts are still being collected by Poole. Collecting - the act of finding and bringing together objects, thoughts or stories - is a journey with a beginning but no end. Like the gathering together of, for example, stamps or fossils, or like (more transcendentally) the construction of a singular history by the collation of many separate narratives, collecting is a continual process whose bounds might never be defined. For Poole, collecting seems to be something of an obsession. Not an obsession of the tragic or dangerous type, but a comedic obsession which is nothing but proactive for design. His passion and drive as a designer see him constantly adapting found objects for new uses, the results being an intriguing fusion of objects and ideas. The space is full of objects, which are either purchased personally by Poole, left over from past projects or awaiting insertion into new projects. As such, the space is highly changeable and is as full of associated stories as the man himself. 

The cabinet

Poole occupies a 4,300 sq ft split-level penthouse, which, he happily informs me, affords views to the mountains of Sumatra on a clear day. Even on the hazy day of my visit, the expansive views over Singapore facilitated by Pearlbank's horseshoe shape plan were impressive. The building's position on Pearl Hill means that this level 37 penthouse actually sits at a height of around 45 floors above the road level. At the time of its completion in 1976, the iconic building, being Singapore's tallest and most dense residential complex (designed by Tan Cheng Siong of Archurban Architects and Planners), was hailed as a feat of design and construction. However, during the 1980's and 90's, Pearlbank was dogged by the dubious and controversial reputation of being a haven for both 'red light' career girls and illegal foreign workers, who packed into partitioned apartments in unsanitary and unsafe conditions. Elaborating on its unsavory past image, Poole tells of how ash from the incinerator that once operated nearby at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) used to cover the building.

But renaissance is coming for Pearlbank! In 2001, the Singapore Institute of Architects recognized the design merits of the building, and declared it a "Singapore Housing Icon". A residents' management committee has been established with the aim of upgrading the building and evicting illegal tenants. Refurbishments to the building's lifts, electrical and plumbing services have been carried out and repainting is to be done next. In addition, bodies such as Zouk Disco and FHM Magazine have recently portrayed the building in a stylish new graphical light. There seems to be a rediscovery of Pearlbank's powerful beauty underway. The strength of the exterior of Pearlbank - the characteristics that can so move the observer - is its purity of form. It relies not on arbitrary colors, moldings or pediments. It is concrete; it is geometric; it is regular; and it tries to be nothing else. Pearlbank offers a quality that is rarely found these days: excitement of form.

Poole has recognized that the visual power of Pearlbank's pared back exterior can be harnessed inside as well, to create an interior that has at its core a strength of form capable of competing with both the exterior form and the seductive penthouse views over Singapore. Before shifting in, he scraped clean his penthouse interior, removing fourteen skipper bins worth of partition walls, air conditioning ducts, false ceilings and other rubbish to expose strong formal elements like slab-columns and beams. Structural slab-columns now stand in proud solitude, free to exert their load-bearing function with a clarity of purpose. Stairs slide silently between the split-levels, waiting patiently to carry the traveling body. Floor planes hover effortlessly, with their sheer edges sliding past the eye. A web of concrete structural beams cling to the newly found lofty ceiling, casting playful, multi-directional shadows in the natural interior light. By reducing the interior shell of his penthouse to its lowest common structural denominator, Poole has brought something of the brutal beauty of Pearlbank's exterior to the interior. One can't help but feel that this interior solution is the only one that really belongs within such a powerful and moving exterior form. And indeed, the openness of the interior provides a pleasant space to inhabit as light and ventilation are maximized. 

Poole has organized the five levels of the apartment into functionally distinct zones. The lowest level (formerly the maid's quarters) is in a state of becoming a guest bedroom, separated from a library | meeting space by a green floor to ceiling curtain (recycled from his first House of Mao project). His sleek office occupies the next level up, dissected from the living areas by a transparent glass wall. The central level contains the foyer, the eclectic living space and the roof deck, which according to Poole, is struck by lightning about once a month! The kitchen occupies the fourth level, and on the fifth and final level lies the master-bedroom and spa bath.

All five levels are accessed via a central open stairwell, from which Poole has removed the chunky original handrail (think The Brady Bunch) and inserted instead a clean square section steel rail, which folds and wraps its way down the stairwell. The delicate openness of this new handrail provides an attractive contrast to the solidity of the cement structure in which it sits. All walls are eventually to be concrete rendered and floors will be covered with weathered timber boards. Poole plans to weather the timber himself on the roof deck. As such, Poole is creating a very neutral interior palette of raw concrete, stainless steel, glass and weathers timber upon which he displays his collected objects. 

The Curiosities

Against this neutral palette sits a lively collection of items arranged with Poole's trademark blend of wit and sophistication. Among the most striking are a set of old doors and a mirror of staggering size from a shop house in Chinatown. Poole is only the second owner of these 115-year-old items. The mirror is so large that it would not fit into Pearlbank's lift - it had to be carried up the 37 storeys to the apartment by a team of movers. Two large Cuban style paintings in the living area are for an upcoming project :

[QBA at the Westin, KL], and were created by Poole's colleague - painter Willy Baet. He is also responsible for the Mao silkscreen in the Library, and the original Mao fritt hanging at the office entry, recycled from its functional life and turned into an art object itself. These were by-products of Poole's first House of Mao fit-out. The painting hanging in the kitchen is a 'leftover' from Poole's Provignage (wine bar) project. The impressive collection of old Chinese mirrors that deck the wall opposite has been gathered by Poole over a period of time. The industrial-looking chandelier hanging smugly nearby was a prototype for California CBD at Novena Square. Furnishings in the living space, including custom-made white Eames chairs, have been gathered from past projects, from auctions or from Poole's own furniture production venture, One Degree North. Antique bronze vessels that are being collected for an upcoming project sit in comfortable fusion with the babble of other objects.

The Lesson for the Day

The result is what could be termed a Singaporean fusion - a collection of ancient and contemporary, of eastern and western, and of histories both known and imagined. The interior is at once brutal, romantic, changeable and multi-faceted. Poole's sporadic and continual design methodology via the process of collection seems to suit the Pearlbank container, which itself is rich and varied in history. Poole's apartment leaves the visitor feeling animated, not flat. There is the feeling of wanting to climb all over the space and explore as the mind boggles. The changing levels ensure that the body is engaged as much as the eyes and the imagination, whilst the tactile senses are reawakened from their air conditioned slumber by the cooling breezes which stream through open windows. Through Poole's apartment itself, his own personal accounts, the history of Pearlbank and the visual delight of the curiosity cabinet, Poole has created for himself, his staff and his visitors a world in which the body can retreat and the imagination go wild. 

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[ View the floor plans ]

Love to Recycle : Raw Grit

Photographer THE PRESS ROOM; Text NARELLE YAKUBA

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10 9-foot high doors from an old Medicine Hall on China Street took 3 years of negotiation to purchase and are 115 years old. The small square portal on the third door was for passing medicines outside, after the shop front was closed. Standing on the site now, is the Great Eastern Insurance Building.