01 | 06 | 2007
The International Herald Tribune
By Jennifer Chen
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High-Rise Pioneer - Tan Cheng Siong
Preservationists and architects
struggle to save iconic residential buildings
The 1970's under siege in
Ed Poole, an American
architect living in Singapore, has some of the city's most
enviable views. On a clear day, he can stand on the terrace
of his 37th-floor penthouse and gaze across the tiny,
tropical city-state to neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia.
Inside, the Chicago native
also has envy-inducing floor space: nearly 372 square
meters, or more than 4,000 square feet, spread over three
For Poole, 47, the value of
his penthouse does not lie just in its views, floor space,
five-meter-high ceilings or prime location, but also in the
building itself: Pearl Bank Apartments.
Constructed in the late 1970s,
Pearl Bank was Singapore's tallest residential building in
its day and was hailed as a pioneer in high-rise living,
with interlocking, split-level units and a distinctive,
circular shape. Today, although air-conditioners and
mismatched windows mar its once-gleaming, smooth facade, it
continues to be an iconic residential building, according to
local architects and preservationists.
"When you look back at the
1970s, this was a very daring architectural solution," said
Poole, who bought his apartment in 2000 for slightly less
than a million Singapore dollars, or $656,000, and has spent
nearly 400,000 dollars on renovations.
But come July 1, Poole may be
in danger of losing his home. That is the deadline for
fellow residents who are trying to put the 272-unit building
up for sale to acquire the needed votes.
Although he could make a
capital gain of more than a million Singapore dollars by
agreeing to the sale, Poole is adamantly against it because
the building would almost certainly be razed and Singapore
would lose a piece of its heritage.
Pearl Bank "represents the
transition from a colonial past to a modern future," he
And Pearl Bank Apartments is
not the only modern icon that is under serious threat in
Singapore, which actually has one of Asia's best track
records for preservation.
Since 1999, a sale can go
through if it is approved by 90 percent of the owners in a
building less than 10 years old and by 80 percent in a
building that is older. The market for these sales - known
as collective or en bloc sales - has been exploding since
2005 thanks to the robust economy. According to the Jones
Lang LaSalle real estate agency, the total value of the
collective sales in Singapore last year skyrocketed to 7.75
billion dollars, compared with 161 million in 2002. As of
early May, the total value for 2007 already was nearly 6.4
At first, nobody seemed to
object to what developers and real estate agents say solves
the problem of urban decay and pressure for space in
Singapore, which totals only 693 square kilometers, or 268
square miles. Speculators and residents have enjoyed
enormous windfalls, sometimes making returns of more than 80
percent, according to real estate agents.
In recent months, though,
concerns have emerged. People have reportedly lost their
homes in sales that they did not know about or have been
inadequately compensated because the cost of renovations and
mortgage interest were not factored into the sale price.
Maintenance and renovations have slipped in some buildings
because owners are reluctant to invest in something that
might be demolished. Neighbor has turned against neighbor
because of differences over sales.
Meanwhile, with years to go
before some new residential complexes are finished, real
estate values in central Singapore have soared by as much as
100 percent, surprising some owners who, once they sell,
find they cannot afford to buy again in the same
There is the question of
whether some buildings - admired or not - should be
"It doesn't apply to every
building because there were a lot of not-very-nice buildings
that were built in the 1970s," said Dinesh Naidu, 32, a
local architect and writer who is working on a book about
modern architecture in Singapore. "Solving the rights of the
minority who don't want to sell is one issue. But over and
above that, we should have a sense of buildings that need to
Cities in Europe and the
United States have been grappling with similar questions
since the 1980s. Buildings constructed during the mid- to
late-20th century are often called eyesores, structures that
never should have been built. But enthusiasts of the style
argue that noteworthy examples need to be saved not only for
their aesthetic and architectural merit, but also for their
historical and political significance.
In recent years, they have
been gaining ground, said Dennis Sharp, a London-based
architect who heads the British branch of Docomomo, a
worldwide movement to save modern buildings.
In East Asia,
the embrace of the new usually drowns out
laments for the past. But Singapore may be
an exception. A prosperous, multicultural
island of four million people, Singapore has
some of the most progressive policies on
historic preservation in Asia.
destroying swaths of British colonial
buildings and 19th-century Chinese
merchants' shophouses to make room for
development, the government realized in the
1980s that the city was losing its
character. In response, it began a
conservation program under its powerful
urban planning agency that saved historic
neighborhoods like Chinatown, Little India
and the Malay enclave of Kampong Glam.
So far, more than 6,500
buildings have been protected. Most of those
buildings were constructed before World War
II, but state urban planners say the list
does include some modern buildings and that
others are being considered for addition.
Architects and preservationists, however,
say most of those buildings are state-owned,
and they urge quick action because of the
relentless pace of collective sales.
Demolishing Pearl Bank
and its like would destroy traces of
Singapore's history, said William Lim, one
of the country's most famous architects.
Lim, 74, designed two buildings that have
been hailed as landmarks but could go on the
block in the future: Golden Mile and People
Park's Complex, both mixed-use buildings.
"If you don't have this
record, it means you have a totally clean
slate." he said "All that would be left will
be the colonial period, the vernacular
houses built before the war, and what is
always new and what can always be
preservationists acknowledge that they face
an uphill battle ahead, and the biggest
challenge is changing attitudes. "Modern
architecture is everywhere. It doesn't feel
rare or exotic, so no one winces when
something is demolished," said Naidu, who
lives in an 80-square-meter renovated unit
in Golden Mile that he purchased for 300,000
dollars in late 2005.
Tai Lee Siang, 42,
president of the Singapore Institute of
Architects, goes a step further. Too few
people in Singapore appreciate any kind of
architecture, he said. Instead, they regard
houses and other buildings as commodities or
consumer goods that need to be exchanged
every few years, like cars.
"The larger issue is
not keeping or losing certain landmarks," he
said. "The bigger issue is the question: Why
are people not endearing themselves to their
Tai, who recently
advocated a reconsideration of preservation
policies to protect buildings like Golden
Mile, also argued that changing people's
attitudes about certain buildings would
increase their value. For example, after the
government moved to preserve shophouses in
the city's Chinatown area and encouraged
architects and developers to renovate them,
But in the case of
Pearl Bank, the lure of immediate profits
may prove too strong. Already, about 72
percent of the people who own units in the
building have agreed to sell, said Patrick
Tan, 49, who is chairman of the residents'
committee organizing the sale. The building
has a minimum price of 400 million dollars,
so owners would make an average 90 percent
return, he said.
update | Pearlbanks
reserve price is now $750 million sgd +
redevelopment charges would put a new
development on the site at well over $1.2
Asked whether the
building's value would rise if it were
declared a landmark, Tan replied: "We don't
need this kind of building. And we can't
keep coming back to antiques - that's not
Poole, however, is not
giving up. If the vote goes in the sellers'
favor July 1, he and others intend to take
their case to the government, which can
overturn a sale under certain conditions.
And since late last year, he has talked with
hundreds of people - architects, design
aficionados and others - to draw attention
to the building's plight.
met so many people who say, 'Oh, I wish
there were apartments I could get in Pearl
Bank; the spaces are fantastic,' " Poole
said. "So many people."
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