The year 2018 has been a bit of a brutal one for some of Singapore’s iconic modernist buildings. In February, Pearl Bank Apartments was sold in a collective sale, and the owners of People’s Park Complex, Golden Mile Complex and Golden Mile Tower are working towards the same goal.
All four buildings were wholly designed by homegrown architects and completed in the 1970s. They do not have conservation status. Once sold, demolishment is their likeliest fate.
The prospect has sparked a lively public debate. Heritage advocates argue that these buildings embody significant facets of Singapore’s architectural and national history, while pragmatists point out the increasingly arduous maintenance needs of these ageing structures, and the possibility that redevelopment will offer better solutions for current population demands.
People’s Park Complex and Golden Mile Complex were among the earliest projects undertaken by DP Architects, which was founded in 1967 as Design Partnership.
So, of course, we had to ask the firm’s co-founder and senior consultant Koh Seow Chuan for his take on the hot-button issue. “Well, this is going to be a real test of Singapore’s collective spirit,” he replies.
His pivot away from a subjective viewpoint is striking. This veteran architect, we swiftly realise, is fastidious about the importance of seeing—and serving—the bigger picture.
“I am a part of the pioneer generation and we faced a lot of challenges before and after Singapore achieved independence,” Seow Chuan continues.
What he learnt was this: “Singapore is small. Everything works better when we work as a team; and when there is collective will, we can find solutions. So firstly, we have to agree on one question as a society: are these buildings the best examples of projects that are reflective of the spirit of early independent Singapore?”
At the time, this uniquely diverse nation was intent on staking its place in the world, and Seow Chuan and fellow DP co-founders William SW Lim and Tay Kheng Soon wanted the firm’s work to reflect and nurture these aspirations.
“We believed that a small country like Singapore that was going to survive and prosper couldn’t just have hard buildings. We wanted to create spaces within buildings, for people to interact.”
This led to the creation of the People’s Park Complex central atrium, which the firm even decked out with colourful custom-made chandeliers.
“It was a space for celebration, where a multiracial society of this new nation could come together,” he explains.
This communal space was a new feature for shopping centres at the time, and the building was one of the first mixed-use complexes in Asia and an influential prototype for subsequent malls.
“We created a home-grown, home-made architecture that looked beyond the walls, roofs and image of a building, and focused on the spirit that manifests when you are in that space,” says Seow Chuan proudly.
“Singapore is unique, and sometimes you cannot parachute ideas in. We ourselves are creative. If we don’t believe in ourselves, then we are in trouble.”
The Heart Of The Matter
When the nation-building project in Singapore entered a new phase in the 1990s, the firm’s foundational spirit of creative self-determination was still burning bright. Seow Chuan led the DP team that won the 1992 design competition for the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, which he describes as “the most important post‑independence national building”.
To formulate ideas for this project, “we travelled for three months, scouring the region, learning about the genesis of performing arts in Southeast Asia”, he remembers.
“We wanted to create something unique—not the last theatre of the 20th century, but the first theatre of the 21st century.”
The result displayed the same care for context and communality that had been infused into DP’s earlier modernist projects.
“Esplanade is very porous. From the foyers, you can look out and see this building in the context of the city, and the people from outside can look in.”
At the time, no local firm had a track record in successful theatre planning and design, one of the conditions of participation, so those who took part collaborated with foreign firms experienced in such projects.
DP’s partner was UK firm Michael Wilford & Partners. Before the winning design was selected, the Singaporean partner of each shortlisted team was invited to speak to the public about their submissions.
“That gave us a chance to express the heart of our design,” Seow Chuan recalls. “And when the results of the competition were announced, the fact that they announced DP Architects, the Singaporean firm, as the winner first, was important to us.”
The project earned DP the 2005 Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) Worldwide Design Award and the 2006 President’s Design Award. Today, the Durian, as the performing arts centre is fondly nicknamed, has become an indisputable architectural and cultural icon.
Remarkably, it is not the only such landmark that Seow Chuan has been involved in. An esteemed philatelist and collector of works by Singapore pioneer artists, he chaired the board of what would become known as the National Gallery Singapore from 2009 to 2013, helping to shape the institution’s strategic framework and architectural developments.
Today, as chairman of the Visual Arts Cluster advisory board (an umbrella platform for the National Gallery Singapore, Singapore Art Museum and Singapore Tyler Print Institute), he is sanguine about the ongoing project of developing Singapore into an arts hub. “I think it’s very much a work in progress. We may achieve this dream maybe 10 years from now,” he believes.
With “hardware” like beautiful theatres and museums in place, strategies that build up the “software”, such as strengthening arts education in schools, have to kick in and be given time to bear fruit. “We are still a very young nation. Developing an arts hub organically takes time.”